Mike Jenner on His Editorial Outburst, The Press’ Focus on the Immediate Rather Than the Significant, and Fair and Balanced Listeners

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.

We are blessed in that we subscribe to quite a few supplemental wires, and as a result we have many more choices than a lot of papers our size. In addition to the Associated Press, we have the New York Times wire, the Los Angeles Times-Washington Post wire, and several others available. It’s almost too much. Our chief wire editor does a great job of gleaning the most significant pieces, I think.

LCB: Other than their excessive focus on dubious Vietnam-era accusations, what other pitfalls have you seen befall the political press this election season?

MJ: A focus on the immediate to the exclusion of the significant. That is driven by pressure to be competitive and I understand that. And most of the stuff that’s said on the stump is sound bite material anyway. But a few weeks ago, Kerry unveiled a bunch of energy positions. The daily wire story breathlessly reported his position statement, but there were some items that clearly needed to be questioned or challenged. I don’t expect a reporter trying to file a daily from the road to be able to do much more than report what’s said, but voters — and editors — need somebody to come back right away with an analysis that looks at the plan and points out what’s doable and what’s exorbitant and what’s been tried before and discarded.

My dissatisfaction with campaign coverage probably is caused as much or more by the candidates themselves than the press. When I told my boss I was thinking about writing a piece pledging to readers that we were going to focus on matters of substance, he laughed and cautioned me to be careful, pointing out that the candidates might not give us any substance. My biggest disappointment is that both Bush and Kerry seem happy to focus on whether the other guy is “unfit for service.” I think each feels it’s to his advantage to keep the focus off the issues, the record and things that matter most.

LCB: Campaign Desk frequently scolds the campaign press for its obsession with uncovering the latest “swing voter”: from single women, a.k.a. “Sex and the City” voters, to hunting and fishing enthusiasts, a.k.a. the “hook and bait” crowd, to “Howard Stern” voters, to name a few. Walking the sidewalks of Bakersfield, California, is one more likely to run into a “security mom”, a “strip club dad” or some other exotic species of swing voter the political press has yet to “discover”?

MJ: Wow. We’re a pretty conservative community. Our soccer moms and NASCAR dads seem to far outnumber “Sex and the City” voters. One of the most prevalent (at least the most vocal) species we have here would be the “fair and balanced” listeners. I guess they’re not too exotic. I would add that one of the rarest species around here seems to be the undecided voter. And as more and more people tend to make up their minds and the ranks of the undecided seem to shrink, the candidates seem to be getting more and more shrill.

Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.