Governor’s bowing out of debate disservice to voters

Scott Swanson

Earlier this week, newspaper publishers around the state learned that Gov. Kate Brown had declined their invitation to debate Republican challenger Dr. Bud Pierce in July at the publishers’ annual state convention.

This debate has been a longtime political tradition in Oregon and it’s been an opportunity for candidates to essentially get things started with the first big face-off of the gubernatorial election.

Except, of course, this isn’t going to be a face-off.

There was a time, not that long ago, when we, as citizens, got most of our information rather simplistically – from newspapers, TV, radio, magazines, the lunch counter at the diner.

Now, a multiplicity of technology spews just about anything our hearts could desire to those devices (seemingly growing out of our hands) called smartphones, which carry all manner of trivia, photos, videos and what-not to our nearly saturated eyes and brains.

Plenty has already been written about the phenomenon of modern personal communications technology and how it’s affected us individually and as a society, so I’m not going to go there now. Rather, I’d like to focus on one smaller aspect of that huge subject: how it’s affected you, as a voter, in the coming elections.

When candidates had fewer avenues of communication to the public, the public would hear from them via broadcast commercials, newspaper ads, interviews and reporting in the news media, and old-fashioned local campaigning and debates, along with mailers, highway billboards and signs, etc.

Some of that is still with us, but now we have social media that allow people running for office to target certain populations and build followings for a lot less than it costs to run a newspaper ad or buy a commercial.

Barack Obama and Bernie Sanders are textbook examples of what can happen when you do this the right way.

But I think ignoring the traditional media, particularly newspapers, is a mistake – and I’m not really speaking here as simply a newspaper publisher and editor. I look at the spectrum of information sources out there and I wonder where, if not the newspaper, I can find anything close to a fair presentation of facts – “fair” meaning relatively unbiased.

Talk radio? To quote a common refrain in texts these days, “haha… haha… haha… haha…” I could go on. Sure, our favorite radio hosts tell us what appeals to our personal convictions and plays on our emotions, but they rarely give us anything close to a truly balanced presentation of the facts.

Political Action Committee or candidates websites? Come on. Yes, they are helpful in that they tell us what a candidate might want us to know about him or her, or what the action committee wants us to know. But really, they’re no more help than the talk shows. Plus, it’s not always easy to find what we need to know, trying to navigate through somebody’s site.

Voters Guides? These can be helpful in that they often compare candidates’ views on issues, particularly those important to the organization producing the voters guide. If you factor in the probable bias of the organization, there might be some good stuff. What sets these apart to me, unlike the two previously mentioned, is that there’s often more of an educational approach to the issues.

Radio and TV? TV news has become much more partisan and sensationalistic than I remember it being a few decades ago, thanks to the cable news channels and the multiplicity of competitors out there, on cable and on the Web.

National Public Radio, despite its tendency to focus on liberal causes and occasional episodes of what appears to be bias – we remember the Juan Williams episode, actually offers pretty aggressive live coverage and I think they’re generally pretty fair as they devote air time to campaign coverage and interview candidates. NPR is detailed, and that’s what most other broadcast news lacks.

Newspapers certainly aren’t perfect. We have our biases too, but the watchword of newspaper journalism, still taught in most classrooms, is to be fair. That means trying to give both sides their say and accurately portraying and depicting them for what they are. I’m not talking about the editorial page here. That’s someone’s opinion, pure and simple. But what’s in the news columns should help you, the reader, get a sense of both sides of an issue and figure out what’s up with the candidates.

Because a multiplicity of other media have dethroned the more traditional media, at least economically, reporting has diminished. Local radio news is a pittance of what it used to be. Many newspaper companies, particularly those controlled by stockholders (who aren’t journalists), have responded to the loss of ad revenue by cutting costs, particularly reporting jobs – the people who provide the very service you, the reader, are seeking: news coverage pertinent to your life.

The number of reporters in the Capitol is not what it was a few decades ago, and politicians, I think, have responded by discounting the press.

That’s a problem, not only for the press, but for the politicians.

The news media, particularly newspapers, have historically represented voters in the state capital by being there, attending and reporting on legislators’ and the governor’s activities, probing for irregularities, keeping an eye on things. As the press corps has declined, there’s been less scrutiny and I think public officials have responded by paying less attention to the needs of residents. It’s inevitable. If the teacher isn’t in the classroom, what do the students do?

Of course, government officials still communicate, but they do so more via their own websites and news releases than through independent news media who might provide analysis and a proctoring effect in communicating information to voters.

Now we’re more reliant on those talk show hosts and yourfriendlycandidate.com. You wonder whom you can you trust as a voter.

Readers tell us frequently that they appreciate the information we provide prior to elections. We almost never endorse candidates, because we believe that our role should be to provide readers with as much information on politicians’ stances as we can and readers can figure it out from there.

So back to Kate Brown: The problem I see here is that, for whatever reason, she’s ignoring a vital opportunity to communicate with voters. She could spend July 15 telling interested and politically savvy, critical-thinking listeners what her plans are and why we should vote for her, so they can go home and write up reports for their readers. Instead, she’s chosen to diss this audience, whose newspapers reach well over a million households in Oregon.

This really isn’t about us. It’s about you.

Unfortunately, I might add, Gov. Brown is not the first to do this. The way was blazed six years ago by a Republican candidate, who left the newspapers high and dry in favor of going on vacation with his family.

One wonders what would have happened if Chris Dudley had shown up to debate John Kitzhaber. But we’ll never know, because after he lost the election he kind of faded from the public arena.

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