One of our loyal readers suggested a couple of weeks ago that the newspaper should provide more information about candidates running for office than simply their names and their own announcements.
It is not a bad idea, and it’s not like we have not thought of it ourselves. It is, we think, exactly what newspapers should do. However, when it comes to interviewing candidates for local offices in our rural, small town communities, our asking questions that are worth asking can prove to be problematic. As much as we might like to sometimes imagine ourselves as hard-nosed journalists asking the tough questions, the truth is, should we try to solicit from candidates the kind of information voters ought to know, and faithfully print exactly what the candidates say, no matter who wins the races, we lose.
That is, the newspaper loses. We take the blame. We suffer the accusations of bias. We lose readers and advertisers. Running those risks, we must do so anticipating that no matter what we print, it will make no difference whatsoever. Understand, this is not our first rodeo. We know how it would go. This newspaper has in fact lost advertisers for no reason except our having run a photo of a new president the week of his inauguration. We have lost readers for our having run editorial cartoons making fun of a political party, never mind that there are always other cartoons right beside those making fun of the other political party.
Regardless of how high the office or how important the issues, only a tiny number of voters will bother to turn out for the primaries. Around 12 to 13 percent of the voting age population can expected to cast votes in the primaries, most of them made up their minds on how they would vote many weeks or months ago, and very few of them will vote on the issues. Instead they will vote according to their own likes and dislikes of the candidates personally, or according to their personal friendships, or even their familial relationships.
We are not so very far from the small towns we once were that an election here cannot still turn on the relative sizes of the candidates’ extended families. Given how large some families are and how few people will turn out to vote, there are people living here who could win a local election with only the votes they could draw from their cousins and in-laws.
So here at the newspaper before every election we wonder, what’s the point? Why should we risk anything to tell people what they do not care to know and would not believe, anyway?
If we had 10,000 subscribers, we might not worry over the risk of losing a few hundred of them, angry and blaming us because their favored candidates lost. But we do not have 10,000 subscribers, and until we do, we have to count the costs.
Don’t bother trying to tell me we might gain subscribers by asking the hard questions. That’s a lie, and you know it. That is how it ought to work, but in all the history of newspapers, it has never worked that way. We are in an odd business. It is our job to tell people the truth, and that's a hard sell in the best of times. So we pick our battles.
By the way, the kind of “tough” questions candidates for local office here often cannot answer are questions like these:
- How many bridges are in your precinct? Why don’t you know? Isn’t that something you should know?
- How many miles of county road are in your precinct? Why don’t you know? Isn’t that something you should know?
- Which bridges and which roads need the most work? Why don’t you know? Isn’t that something you should know?
- Do you know how to build a road? Why don’t you know? Isn’t that something you should know?
- Do you know anything about hydrology and drainage? Why don’t you know? Isn’t that something you should know?
- If we continue to limit where manufactured homes can be placed, where are lower income families supposed to live? Do you care where they live? What do you plan to do for them?
- The poverty rate in Liberty County is around 16 percent. What are you going to do about it?
- Why do the sewers keep backing up? Why don’t you know? Isn’t that something you should know?
- Do you have any plans for creating more jobs here? Why don’t you?
- Do you personally know any of the big players in Austin or Washington? Do you have any influence with them?
- Do you personally know any of the executives at the big oil companies, or at the Port of Houston, or at any other large organization whose decisions can make or break our local economy? Do you have any influence with them?
- Assuming you are as committed to never raising taxes as most candidates claim to be, how else are we going to pay for any improvements? Are you going to cut budgets, and if so, where will you cut?
- When was the last time you read a book?
We will ask tough questions when we have half a chance of getting an answer worth printing and when we have reason to believe doing so might make even a little bit of a difference. When too few candidates can answer even the obvious questions, and when their winning or losing is unlikely to have anything to do with their answers, we're not going to bother. It isn't worth it.
Honestly, if we demonstrated that your favorite candidate did not have a clue, would you care? What if his opponent did not have a clue, either? Then what would you do, except be mad at us?
And don't think I am afraid to tell you the truth. I just did.