by Paul Steinmetz
Even those of us who love our jobs dread some tasks that we can’t avoid. For many politicians, it’s the interview with the local newspaper’s editorial board. I imagine a lot of candidates will relive the scene many times: You sit across a conference room table from a handful of people, some of whom you have grown to loathe, and others you may not know. The editorial board is usually made up of the editorial page editor, the editor, maybe the publisher, and a reporter or two.
If you are an incumbent, the editorial page editor likely has written something biting and cruel about you in the past several months. You only talk to the editor when you call to complain about the editorial page editor. You may see the reporter frequently; he or she has repeatedly told you that the reporters have nothing to do with the editorials, and don’t know their content until they’re published. You aren’t positive that’s the truth. Nevertheless, you have convinced yourself this is a duty you must take on. If the newspaper endorses you, it might persuade some voters in your favor.
As the editor of a daily community paper, I sat on the editorial board for many election cycles. Unbeknownst to those running for office, I never prepared as well as I promised myself I would. And often they were stilted interviews because in the interest of fairness, we asked each candidate running for the same office the exact same questions, when it would have been much more interesting to get them talking on a personal level.
For example, one year a third-party candidate ran for mayor. He also hosted a local cable talk show and a couple of years earlier, in a rant against the newspaper and me, he had urged viewers to dump their household garbage at the foot of my driveway. No one did, and I decided finally not to torture him.
And torture is what it seemed to be for most of the politicians who came to see us. The most experienced wore a weary air or were angry and combative. John Rowland, when he was Connecticut’s governor, hated our editorials and our editorial page editor and he usually complained throughout the interview. (We usually endorsed him.)
One gentleman running for a seat as a state representative had no political experience and seemed terrified. He stammered, started to answer one way and then changed direction, and practically squeaked by the end of the session. I don’t recall any particularly tough questions; he had built it up in his mind that we were going to rip him apart, or ask him something he didn’t know. Admittedly, the editorial page editor was a little scary. She always did her homework and knew the issues. Her editorials routinely skewered politicians.
For the most part, journalists understand that they must see many sides of an issue, and their personal feelings are not to enter the equation. I know that sounds naïve to those outside the newsroom, but in my experience it was true. And the politicians who did best understood what we were trying to do and what, for the most part, they could expect.
After I left the paper a friend of mine who was running for re-election asked me to help him prepare for his upcoming editorial board interview. I suggested some of the issues the editors might bring up and some of the positions he had taken in the past couple of years that he would be criticized for. Then I pointed out he was not going to get the endorsement. He was a Republican and fairly conservative. The editor was unabashedly liberal. My friend’s opponent was a minority – and gay. “He’s their dream candidate,” I said. “They can’t pass this up.”
He laughed, sat back and acknowledged I was right. Later he said it was the most fun he had ever had at an editorial board interview.
When you admit that some parts of the job just aren’t as fun as others – but they still must be tackled – it is easier to address them with courage and even a sense of humor.
Paul Steinmetz is director of Public Affairs & Community Relations at Western Connecticut State University. As the founder of Writing Associates, he consults on writing and media issues for businesses and individuals.
PERSPECTIVE commentaries by contributing writers appear each Sunday on Connecticut by the Numbers.