The Daily Tar Heel

Serving the students and the University community since 1893

Thursday September 29th

Up close in a special election

As I write the familiar cadence of Barack Obama's voice is echoing through downtown Raleigh. The rally in Halifax Square is so loud you can hear it inside my office building several blocks away.

And somewhere down there amid the throng is a Daily Tar Heel reporter.

Nobody at the DTH expected to be attending presidential rallies this year. Neither did anyone at The (Raleigh) News & Observer The Greenville Daily Reflector or The Asheville Citizen-Times.

But North Carolina is getting a hefty dose of national attention and that is driving a louder-than-average discussion of how this newspaper conducts its political coverage.

Endorsements


The DTH makes formal endorsements on its editorial page.

Some readers will see this as evidence that the paper's news coverage has favored particular candidates all along but the news and editorial functions at the paper remain almost entirely separated.

It's true that Editor-in-Chief Allison Nichols casts a vote on the editorial board" but the desk editors and staff writers who work day-to-day covering the campaigns and putting together voter guides have no role in the edit page endorsements. They read about them in the paper just like everyone else.

The DTH and most of the state's major newspapers surprised a lot of folks by endorsing Republican Pat McCrory for governor.

""I thought I was going to have to really fight for it"" said Opinion Co-Editor Harrison Jobe, who intended to make the case for McCrory. But the editorial board voted 7-to-1 for the Republican.

If the board members endorse Obama, that will put them firmly in line with the great political paradox of North Carolina. After decades of voting for Republican presidents and Democratic governors, polls show a decent chance for a reversal.

On-campus activities


This is where the paper is most vulnerable to the bias charge, because it's clear that Democratic candidates feature more prominently in stories about student activism.

That's pretty much unavoidable, given how strongly UNC and Orange County lean toward the left.

Three of the most prominent local politicians — State Reps. Verla Insko, Joe Hackney and Bill Faison, Democrats all — don't even have Republican challengers, and Young Democrats have been more active in voter registration drives and general mobilization than College Republicans.

Even so, the DTH has made an effort to spotlight conservative activism. Staff writer Caroline Dye wrote Wednesday about the efforts of the UNC College Republicans to campaign beyond Orange County. We're not doing less" we're simply less visible on campus" acknowledged Jason Sutton, political chair of UNC College Republicans.

Inevitably, less visibility on campus means less visibility in the campus newspaper. (Full disclosure: I'm a registered Republican, and I'll be casting my ballot in Wake County).

Covering campaign events


The DTH has long been criticized as a bastion of liberalism, but the overriding bias the paper brings to its coverage of state and national candidates is not political or ideological: it's geographic.

When campaign events are near enough that we can go there" then we go there" said State & National Editor Ariel Zirulnick.

But it's tough to cover distant events on weekdays in the middle of classes.""

The DTH does not pay staff writers" and while this has been a marvelous business model it means that editors cannot order someone to drive six hours to attend a candidate speech. Writers must be cajoled and class schedules must be accommodated.

That's why the Obama rally in Raleigh was covered but an Obama rally in Asheville was not. A Palin speech in Greenville was covered but a McCain speech in Wilmington was not.

On the whole the comings and goings of the campaigns have been treated with an even hand.

It's unfortunate that the DTH doesn't have the resources for in-depth coverage on all of the down-ticket races such as judges insurance commissioner attorney general etc." but even The N&O; has cut back in covering the down-ballot contests.

""It's not ideal"" said News & Observer Executive Editor John Drescher, speaking to DTH editors earlier this month. There simply isn't a whole lot of voter interest in those races.""

One change that the DTH will be making for future elections is more intensive candidate coverage long before Election Day. The popularity of early voting has caught many newspapers by surprise" so expect earlier endorsements and voter guides in the future.

In the meantime enjoy all the national attention. North Carolina won't be this popular again until basketball season is in full swing.


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