Newspapers never have been hesitant to shame a public official into appropriate behavior. It’s a time-honored tradition.
Have you ever noticed things like “Sen. Blowhard did not return a phone call,” or “Rep. Self-Dealer did not answer an email” in news stories? Those are there not just to let the reader know that the politician could not be contacted. They are there to let the reader know that this person, elected by you, the voter, did not see fit to answer these important questions related to his or her job as a public servant.
And there is no more important time for a politician to be open and available to the public (via the media) than during an election. There was a time when a politician hiding during the very time they were asking for votes would make the media’s antennae go up like an infield fly.
When I was managing editor of The Herald-Sun in Durham, we held candidate debates in our building’s meeting room every election. If there were eight people running for a particular office, we made sure that there were eight microphones on the table, eight glasses of water, eight notepads, eight pens, and eight nameplates.
If one of these electoral hopefuls chose not to show up, the microphone, water, pen, notepad, and nameplate stayed there, even in their absence. That was my call, my reasoning being that if only seven showed up, and there was not an empty seat showing, the public would not understand that there was a candidate in the race in addition to the ones who showed up.
Likewise, if a candidate declined or refused to answer our election-section questionnaire, we made sure that the public knew that. We’d run a space in the section with their photo and a prominent note saying they did not choose to participate. This act alone is as valuable a bit of information for the voter as a completed questionnaire.
Newspapers, at least in the past, had no qualms about doing these things. Call it ridicule, shame, coercion, whatever. Our feeling was that these people wanting to run some level of government should be accountable to the voters, and part of that accountability should be answering questions and attending debates with opponents.
Which is why I was so surprised at the last U.S. senatorial debate when the sponsoring newspapers, The News & Observer and The Charlotte Observer, chose not to participate because of the “gimmick” that an empty chair would be used to show that Sen. Kay Hagan chose not to show up to debate Thom Tillis.
It is never a gimmick to show voters that a candidate chose not to attend a debate. There was a time when newspapers saw this kind of thing as part of their responsibility under the First Amendment. But times change, I guess.
Jon Ham (@rivlax) is a vice president of the John Locke Foundation and publisher of Carolina Journal.