Election coverage meeting challenge so far
Now that the Olympics are over, we can all turn our attention to the next big contest: the presidential election. Before the election begins to truly dominate the news, though, it’s time to update my scorecard of how Stars and Stripes has so far met its obligation to provide readers with thorough and fair political coverage, including a broad spectrum of opinions.
The short answer: It’s been a good summer, but the big challenge remains as the campaign season really heats up.
Presidential politics on Stripes’ front page is still a rare thing, which is the right proportion for now. Since June, the candidates’ photos have been on the cover only three times. President Barack Obama’s mugshot was on the front page on July 24 with the announcement of the “reverse boot camp” to help veterans return to civilian jobs and civilian lives. Two days later, after their speeches to the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the front page paired mugshots of the president and Republican Mitt Romney. This week, Rep. Paul Ryan’s photo was in the skybox — that promotional space at the top of the front page — when Romney introduced the Wisconsin congressman as his choice for vice president.
But that’s it for the presidential campaign on the front page this summer.
No doubt that pace will pick up between now and Election Day, but — appropriately — most of the dominant stories on Stripes’ covers this summer have been of special relevance to the troops and their families. Persistent coverage naturally featured the war in Afghanistan, from green-on-blue attacks and possible child suicide bombers to the sagas of Medal of Honor nominees, wounded warriors and war widows. The front pages also tended to the big picture: the buildup in the Persian Gulf, the drawdown in Europe, the pivot to the Pacific. And they highlighted high-profile military misconduct cases from Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, Submarine Base New London, Conn., and elsewhere.
When the lead stories weren’t directly relevant to the troops, it was usually because news of overwhelming general interest trumped the military themes. Sometimes, that was dramatically bad news, such as the theater massacre in Aurora, Colo., and the white supremacist’s killing spree in the Sikh temple outside Milwaukee. Other times, it was drama of a more welcome kind, such as Olympic triumphs in gymnastics, swimming and basketball or — a twofer — the story of the American decathlon gold medalist and his brother, a Silver Star recipient.
So election stories have been kept to the inside pages — usually a single page keeping up with campaign developments, with some limited exploration of issues. And, as was true when I took a close look at the beginning of summer, the editors are balancing the coverage effectively. Though balance is best measured over time — not by the square inch or even by the day — the daily coverage usually touches both the Obama campaign and the Romney campaign. Frequently, as with the Ryan announcement, the fight over voter ID laws or the Supreme Court ruling on the Affordable Care Act, the coverage effectively supplements the major campaign news of the day with a related story to add depth or perspective — the “so what” factor.
As a Defense Department publication — even one as independent and committed to First Amendment principles as Stars and Stripes — this paper does not produce staff editorials. But its mandate is to present readers with a range of opinion from syndicated columnists and other opinion writers across the political spectrum. As in the news pages, political balance on the opinion pages isn’t best measured in the framework of a single day, but Stripes’ opinion pages often achieve that daily feat, as with the point-counterpoint op-ed treatment earlier this week on Ryan’s budget plans and background in Congress. Similarly, the regular sampler of editorials called “What newspapers are saying back home” continues to be an effective way to ensure variety on the opinion pages — both in topic and in political perspective.
Letters to the editor have fallen off in most newspapers — generally seen as a consequence of readers having the instantly gratifying power to add their views to the bottom of stories and columns online. The flow is light in Stripes, too, but I see more letters from readers this summer than previously. As the campaigns ripen and issues take on a sharper edge, I would hope to see even more readers regularly represented in the printed forum on this page.
What about editorial cartoons? When I added up the political cartoons in May, Obama was getting the worst of it — a predictable part of being president, no matter which president and no matter which party. I figured that would balance out as summer lengthened toward high campaign season and that’s pretty much what has happened. Since the end of June, the Obama and Romney cartoons are now running neck and neck: 13 mocked Romney, 12 mocked Obama.
As the party nominating conventions come and vacation season ends over the next few weeks, the news value of the election stories will increase. That means they’ll probably make the front page more often — and they should. Sometimes that will be events with high-flying (and low-flying) rhetoric and glitzy production values. Other times it will be more substantive milestones, such as the one-on-one debates. As they have so far, I’ll bet Stripes’ editors will continue to keep coverage of the incessant polls, the accusations and the “gotcha” attempts off the front page.
From the ongoing war to the uncertain and ominous mood in the Persian Gulf, from the shifting strategic focus to the prospect of sequestration, from the clogged Veterans Affairs system to the alarming incidence of suicide, there’s no end of issues of special military relevance in this presidential campaign. And, of course, though Stripes’ readers have an especially keen interest in those topics, they also share every citizen’s stake in the budget, taxes, jobs, energy, education, health care and the sustainability of social welfare programs, to name only a partial list.
Downrange, where the troops especially depend on Stars and Stripes for thorough, unbiased coverage, an Army officer at Camp Arifjan in Kuwait put his expectations for the presidential election report most succinctly: More facts, more explanation, less D’s vs. R’s.
Amid the noisy talking heads, the relentless political ads and the usual smoke and mirrors of modern electioneering, that’s a fair challenge for the Stripes newsroom.
I’ll check in again before Election Day.
Got a question or suggestion for the ombudsman on what appears, or should appear, in Stars and Stripes? Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org, or phone 202-761-0587 in the States.