Guidelines to Covering David Duke Discussed

Article excerpt

Guidelines to covering David Duke discussed

Journalists who cover David Duke as he begins his recently announced campaign for the Republican presidential nomination should examine and investigate him on the issues, while at the same time avoiding the temptation to editorialize or sensationalize Duke as a media celebrity, a group of Louisiana reporters and editors believe.

Duke, who announced on Dec. 4 that he would run against President George Bush in a series of presidential primaries early next year, lost a bid last month to become the next governor of Louisiana after having been soundly defeated by Democrat Edwin Edwards by nearly a two-to-one margin.

Before the first ballot had been counted, journalists, editors, and newspapers in the state took part in what has been described as a historic campaign that saw Duke's most serious bid yet for a major public office, and they left the campaign with words of wisdom for the national press.

Because Duke, who is presently a Republican state representative in Louisiana, was a former "grand wizard" of the Ku Klux Klan with stated public opinions in support of Nazi Germany as well as documented links to several neo-Nazi organizations, he presents a challenge and a problem to the press.

Many reporters and editors believe that it is the obligation of the Fourth Estate to investigate and reveal as much about Duke as possible - his past and his record on the issues. Others believe that such coverage only provides the extraordinary candidate with a forum and free publicity that is otherwise denied more conventional candidates.

"There's no question about it, Duke raises some serious questions for us in the working press," said Terry Eberle, editor of the Shreveport (La.) Times. "There is a danger in giving someone like him too much coverage, but I think there is also an obligation. Quite honestly, in this campaign, more than in any other I can remember, we had to deal with a large percentage of our readership that had already made their minds up. There was a hard and fast group dedicated to Duke, and just as strong a group opposed to him, so we were put in the peculiar position of reporting on a controversial candidate for that last group of readers, the minority undecided, who might actually make up their minds based on something they might read. That's not a responsibility, I think, you can ignore."

Reporting on what Eberle called "probably the most emotional campaign I have ever seen or covered as a newspaperman," the Shreveport Times devoted eight lengthy stories for eight days in a row on such issues as welfare, race relations, and the candidates themselves as part of their Duke-Edwards campaign coverage.

The paper also ran several full-page letters columns from readers expressing opinions on the race, while also giving both Duke and Edwards space to state their opinions in a large question-and-answer forum.

Despite the Shreveport Times' efforts to expand its election coverage, while also shying away from any blatant pro or anti reporting on either candidate, Eberle said that still they had run into trouble. "There was just a lot of anger in the air in this election.

"I had people calling me to cancel their subscriptions to our paper, and I had people calling me to threaten me. It wasn't anything I took very seriously, and nothing happened, but it all served to make me aware of the incredible emotional impact of an election like this, and that, in turn, made me even more aware that we had to continue our quest for objectivity."

At the Baton Rouge Morning Advocate, reporters provided readers with extensive stories on both Duke's and Edwards' backgrounds, as well as articles questioning Duke's claim to be a born-again Christian; the historical pattern of upheaval politics in Louisiana, and the national impact of Duke's candidacy.

As with the Shreveport Times, the Morning Advocate made a conscious decision to concentrate on a series of in-depth stories on such issues as welfare reform and affirmative action in lieu of highlighting Duke himself. …