Mike Jenner

Mike Jenner is the executive editor of The Bakersfield Californian. He joined the Californian in 1993 as the managing editor after working for four years as an independent newspaper consultant, and, prior to that, holding editing positions at newspapers including The Hartford Courant and The Philadelphia Inquirer. Jenner discussed the campaign with Campaign Desk via email as part of our ongoing series of interviews with reporters, editors, and commentators covering the election.

Liz Cox Barrett: You wrote an editorial (registration required) published September 11 titled, “Enough already: Time to leave Vietnam,” in which you decried the fact that “for the past seven weeks, the nation’s newspapers [yours included] and airwaves have focused on ancient history as attack groups have lodged allegations — mostly unprovable — at Sen. John Kerry or President George W. Bush” at the expense of “meaningful discussion and debate.” You vowed to “decrease the prominence given” to such attacks going forward and to give readers “more analysis, more context, and more information about candidates that is truly relevant.” What prompted this outburst/epiphany? And was this prompted by how you felt your paper had covered the campaigns or a general dissatisfaction with the national press?

Mike Jenner: I was really getting tired of the Swift Boat attacks and counterattacks, and felt that the issue of whether or not Kerry had bled when he was wounded was pushing stories about more meaningful topics off our pages and off the radar screen. This was prompted more by dissatisfaction with the 527 groups and the presidential campaigns and candidates themselves than with the press, although I was disappointed with the media in general, especially the broadcast media, and my own paper’s coverage to a lesser degree. Whatever epiphany I had turned into an outburst as CBS broke its story about Bush’s National Guard service, which was almost immediately challenged.

LCB: In the editorial, you acknowledged that the decision to downplay future Vietnam-era attacks might “disappoint some readers,” and that “some of the smartest editors on our staff believe this is a risky position.” What sort of feedback have you received from readers and from your newsroom?

MJ: Some of our readers — many of whom listen to conservative talk radio and TV (whose pundits seem obsessed with this) —- told us they saw this as yet another example of our liberal bias. But a few wrote or called to applaud the decision. In the newsroom, the person most concerned about the column was our wire editor. We had a very animated discussion before the column was published. He was most concerned that I was manipulating the news in advance of knowing the news. His biggest concern, expressed before I finalized the column, was that I’d tie our hands by promising that we’d never run such stories on Page One … and then a day or two later we’d learn of a story that begged to be on the front page. He really did agree with the premise of the column, though, and has done a great job of identifying and promoting the running of stories that analyze candidate stands on the issues.

LCB: One more on your editorial: The Californian, like most newspapers its size, gets most of its campaign coverage from the wires and/or other national outlets, which you noted in your editorial. You wrote: “[B]ut editors who select our wire stories and present our national report are committed to giving readers more analysis, more context, and more information about candidates that is truly relevant …” How are your editors doing this — are they supplementing wires’ stories with additional reporting/information? Do you feel you’ve been successful so far?

MJ: We’re a community daily, and have never detached a reporter to cover the national campaign. Still, I’ve toyed with the idea of detaching a reporter just to examine the record — to analyze both candidates’ speeches, Kerry’s voting record, Bush’s record in his first term or in the Texas statehouse. I haven’t done that, simply because we’re a local paper, and we’ve got to focus on our knitting and let the people best positioned to do the national reporting do it. We simply can’t afford it. The stories I love to see are ones like the one the San Francisco Chronicle published Wednesday. Their Washington bureau chief analyzed 200 of Kerry’s speeches and statements to determine whether or not he had flip-flopped on Iraq.

Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.