By: MARK FITZGERALD
THE CHICAGO SUN-Times’ offer of free, unedited space to the two major candidates for president ? one of two offers from newspapers this election year ? turned out to be a bust.
Both President Bill Clinton and Republican nominee Bob Dole offered recycled versions of past campaign writings. Clinton’s essay, published Oct. 2, was a lightly rewritten version of his Aug. 29 acceptance speech and Dole’s article, published Oct. 3, was a virtual word-for-word reprint of his introduction to the campaign book Trusting the People.
Having ballyhooed the essays as a journalistic experiment in providing direct communication from the candidates to the voters, the Sun-Times was harsh on the candidates the morning after the essays ran.
“We offered a new forum, but much of what the candidates gave us was old material recycled word for word,” Sun-Times editor in chief Nigel Wade wrote in a note to readers. “We did not stipulate that the articles had to be original, but President Clinton and Bob Dole had several months in which to take Illinois voters more seriously than they did.
“Voters are electing a president, not a word processor,” Wade added. “They want dialogue ? what they got was Voice Mail.”
“Each essay was headlined, ‘In His Own Words,’ but instead of fresh essays, Sun-Times readers got rehashes of past campaign pieces,” political reporter Scott Fornek wrote in his day-after article on the free space.
In an editorial, the paper called the candidates’ essays “a sorry charade” and a “sad misuse of the public’s desire for substance.”
“Plenty of Nothing” was the headline on a column by editorial board member Cindy Richard. “Clearly we shouldn’t have trusted the candidates to take this offer in the spirit in which it was presented: an opportunity to be open and honest with the voters,” Richards wrote.
The newspaper quoted several readers disappointed that they were not offered fresh writing by the candidates.
“I feel kind of cheap now,” said Kelly Cole after being told the essays were recycled. Cole is a 27-year-old who had attended one of the paper’s pre-election Reader Forums.
It was at a Sun-Times Reader Forum in May that the idea of offering free space to presidential candidates emerged. The suggestion came from Carl Nyberg, a Navy lieutenant. Nyberg told Fornek that the newspaper was partly to blame for the failure of the experiment.
“By the Sun-Times letting them do what they wanted, [the candidates] were able to fall back on their usual style over substance,” said Nyberg, who said the newspaper should have forced candidates to provide detailed responses to a list of issues.
That approach is being taken by the Thomson L.A. News Group in California, which asked the two candidates to write about their “general vision” for America. “To some extent, [the responses] were recycled . . . but they weren’t too bad,” said Kevin O’Leary, editorial page editor for the group, which includes the Pasadena Star-News, San Gabriel Valley Tribune and Whittier Daily News. “It gave people something they could pick up and have in terms of their positions.”
Because the essays were published in the days between the Republican and Democratic conventions, Clinton’s acceptance speech, for instance, was not available for recycling.
The California papers will be running a second pair of essays from the candidates Oct. 27, 10 days before the election.”The second one is to focus more on the issues,” O’Leary said.
As disappointed as the Sun-Times was in the quality of the Clinton/Dole articles, however, the paper is channeling that anger in one positive way: It is warning the candidates for U.S. Senate ? who will get similar free space next week ? to do better.
“We aren’t abandoning our effort to give voters unfiltered information,” the paper editorialized. “We hope you will be better served on Oct. 16 and 17, when [Democrat Dick] Durbin and [Republican Al] Salvi take their opportunity to share plans and programs in their own words.”
?(The Chicago Sun-Times carried an editorial entitled,” Readers deserved better from Clinton and Dole” and Sun-Times cartoonist Jack Higgins expressed his opinion about the rehashed political submission) [Photo & Caption]