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During election season, balance becomes precarious

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By Steve Doyle

Atop a shelf in my office sits a trophy I treasure. It’s a replica of the “Lady Justice,” an image many of you oldtimers may recall from the closing credits of the original Perry Mason TV series.

She’s the blindfolded woman holding balanced scales in one hand and a sword in the other, a symbol of the presumed blind justice and fairness of our legal system.

This was given to me not because I ever had darkened the door of a law school but because of my tenure 20 years ago as president of Associated Press Sports Editors, to symbolize the steadfast fairness with which I had tried to guide that organization.

It’s meaningful to me because journalists are all about fairness. It’s right there with accuracy as the first commandment, and blessed are all who strive to present both sides of every issue.

But trust me, never is there more of a precarious balancing act than the one that occurs during election season.

You have heard politicians say for years that news organizations are biased. Some refer to journalists in pejorative terms such as “left-leaning” and my personal favorite omnibus expression, “the liberal media.”

Even if you tune into one of the three primary news channels – and you can choose three the fit that definition for you – you hear screams of bias and slant and other distasteful terms from the mouths of, yes, journalists.

This is the world in which we live: Journalists who live by the creed of fairness spreading the screed of bias against one another.

I tell you this in an overt plea for sympathy toward the task accepted by any editor during election season, a time in which we live by sort of an unwritten code.

Our goal in covering campaigns – any of them – is to be free of bias and as much about balance as is humanly possible.

We try to measure our words – both figuratively and literally – to ensure each candidate is represented fairly.

We try for order, to the extent of using alphabetical as the default order unless a sequence of events requires otherwise.

And if one candidate or a supporter attacks another candidate – which so far hasn’t happened in a public forum – then we won’t print the attack without a response.

That said, you should read my E-mail.

I’m stunned that our computer system hasn’t been overloaded for all the attacks, counterattacks, endorsements, counter-endorsements and bytes of information that flow my way on the U.S. Senate campaign.

And for 90 percent of it, I simply hit delete. Only a true endorsement of local import – such as Sen. Gary Tapp’s backing of Trey Grayson – or poll information makes true news.

The rest comprises the grist of the campaign mill: rhetoric that seeks support of the candidate at hand from this or any newspaper.

In 2008, when the presidential election was gaining its froth, I explained to you that The Sentinel-News does not and will not endorse candidates.

Our editorial page carries positions on issues, to be sure, but we won’t select a person we think is more suitable than another for a particular office because (a) we don’t have the opportunity to interview everyone and (b) we don’t presume to be an oracle on all the relevant issues.

So we let the campaigns do the talking, and we try to listen in on your behalf, to provide a conduit for what is said. Yes, we sometimes have to filter, but we try to keep the gauge the same for everyone.

Candidates are spending their time these days knocking on doors, eating pork chops and discussing pork barrels. Even if you’re running for magistrate, you have to handle issues such as immigration, global warming and health care. You are part of the system that addresses all of those topics for everyone.

More than one candidate has told me about the door-to-door campaigning and the time required. More than one of them can tell you about how much they love meeting the people but how much they hate the election process.

I can sympathize, but this is a volunteer army. Pain is part of the induction process.

Public service is an honor and for those who have a sense of duty that is way beyond my scope of understanding.

I go back to my days as the president of APSE and why they so generously gave me the trophy I described.

During the last days of my term, I was attempting to complete a mandate I had been given by the membership to present for acceptance a code of ethics to replace the outdated one we had in place.

Now imagine this: There I stood, before a room of maybe 250 of my peers, trying to persuade them to accept a new standard for how they should make decisions.

You think that’s hard in Congress? This is a group that was used to a certain bit of freedom when it came to how they operated.

Though they had asked for this change, they didn’t grasp that this code was not about requiring them to do a certain thing but rather to guide them in their judgment during certain situations.

But I can tell you that after an hour of what I gently will call “give and take,” I felt like I had been tied to a tree and pelted by tomatoes. No matter how fair and open I tried to be.

Do you get it? I was an elected leader, and though I tried with due diligence to serve the mandate I had been given, I was pelted with feedback that left me bruised and battered.

With the primary elections less than two weeks away, my moral of that story is this: Read everything you can, attend any forum you can and filter the information as you see fit.

But please don’t let fly with any tomatoes.