Tahlequah Daily Press

October 31, 2012

Endorsements can backfire


Staff

TAHLEQUAH — When candidates for political office used to solicit campaign support from the late Sen. Gene Stipe, Oklahoma’s longest-tenured office-holder used to quip: “I can be for you or against you, whichever will help.”

Stipe was a polarizing figure: Folks either loved him or hated him. Many of his constituents in the McAlester area liked him because he protected their jobs and snared cushy project for that region. His opponents distrusted him, and perhaps for good reason: In 2003, he pleaded guilty to federal perjury and conspiracy charges, and later, he was indicted on charges of mail fraud, witness tampering, money laundering and conspiracy.

But Stipe’s point about politics is well-taken: Sometimes the lack of endorsement is more helpful than open support, and sometimes, an endorsement can be the kiss of death.

The Daily Press has suggested candidate choices only on rare occasions. For instance, we endorsed the late Wilma Mankiller when she formally ran for Cherokee Nation principal chief, after assuming the office upon Ross Swimmer’s mid-term departure. Since then, we’ve avoided supporting specific candidates.

It’s not because individuals who work here don’t have favorites; we do. But the employment roster has always come with a diverse cross-section of opinions, and in many races, it would be virtually impossible to land on a candidate that would make all – or even most – of us happy. And though larger metro newspapers can readily work around that problem, it’s not quite so simple for community newspapers. While duties are partitioned at metro papers, employees at small papers wear many hats, and lines often become blurred. We all have to get along.

We’ve noticed another peculiarity about Cherokee County voters: While they sometimes don’t mind being told how to vote on issues, they don’t like being told whom to vote for. In an area when relationships and kinships are complex and intertwined, choosing one person over another can do more harm than good. The last time the Press published picks for every office during an election was in the mid-1980s, and it backfired; only one of the paper’s selected candidates won his race. Later, some readers told us they suspected the endorsements were based on what was good for the paper rather than the community. Some even wondered if candidates had “paid” for the endorsements in some way. They hadn’t, but that type of mindset is difficult to change.

A few readers still believe when we publish a syndicated column that praises or lambastes a candidate, the columnist’s opinion reflects that of the newspaper itself. The same issues arise over editorial page cartoons. So from time to time, it’s necessary to remind readers that the Press doesn’t necessarily agree with the opinions expressed in these cartoons or columns – sometimes even columns written by our own staff members. But we try to present a cross-section of views to appeal to all readers. When the opinion expressed is that of the Daily Press as a newspaper – rather than that of a syndicated columnist, or a writer on our staff – it will appear without a byline or standing head, as per long-standing tradition of the industry as a whole. What you are reading at this moment, then, is “our opinion.”

Despite our policy, every time an election rolls around, candidates or their staffers pressure us for endorsements. When we decline, some respond curtly; occasionally, they subtly imply they’ll “remember” our neutrality after they’re in office – and they don’t mean that in a good way.

Though we always reserve the right to take a stand, we believe that in general, the believe the best way to handle elections is to let readers know the candidates’ platforms and their history both in and out of the public eye. Armed with that information, voters can make informed decisions at the ballot box. Alternatively, they can simply vote for their neighbors or relatives – but nothing a newspaper can do or say will stop that from happening.