Tahlequah Daily Press


May 27, 2014

Tribal electioneering won’t be done in TDP Reader’s Forum

TAHLEQUAH — Although many may regard it as an unfortunate development, the Cherokee Nation political season is already underway, despite the election’s being more than a year in the future.

Anyone who has observed a tribal election cycle understands how stressful it can be, not just for candidates and their families, but for tribal employees, the community at-large, and members of the media. Tempers flare, friendships dissolve, subtle threats are levied, and sometimes, candidates set their jaws to control the “spin” in the newspapers and on the air.

This will not work with the Daily Press, and it probably won’t work with any other media outlet. Any news organization that would let itself be “managed” in that fashion will lose all credibility, if it hasn’t done so already.

Years ago, the Press established an election policy for letters to the editor, because candidates were trying to use our Readers’ Forum as their personal campaign engines. One candidate would write a letter lambasting his opponent, who would retaliate with a counterattack. The candidate who issued the first volley would come back with another screed, which would also be answered. Friends, family members and supporters would be encouraged to join in the fray. Before long, the entire opinion page would be overtaken by letters from candidates, supporters and detractors, many of them staged –  and since space limitations would preclude the publication of all letters, the writers of rejected letters would cry foul.

Reader complaints eventually began to outpace the letters praising or condemning candidates. Some politicians or campaign managers may not want to acknowledge this, but readers complain when we waste space on back-and-forth assaults among politicians and aspirants. Attempts to manipulate a newspaper and its readers are transparent. Let’s say a newspaper has received only a handful of letters about County Commissioner Joe Blow during his first 3-1/2 years in office. As the election nears, the paper is inundated with letters praising Blow’s work on the roads in his district – or assaulting his performance. Both newspaper staff and the public can see through this gambit.

Naturally, political candidates and their campaign staff dislike this restrictive policy – at least, as it applies to them, though some are happy enough if their opponents are stifled. Every year, we take complaints from some of these folks, who insist it’s not “fair,” and invariably impugn our abilities as journalists. In fact, it is their own skills that are called into question, because a savvy public relations person would never try to control the media with intimidation or coercion, or even just snarky comments.

This happened several years ago during a particular tribal election. The individual handling one candidate’s campaign alienated every newspaper editor in the tribe’s 14-county jurisdiction with heavy-handed maneuvers that included threats of loss of revenue to the newspapers. Ultimately, the candidate lost.

It’s true that candidates will make “news” during campaign season – especially the incumbents, who by virtue of their office will often be in the spotlight. And if letter writers point out facts of legitimate public interest, we will follow up with news stories, allowing folks on both sides to have their say. But it is up to the newspaper – not a PR manager with a vested interest, rather than a trained eye for journalism – to determine what’s news, and what’s merely fluff aimed at promoting a candidate. That kind of “public relations” is handled through paid advertising – and our ad staff stands ready to help with this.

This isn’t our first rodeo, and we’ll be watching the action in the corral long after all politicians have been ushered from office, term-limited out, or grown tired of this brutal game. We ask that candidates and their supporters respect our policy, and trust that we’re trying to be as fair and objective as we possibly can. And by the way, if you’re thinking of asking for an endorsement, please don’t. We generally don’t do those, either.

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