Last week three of us on the Times editorial staff visited with a group of journalists, one each from Japan, Taiwan, China, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Cambodia and the Philippines, traveling America during the election season courtesy of the State Department. We didnít get a picture of them, but blogger Stefan Sharkansky did, when they visited him.
When talking to us, one of their first questions was, if we had endorsed John Kerry, how could we be objective? (Sharkansky asks that, too, and argues here that we are not.) Our answer was that we are the editorial page, and weíre supposed to take sides. The rest of the paper is separate, and is not supposed to pay attention to us.
Doesn't that confuse the readers? Sometimes it does, we said, but we hoped mostly not.
Their next question was, what if you endorse the candidate, and he does something bad? Heís your candidate, and you canít criticize him. Our response was, yes, we can and we do.
That seemed odd to them.
"Why do you endorse candidates?" one asked. "What for?"
Well, uh....One of us said it was part of a civic dialogue. We announced for candidate A, and we print op-eds from supporters of candidate B. It was a way of involving the readers, of being interesting, of dealing with things they wanted dealt with. And then there were the minor candidates, like judges. Sometimes readers actually relied on us to make their choice.
They were not convinced.
"It's a very old tradition that goes back to the 19th century," I said.
Tradition they understood, but this was a very exotic one. The reporter from Taiwan said her paper's editorial page didnít endorse candidates. It endorsed issues, not people.
We replied that surely the reader could figure out what candidate the paper supported from how it discussed the issues.
Probably. But the paper wouldnít come out and actually say it supported someone.
Why not? we asked.
Here was the real problem. What if you oppose a candidate and he wins? A reporter from the Philippine city of Cebu said her paper had endorsed a candidate for mayor, and heíd lost, and the candidate who won banned the paperís reporters from city hall. The paper had had to file a lawsuit, arguing that city hall was public property and the reporters had a right to go there. About six months later, she said, the mayor did something for which the paper praised him, and he began treating the reporters O.K.
The rules of democracy may be the same, but the culture different. Americans forget that sometimes.
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