Monday, October 30, 2006

Error shows Pioneer Press endorsement process flawed, open to manipulation.

Listen to podcast runs 7:13
When the St. Paul Pioneer Press passed on giving its endorsement to Coleen Rowley last week, one of the reasons cited was that her campaign had “spliced (Rep. John) Kline into a video that attempts to personally tie him to Washington scandals without any evidence.”

The Pioneer Press Editorial Board says it does not want to endorse candidates that do negative campaigning. So its decision makes perfect sense, except for one thing.

Rowley’s campaign didn’t produce the video. I did. I did it with my own time, and my own personal equipment totally independent of the campaign.

After I produced the video and posted it on You Tube, I offered it to the Rowley campaign. Coleen Rowley personally rejected using it because it was “too negative.”

The Pioneer Press got it wrong. Very wrong. And to its credit issued a prominent correction on the editorial page the next day. I can’t remember the last time a major Twin Cities newspaper issued a correction on its own endorsement.

Errors happen. But how did such a large one happen on something as important as a Congressional endorsement? The answer : the Pioneer Press has a flawed system where it trusts partisan non-employees to write editorials for the paper, but does not verify what they write.

The writer of this editorial was Craig Westover, author of a Republican/Conservative blog, and an occasional contributor to the Pioneer Press’ editorial pages. Let me make it clear, there is nothing wrong with including people with strong political viewpoints on an editorial board. I trust that the Pioneer Press has people on the board who have strong Democratic leanings as well. But the mistake the paper made was to trust Westover’s reporting without verifying his facts.

Mr. Westover said the endorsement was written by “consensus” of the editorial board and that everyone on the board had seen the video.

When I called the editor for the editorial page, Mike Burbach, I asked him if he or anyone else on the editorial board had seen the video. Burbach said that only Westover had seen it.

When confronted with that fact, Westover paused for a time and then said he thought he had forwarded the video to the rest of editorial board.

To his credit, Mr. Westover took responsibility for the mistake, saying he had “screwed up.” Given his constant contact with all things political, he should have been very familiar with the Federal law requiring candidates to say they approved the message if their campaign was putting it out. He has been a writer long enough to know that you need to verify sources. Westover ignored both of those obvious red flags. Worse yet, the Pioneer Press Editorial Board didn’t question what Westover wrote.

After talking with Mr. Westover I am convinced he characterized the video based upon his own personal political leanings and not on what was in front of him in black and white. In other words he watched it with prejudice. He had made up his mind without even vetting the basic facts.

Westover was the main writer and gatherer of facts for this endorsement, so one has to wonder what else did he not bother to check? Burbach told me the video was not the deciding factor in the endorsement. But if the endorsement is written without checking facts that brings into question the validity of the endorsement’s conclusion that Rep. Kline begrudgingly deserves another term in Congress.

One of the reasons cited for endorsing Kline was that he does “not line up blindly behind all of the administration’s tactical decisions.” Yet Congressional Quarterly reports Kline has voted for the Bush administration’s positions 94% of the time this year and backed the House Republican leadership 98% of the time.

A theme repeated several times in the endorsement was Kline’s support of the military. It said “Our expectation that he will continue to be a voice for the front-line American soldier – especially when doing so requires standing up to his own party.”

Yet Kline’s voting record indicates otherwise. First, Kline voted to send our troops into harms way. Second, when his party voted to cut funds for body armor for the troops, for veterans' health care and job assistance, for full retirement and disability benefits for disabled vets, John Kline was there with his rubber stamp at the ready. No questions asked. That hardly qualifies as “standing up to his own party”.

The Pioneer Press endorsement process appears to work in very much the same way. No questions are asked when suspicious “facts” are written into the endorsement by a known partisan. Even Westover admits his basic characterization of the video, as “without ANY evidence” was “not the best.” And that he “regrets the sentence.” He could not dispute any of the facts in the video, but said it made Kline look corrupt.

Westover once wrote:
“Journalists and bloggers both have biases that we bring to stories. ‘Objectivity’ is not writing without bias. An ‘objective journalist’ is one that subjects his bias to the facts he’s presented with and looks for the truth, not some homogenized “balance” that is neither true nor false.

“A ‘hack’ is a writer that ignores the facts in favor of bias.”

By his own definition, Mr. Westover has crossed over from being an “objective journalist” to being a “hack.” Political hacks should not be authoring or manipulating endorsements for the Pioneer Press.


Blogger Janet;s Conner said...

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2:56 PM  

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