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In presidential race, everyone picks a side

Bret sent the editor an email this week to express his “deepest concern and disgust” with this newspaper’s editorial endorsement last weekend of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney.

“SVM is supposed to be unbiased and not support any one candidate,” he wrote. “... This is despicable and wrong. You have no right to tell your readers who they can and can’t vote for.”

He called the editorial a “one-sided, heavily-biased article.”

Later in the week, we published Bret’s letter endorsing Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson.

That might be irony.

SEVERAL ISSUES TO address here.

1. We try to keep our news report free of bias, but we make no such claim about our editorials.

2. The Opinion page is a place for ... well, opinions – ours as well as yours.

3. Opinions are, almost by definition, one-sided and biased – yours as well as ours.

4. Newspapers routinely endorse political candidates, especially in the presidential race. The free press provision in the First Amendment pretty much ensures their right to do so.

5. An endorsement is a recommendation, a suggestion to be considered as voters consume campaign information from many sources. Newspapers have no power to make you vote for someone.

6. The fact that this newspaper endorsed Governor Romney should come as no surprise. Four years ago, John McCain received our endorsement. Before that, George W. Bush. We have a record.

That’s no coincidence.

BASED ON 40 YEARS of newspaper journalism, this editor will tell you that SVM is unbiased in its reporting of the news.

Well, as unbiased as possible.

Objectivity does not exist. We all have opinions based on our values and experiences.

But good journalists are able to provide a fair and accurate report in the public interest, despite any personal biases they might have.

That’s not to say that every edition every day is perfectly balanced.

The front page of the Gazette on Oct. 17 had a big picture of Democratic congressional candidate Cheri Bustos along with a story about her campaign appearance in Freeport with U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin. Incumbent Republican Rep. Bobby Schilling was represented only with a few paragraphs at the end of the story that quoted his campaign spokesman.

Two days later, the front page had a big picture of Schilling along with a story about his campaign appearance in his hometown of Colona with House Speaker John Boehner and former Speaker Dennis Hastert. Bustos was represented only with a few paragraphs at the end of the story that quoted one of her campaign aides.

People who want to see bias – Democratic or Republican – could use one of those editions as evidence.

On balance, our approach to reporting on the news pages is as neutral as the news allows.

But often, truth itself has a bias.

OPINION PAGES ARE different.

They belong to the newspaper owner, who usually was the publisher in the days before newspaper groups.

Because newspapers historically were aligned with one political party or another, publishers often didn’t allow dissenting opinions on the editorial page.

Two- and three-newspaper cities were common, and each publication had its political allegiance and proudly displayed its partisanship.

But that began to change in the middle of the 20th century, as the Society of Professional Journalists advocated truth and fairness in the press and the rise of secondary journalism education promoted professionalism in the business.

And as more and more cities found themselves with only one newspaper, publishers realized the need to more fairly represent the interests of all citizens.

These days, most newspapers play it down the middle on the news pages, and most editorial pages carry a wide range of viewpoints. Readers are even free to criticize newspapers, which dutifully print the criticisms.

Newspapers have no legal obligation to allow that, but they do so in the public interest.

Believe it or not.

JERRY’S EMAIL ALSO questioned last week’s endorsement.

“Your newspaper endorsed Romney. Why didn’t the Salt Lake Tribune?” he asked. “That city has the largest concentration of Mormons in the world.”

Well, the Salt Lake Tribune has endorsed thousands of Mormons over the years.

So, we have a lot of catching up to do.

Just kidding.

Despite Bret’s concern expressed at the top of this column, presidential endorsements are common among newspapers.

In addition to winning support from the Salt Lake Tribune, President Obama has been endorsed by the Tampa Bay Times, Cleveland Plain Dealer, Denver Post, Los Angeles Times and Arizona Star, among many others.

Governor Romney has received the backing of newspapers in those same states, including The Orlando Sentinel, Columbus Dispatch, Colorado Springs Gazette, Los Angeles Daily News, and Arizona Republic, among many others.

You can consider those endorsements as you prepare to vote. Or not.

In the end, it’s what you believe that’s important.

AS WE MENTIONED in last week’s column, we broadcast some local debates this week.

With mixed results.

“I didn’t make it a point to catch the Lee County State’s Attorney debate live last evening because the Telegraph had printed earlier that the debate would be available online until the election,” Debbie said in an email on Tuesday. “How disappointing to learn it will not. In the future perhaps your company will consider printing that sort of information after it has already recorded an event.”

Our apologies to Debbie and others who didn’t find the video of that debate on our website.

During that debate, we had some feedback from viewers about problems they were having with our streaming of the event, so we made a technical adjustment. That was a mistake.

We did post an audio recording of that debate, however, and it will be available through Election Day.

Recording went off without a hitch during the next night’s debate involving candidates for Whiteside County state’s attorney, and that video is available on our website.

The only hitch in two other debates – for Illinois House Districts 71 and 90 – was that the Democratic candidates didn’t show up: one never responded to our invitation, and the other declined our offer. A campaign staffer said our coverage had been biased against the candidate.

Maybe next time.

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