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Political coverage presented challenges from many quarters

Friday, April 6, 2007 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 8:42 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008
Lindsay Toler

As we, election reporters, toiled over our profiles, we kept an eye out for habits or themes in our candidates’ personalities that would explain to the readership something about who they are. Jerry Wade has his umbrella. Gary Kespohl has his Little League. Karl Skala has the vest.

I covered Mike Holden, and Mike drinks yellow Gatorade. It was the first thing I wrote down about him at our first interview. He had it with him at his office, at candidate forums, nearly every time I saw him. No Rain, Frost or X-Factor flavors for Mike. Not even coffee, tea or soda. Of all the flavors and types of drinks in the world, Mike drinks the original lemon-lime Gatorade developed in 1965. That is Mike Holden.

The week before my profile on Mike was due, my computer crashed. I lost everything and started writing from scratch what the other reporters had written using two months worth of notes. I lucked out, I thought, when I scored an interview with Mike’s wife, Elizabeth. She was dynamic and well-spoken, and I hoped that she could add some spark to what was still a flat article about a businessman running for office.

I asked her what they talk about, what they have in common. I wanted to know what got Mike going, what he was passionate about, what made him tick. Her answer?

Governance issues.

She said they always have things to talk about because of their mutual love for government and local politics. Her exact expression was “preaching to the choir.” And that was my color. That and the yellow of the Gatorade.

***

As I interviewed Elizabeth, I remember feeling guilty about the article I was writing about her husband. Truth is, I had a pretty hard time getting people to go on record about how they felt about Mike Holden. He was often the only candidate to “highlight differences between him and his opponent” at forums. People liked the guy and respected his ideas, but many responded negatively to that style of campaigning or at least didn’t agree with it to the extent that they would comment to me on the record. I tried to find a way to reflect that in my article. I ended up writing a piece that was honest and fair but that I knew Mike and Elizabeth would not be thrilled with.

Lo and behold, Elizabeth called me the day before the story went to print to register her complaint that my article represented her husband negatively. See, the article ran online the day before it went into the print edition of the newspaper. Scott Swafford, my editor, and Tom Warhover, my editor’s editor, sat down with me to talk about it.

Elizabeth’s main charge against my online piece was that I talked only to supporters of Jerry Wade. I still argue that I talked to as many people at forums as I could and did not seek out supporters of either candidate. I chose the quotes that I felt were most representative, but it turned out that two of the three were from people who had Wade signs in their front yard.

So we asked: Is it fair to present quotes from Wade supporters in my article? I argued yes. After all, I purposely included quotes about people who disagreed with Mike’s campaign style because that was the majority of the feedback I was hearing. If you disagree with a candidate, odds are you support his opponent. I didn’t see these people as Wade supporters but as citizens with a representative opinion about Mike’s campaign style.

We ended up deleting the harshest of the quotes because, Tom said, they were from a person who did not live in the Fourth Ward. Now honestly, I don’t care if she lived in the Fourth Ward. The quote I had was perfect, and cutting it was like cutting off my own finger. What I loved about the quote was that it was tough but didn’t attack Mike personally. But what I ended up realizing was that it was so impersonal that it made the story too topic-based. After all, the piece was supposed to be a profile on who Mike was.

Then came the big question: Do we change it? After all, it was already published, just not in print. It is an interesting question to which I still don’t know the answer.

***

I attended every candidate forum that Mike Holden did, except the closed ones. (Even then, they had to throw us out.)

Then spring break came the week before the elections. I polled the other reporters and realized that no one was staying to cover the election during the final stretch — plus I really want an A+ — , so I stayed in Columbia for the week. I attended all the forums that happened that week, too. Even the ones Holden didn’t attend.

The most interesting forum during the entire election process was the Central Columbia Get Out the Vote forum at the Downtown Optimists Club. It was a mayoral forum, but only John Clark attended. Participants sat in a circle and had a conversation about First Ward issues rather than the usual format in which the candidates stand at the front of the room and summarize in 30 seconds their opinions on very complex issues. The group addressed the nature of racism and inequality. They brought up real problems and asked for real solutions, which Clark seemed willing to fight for. It was rumored that the group would spend the forum bashing First Ward Councilwoman Almeta Crayton, but instead the members just asked for a better city. It was truly moving.

I tried to write a story to reflect that. Most of the human-interest parts were cut, and then the story was placed online-only under an atrocious headline.

***

My favorite part of covering candidate forums was the stark difference between the two held by the Muleskinners Democratic Club and the Pachyderms Republican club. Here are just a couple of those differences:

— The Pachyderms held their forums at Jack’s Gourmet restaurant, where they served pasta and salad. The Muleskinners held their forums at Stamper Commons at Stephens College, where they served cafeteria food.

— The Muleskinners asked a series of hard questions dealing with hot topics, especially those that deal with personal liberties. The group asked the candidates to focus on the one goal they would most like to accomplish and said they’d hold them to it. They demanded specifics on how the candidates planned to implement the ideas generated by the visioning process and if they wanted to create a citizen review board for police.

The Pachyderms asked how candidates felt about putting “drug-sniffer dawgs” in schools. (No, really, that was the only question.)

Now, I’m not going to admit to leaning one way or the other on the political scale. But Lord have mercy ...

***

Like I said, I was the only reporter nerdy enough to stay for spring break. I walked into the office one day, and Tom Warhover did sort of a double-take. (Background: Tom and I met one afternoon at the Bread Basket Cafe, where we were both in line to get a sandwich. He asked if I liked reporting. I told him I loved the Public Life beat and that covering local politics was something for which I had a new-found passion. I don’t remember his exact reply, but he basically said that he started one of the first Public Life beats when he was a city hall reporter years ago. Only at MU can you tell an editor you like something about journalism and have them counter that they created it out of thin air.)

Tom asked if I’d been keeping up with the multi-platform (aka online) election coverage.

I should have said no.

He told me that the video of John Clark had deleted itself, except for a clip of him doing tai chi. Now I’ve heard people call John Clark eccentric, but this video just made him look crazy. It really wasn’t fair.

Tom asked me to shoot a new video. I replied that the reason I got out of broadcast journalism was because I wanted to spend my life writing, not filming. Actually, I didn’t say that. After all, he is my boss’s boss. But if I had, he would have given me a very long, very in-depth lecture about the changing nature of newspaper journalism.

I chose to skip the lecture and spent the next day following and filming Clark. It was hard sometimes because he seemed more interested in talking to me than letting me film him. And he never had anything boring to say, I’ll tell you that much.

I expected to come back with some crazy, ridiculous stories about Clark’s life. I came back with a deep respect for the man. Sometimes I wonder if Clark can see the Columbia outside the walls of city hall. But, man, he loves politics. And democracy and all of those ideals we were taught in Principles of American Journalism. He has a passion for government that is dynamic and contagious. (He should hang out with Mike and Elizabeth.)

But really, you should call him. Follow him around with a camera sometime. You’ll learn a lot.


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