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Jones victory in Alabama holds lesson for journalism
By Mark R. Weaver
Millions of Americans are breathing a sigh of relief after worrying that Roy Moore, who was credibly accused of unwelcome sexual activity with underage teenagers, might somehow be elected to represent Alabama in the U.S. Senate. Doug Jones defeated Moore by a slender margin, but as a veteran political observer and election law attorney, I believe the race should never have been so close.
Before this oddball special election grows too small in our rearview mirror, we’d be smart to see what we can learn about why things like this happen. There’s an explanation to be had.
Some pundits assert that the fact Moore nearly won is because Alabama is a ruby red state and, in politics, the best predictor of future voter behavior is past voter behavior. There’s some truth in that.
But Moore's achievement of 49 percent of the vote can be explained by more than just theories from the political science textbooks. There’s another causative factor here, and it ought to be covered in the next editions of the journalism textbooks.
The tales of Moore’s purported past with high schoolers broke in the Washington Post, which is respected by millions of readers. Yet many, if not most, Alabamans view the Post differently. Its editorial voice is stridently liberal, as are the vast majority of its opinion writers, and many of its news writers. Indeed, even before the Moore story went to print, this District of Columbia newspaper went out of its way to endorse against Moore. The paper doesn’t endorse in every U.S. Senate race. Why it chose to offer its voting booth advice to voters who are an 18-plus hour drive away is a question every thoughtful journalism professor ought to discuss in class.
The Post’s unnecessary endorsement, combined with its editorial tone of condescension toward Southerners who are all too aware of what folks up north think of them, weakened its credibility as a news source. The Moore campaign predictably exploited this sentiment from the moment the teenage impropriety story broke. No wonder a pre-election CBS poll found that just 21 percent of all Alabama voters believe the allegations against Moore are “definitely true.” A majority – 54 percent – either believed the charges to be false or said there wasn’t enough evidence to make a determination. The findings clearly reflect a distrust of the Post’s reporting.
The Post isn’t the only paper where an overzealous editorial page has undermined solid news reporting. Why does this happen?
When it comes to politics, reporters like to imagine themselves as a referee. They seek to call fouls and assign penalties in the competitive match between two campaigns working hard to win. But editorial endorsements – particularly ones by out-of-state newspapers laced with adjectives better suited to a campaign ad – remind voters that many news outlets wear the jersey of one team hidden beneath the black-and-white stripes of the referee shirt and within the black-and-white text of the editorial page.
As a result, the default position of most voters today is that too many news outlets are biased. And research shows that once humans believe something, it’s hard to change their mind. Sadly, journalists who abandon the objectivity of the sidelines for the body checks and bleacher cheers of the playing field have sacked their own credibility.
There are countless reporters whom I call friend. I know them to be decent people who accept little pay and work long hours because they believe, as Thomas Jefferson did, that robust journalism is “one of the great bulwarks of liberty.” Jefferson was right. But a bulwark – a community’s best protection against danger – can be weakened by poor maintenance and neglect. Newspapers who too easily root for one team to defeat the other team degrade the crucial role a free press plays in a free country. And their actions, as in Alabama, can make games that should have resulted in a lopsided victory turn into a buzzer-beating tiebreaker.
Mark R. Weaver is a crisis communications consultant and a partner at the Columbus law firm Isaac Wiles. His new book is “A Wordsmith’s Work.” Twitter: @MarkRWeaver.