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Election broke troubling new ground

The Virginia Gazette

One of the most troubling aspects of the recently concluded James City County Board of Supervisors race was the antagonistic attitude the Republican candidates took toward the media in general, and this newspaper in particular.

I'm not talking about the election signs inviting voters to "Annoy the Gazette, vote Republican," or the plane towing the aerial banner on election day urging you to fight local media bias by voting Republican. That's all part of the campaign fun, even if sophomoric.

I'm referring to the unprecedented decision by the Republican candidates, acting as a block, to refuse to talk to the Virginia Gazette. They would only communicate in writing and refused to sit with the editorial board for an endorsement interview, avoiding situations that might force them to answer difficult questions.

As justification, they accused the Gazette of being biased and said we and our sister newspaper, the Daily Press, didn't endorse Republicans. I suspect the real answer is their handlers didn't trust them to handle off the cuff conversations.

To set the record straight, the charge that we only endorse Democrats and liberals is wrong.

Though owned by the same company, each newspaper has its own voice. The Gazette, reflecting much of its readership, is wary of rapid development in James City County. And that, more than partisanship, has often colored its endorsements.

But we endorsed Republican Michael Hipple for the board in the last election. We endorsed Republican Jack Fraley over Democrat John McGlennon in the Roberts District in 2011, and Patrick Sensiba over Ruth Larson for the Berkeley District school board seat. The Daily Press endorsed Republicans Mary Jones and Jack Fraley for supervisor seats that year.

Due to a scheduling mix up on our part, the Gazette was unable to meet with all the state legislative candidates and made the decision not to endorse this election. But the Daily Press endorsed Republicans Brenda Pogge, Thomas Norment, David Yancey and York County Republican supervisor candidate Jeff Wassmer.

Hardly the picture of a Democratic propaganda machine marching in lock step.

We couldn't have endorsed any James City County Republican even if we wanted to, because they refused to meet with our editorial board to discuss their campaigns. It's our policy that if someone won't sit down with us to have a robust discussion about their plans, and allow us to take the measure of them as individuals, we won't endorse them.

This election is not the first time Republican politicians have attempted to control the message by going around us. It's never worked well for them, because our readers trust the Gazette more than they trust the politicians.

Shortly after I became CEO of the Daily Press Media Group, which owns the Gazette, supervisors Jim Kennedy and Mary Jones had several spats with the Gazette over its coverage of their actions on the board. They announced they would no longer grant us interviews, and would communicate only in writing.

Kennedy soon saw this approach was hurting his ability to explain his views, and he dropped the boycott. As far as I can remember, Mary Jones largely avoided talking to the paper, but did not completely shut us down.

That all changed with this year's election.

Ms. Jones and her running mates, Heather Cordasco and Sue Sadler, followed the recommendations of their campaign handlers and refused to talk to us.

What they hadn't counted on is that we would refuse to simply transcribe their scripts in the paper, and would demand they consent to interviews if they wanted to be quoted in the Gazette.

This all might sound like inside baseball to you, perhaps even pedantic on our part.

But there's a big difference between an interview and a written statement.

A written statement doesn't permit asking about inconsistencies with a candidate's statements or actions. It doesn't allow for follow up questions, or for us to ask candidates to explain their rationale.

We can't even be sure the candidate herself wrote her statement, or whether it was scripted for her.

The job of a newspaper is to ask the questions politicians don't want us to ask, and vet the facts. Or, as a crusty editor for the venerated Chicago News Service used to say, "If your mother says she loves you, check it out!"

It's understandable the folks who manage political campaigns would rather depend on social media, attack commercials and direct mail campaigns. They want to control the message and ensure it's completely favorable to their candidate.

But does that really serve you, the taxpayer? You're busy earning a living and caring for your family. You don't have time to study every budget, review every memo, and attend every public meeting.

That's why we're here.

We hope Ms. Sadler will have second thoughts about her duty to be transparent when she takes office in January.

But if she refuses, the Gazette will still do its job. We'll continue to ask questions of her. We'll use the Freedom of Information Act to obtain her emails and text messages, if need be.

Candidates can be as opaque as they wish. Public servants don't get that luxury.

Solomon is publisher of the Virginia Gazette and president of the Daily Press Media Group.

Copyright © 2018, The Virginia Gazette