Skip Exercises in Editorial Masochism

By Williams, Ed | The Masthead, Spring 1993 | Go to article overview
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Skip Exercises in Editorial Masochism


Williams, Ed, The Masthead


SOME EDITORS MUST LOVE the political endorsement process. They interview dozens of candidates, hundreds, thousands even.

Like ultra-marathoners, they relish the grueling task. At the end they're aching and exhausted but proud. To them, the pay-off is worth the pain.

To me, it isn't. Over the years I have spent so many afternoons writhing in an ergonomically unsound chair interviewing candidates that at the sight of a sample ballot I feel back pains. In 1992, with the backing of editor Rich Oppel and publisher Rolfe Neill, I decided to try something different.

First, some history. Endorsement interviewing is particularly onerous here for three reasons:

1. North Carolina is a long-ballot state. North Carolina's founding fathers wanted every official to be directly responsible to the voters. These are the men, you will recall, who refused to ratify the U.S. Constitution because it lacked a Bill of Rights limiting the government's power. Most North Carolinians don't trust government much under any circumstances; the farther away it is, the less they trust it. (That's why North Carolina sends Jesse Helms to Washington.)

2. Not only does North Carolina elect a humongous number of officials, but it also allows them to serve only short terms -- for example, two years for the Charlotte mayor, city council, county commissioners, school board, legislative delegation, and a host of other offices. And somebody is up for election every year.

3. The down side of North Carolina's development as a two-party state is that now both Democrats and Republicans have an alarming number of party primaries.

Traditionally, our editorial board sought to interview every candidate on the Mecklenburg County ballot, from president to soil and water service commissioner. Some years that meant our four editorial writers interviewed more than 100 candidates. We spent so much time indoors interviewing candidates that by election day we had acquired a Siberian pallor.

I had come to consider it an exercise in editorial masochism.

Doing it meant that we spent afternoon upon afternoon sitting in my office asking similar questions to candidates who might or might not tell us in private the same thing they would tell voters in public. Not counting the toll it took on posture, that practice had two drawbacks: The drain on time and energy meant that many of our daily editorials during endorsement season were insufficiently researched and hastily written; and we missed the political campaign, so we either didn't comment on it or relied on secondhand impressions.

Time for self-examination

Our self-examination began with the fundamental question: Why are we doing this?

There were two reasons, we concluded. First, to get information we needed to make endorsement decisions. That, we decided, was sensible. Second, to persuade candidates of our fairness by engaging in an extensive conversation with each of them. The reward for that, we decided, was not worth the investment. Our interview-everybody policy meant we spent a lot of time with candidates we either knew we were going to endorse or knew we would not endorse in a race against Saddam Hussein.

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