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Opinion & Election 2004

Fred Hiatt
Editor, Washington Post Editorial Page
Tuesday, October 26, 2004; 1:00 PM

On Sunday, The Washington Post editorial page published its endorsement of Senator John F. Kerry in next week's presidential election:

"We do not view a vote for Mr. Kerry as a vote without risks. But the risks on the other side are well known, and the strengths Mr. Kerry brings are considerable."Kerry for President, (Post, Oct. 24)


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Readers Are Talking About...

Fred Hiatt, editor of The Washington Post Editorial page, was online Tuesday, Oct. 26, at 1 p.m. ET to discuss the endorsement, the recent Choice series of editorials, Election 2004 and the editorial page in general.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

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Reston, Va.: Obviously, The Washington Post is not alone in choosing to support either candidate, but I would like to get your feedback on this practice from an ethical, journalistic standpoint. Do you think it is responsible civic journalism for news outlets to endorse a political candidate? What is the justification for doing so?

Fred Hiatt: First, thanks to everyone who's tuned in, and thanks for your interest in the editorial page.
That's a good first question, and--like the editorial writer I am--I can see both sides of the question. Some newspapers never endorse, and there are some good reasons: it seems arrogant to tell readers what they should do, or it will make life harder for reporters, who will be seen as biased (even though Post reporters have nothing to do with our editorial decisions).
But on the other side, my feeling is this: we spend four years expressing opinions on what people in govenment should do; when it comes down to this very important choice, we shouldn't duck.

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East Meadow, N.Y.: Mr. Hiatt: My questions may be a bit naive but ultimately how is a decesion to endorse a candidate reached? Is it strictly a decision of the editorial board or is a broader consensus considered?

Fred Hiatt: Not a naive question at all. We reach a decision after a lot of discussion within our editorial board, which consists of me, two deputy editorial page editors, about five other editorial writers; also participating is our letters editor and oped editor, our cartoonist, and sometimes my boss, Donald Graham. Usually we invite candidates to come talk to us also, if they choose to (and I mean for all races--not just presidential).
We try to come to a consensus among ourselves, though we don't always succeed.

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Front Royal, Va.: Post people like yourself often say there is an inviolable church-state wall between the editorial page and the newsroom staff. Your editorial page recently did a distinguished series of editorials shedding light on the dreadful state of the public defender system (or absence thereof) in Virginia. Effectively it was a piece of investigative reporting with commentary included. Was that series in any way a violation of the standard separation we as readers are supposed to expect between news staffs and editorial boards?

Fred Hiatt: Well, it was a somewhat unusual role for an editorial page to play, I guess, in that we did some of our own investigating. But it didn't violate the "church-state" barrier, because the news side played no role.
We came to it from doing more traditional editorials, about innocent people in Virginia jails and the like; and our editorial writer Ben Wittes became aware of how many people were losing their chance to appeal because of bad lawyering. So he decided to look into it.

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Austin, Tex.: Did you consider either candidate's ability to flip-flop? And if you did consider it, Do you think it is a good quality or bad quality to have in a president?

Fred Hiatt: Yes, we did consider that. I think an ability to respond and adapt to changed circumstances is something you want in a president; but you also want a president with some core principles and beliefs.

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Gaithersburg, Md.: A comment and a question. When I first read the editorial I found the endorsement of Kerry ambivalent, almost damning with faint praise. When I reread the endorsement several times in order to ask an intelligent question, I found the endorsement quite strong, damning Bush with faint praise while acknowledging Kerry's weaknesses. This leads me suspect a team writing effort. To what extent is the endorsement written by a team versus a team giving direction and written by one person?

Fred Hiatt: It was mostly written by one person, but with a lot of input, suggestions, editings, and improvements by everyone on our board.

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Fairfax, Va.: I admire your guts for coming online for what's sure to be a feisty session. Just out of curiosity, when was the last time The Post has endorsed a Republican Presidential candidate?

Fred Hiatt: My records show (I wasn't here then) the last Republican endorsed for president was Ike in 1952. Then the Post didn't endorse anyone until 1976 (Carter), and it hasn't endorsed a Republican since. (It issued a no-endorsement in 1988.)
Of course we have frequently endorsed Republicans for other offices, including this year.

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Fredericksburg, Va.: Journalists have an important responsibility to report news in a fair and balanced manner. How is it in any way appropriate then for the Washington Post to explicitly endorse a candidate for president? Furthermore, how can a reader trust an assemblage of facts from an organization as unbiased, when they make their biases so clear? The media holds too much power as the deliverers of information for blatant biases to be ethical.

Fred Hiatt: Maybe this is a good moment to restate our most basic operating principle: I run the editorial page, and I am totally separate from the news operation of the Post, which is run by executive editor Leonard Downie. On the editorial side we express opinions all the time; they have no impact on the news side. Len and I never discuss what the other one is up to.

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Anonymous: What about in this case? Was there a consensus to support Kerry? Was there complete agreement, or how were you split?

Fred Hiatt: It's a fair question, but I think our board operates best if people on it feel as though our deliberations can stay private. Overall, though, I think my colleagues felt as though we came out in pretty much the right place. I think all of us felt as though there were strengths and weaknesses in both candidates.

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Laurel, Md.: Did the Post receive any positive "treatment" from the H.W. Bush Administration after not formally supporting Dukakis? (although not supporting H.W. Bush either). By "treatment" I mean better access, better contacts, etc.

Fred Hiatt: No.

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Hollywood, Calif.: It is troubling that both campaigns have avoided addressing almost all substantive issues in detail, preferring to squander their war chests on general rants and reality TV moments. Obviously, some issues like Iraq are full of unknowns -- messy. But others, like The Deficit, raise obvious questions that deserve partisan discussion. For example: how can a nation who relies on foreign countries to support its debt effectively negotiate with those foreign powers? It's a short clear question, important, even good for sound bites.

Why do you believe this has happened? Is it possible that substance has disappeared permanently from our politics?

Fred Hiatt: I agree that the question of the foreign debt is an important one, too little discussed.
I think substance isn't entirely ignored; the debates were pretty substantive, I thought. But a lot of important questions get ignored when neither candidate wants to talk about the unpopular things that might be needed as solutions. Your example might fit in there.
I think one job of editorial pages is to nag them to pay attention to such issues. Not that we expect them to always listen to us!

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Arlington, Va.: Was this year's decision particularly difficult? The series of editorials on various aspects of the candidates read like a fascinating window into the debate about who to endorse.

Fred Hiatt: Well, as we said in the editorial itself, we didn't find the choice as easy or obvious as many committed voters do.But by the end of the process, we weren't racked by doubt.
This is only my second election as editor, so it's hard for me to offer comparisons.

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Arlington, Va.: You mention that you invite the candidates to meet with you and your staff prior to endorsing a candidate. Did you meet with both Bush and Kerry?

Fred Hiatt: Again, I leave it to candidates (at all levels) to say or not that they've met with us, as they choose.
However, I will say that both Bush and Kerry are welcome to visit with us anytime.

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Ames, Iowa: Your endorsement of John Kerry is sound and balanced. I am relieved to see that you have finally admitted that Mr. Bush did exaggerate to the public the intelligence given him privately, which seems to me the key reason why Congress voted for war and the public had no option but to support it.

Four more years of a president who does not level with the American people on something as critical as sending our troops in harm's way is something I will not stand for. For this reason alone, I will cast my vote for John Kerry on Nov. 2.

Fred Hiatt: Thanks for the comment.

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Kensington, Md.: While I agree with your mixed but mostly positive endorsement of Sen. Kerry, I am disappointed to see The Post perpetuating the myth that the president "rallied the nation" after 9/11. Before Mr. Bush had uttered more than a few words on 9/11 and the days that followed, the country and world had already gathered spontaneously in candle-lit streets to show support for our country in its (and President Bush's) hour of need. The awesome truth and gravity of the event was such that they, and we, would have united behind a trained monkey after that day. The credit goes to our collective humanity -- not a suddenly awakened golfer-turned-leader. Indeed the truly astonishing achievement of Bush's tenure was the rapidity with which he then dissipated the unprecedented love and support we enjoyed in the months after the attack.

With over half of America still misled about who attacked us on 9/11, there is enough delusional thinking going around in this country without the Post adding to it. We all need to begin to think clearly and critically as we go forward from here. Thanks.

Fred Hiatt: Thanks for the comment. I think you're right to give credit to the American people, but I don't think that has to detract from the role that Bush played.

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Washington, D.C.: Do you have any reaction to Vice President Cheney's response to your endorsement of Senator Kerry? He seemed dismissive of the paper, classifying it as not a friendly publication.

Fred Hiatt: I noticed that. I think the implication that we are "unfriendly" territory is not correct. I honestly think we're an independent newspaper, that has praised some administration policies and criticized others. But I guess in the context I can understand why he would say what he did.

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Clarksburg, Md.: First, I am very glad you have endorsed Senator Kerry over Bush. Can you tell me if you have ever done any studies that show what impact newspapers have when endorsing political candidates?

Fred Hiatt: I haven't; I believe other people have tried to do so, and also have taken polls on the question. My guess is that we don't have much impact at all, especially on a national race like this. But I think it's important nonetheless for us to set out our views--and especially our reasoning behind our choice.

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Sioux City, Iowa: In all discussions about the U.S. policy toward Iraq, I have not seen, or very little, about the role of Israel in shaping the U.S. policy. Surely Saddam's payments to Palestinian suicide bombers was one consideration, as well as adopting Israel's ways of fighting terrorism in Iraq. It seems to me that the so-called global terrorism by the fundamentalist Muslims will lose considerable support if U.S. policy somehow were to demonstrate the even handedness towards the Palestinian issues as well as withdrawal of measurable support from the "dictators" in the Muslim countries.

Fred Hiatt: From what I know, I don't believe Israel played much of a role in Bush's decision to go to war. I think from the start Israeli leaders weren't opposed to the war, but they believed that Iran posed a bigger problem for them.

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Richmond, Va.: Please tell us about the logistics of the editorial-writing process. Who writes the editorials? Is this a multiperson effort in which all members of the staff collaborate on all editorials, or are the editorials written by individuals who rotate?

Fred Hiatt: As I mentioned, we have about eight people who write editorials. We meet every morning to talk about what topics we're going to cover and what we'll say. Then the writers go and do a lot of reporting--it might surprise people to know how much reporting goes into every editorial--and write something toward the end of the day, which is edited by me or our deputies, Colbert King and Jackson Diehl. Sometimes we discuss again after the editorial is written--is that what we agreed to? Is that really what we want to say? Then it gets edited again by our copy desk.
Each editorial writer has areas of expertise, but we don't stick to those too rigidly.

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Washington, D.C.: I very much appreciate the thoughtfulness of The Post's editorial board. My question is, to what extent do you feel that your editorial board is representative of the public? For example, do you make an effort to equally represent women and other groups?

Fred Hiatt: No, I think if we tried to "represent" the public, or responded to opinion surveys, or anything like that, the product would be pretty terrible.
We do try to balance whatever views we take by giving space on the oped page, the Close to Home page and the Free for All page for people who feel differently.

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Bryn Mawr, Pa.: Why do you think that today newspaper endorsements are no longer as important as in the past? We don't hear about them anymore really, except in a candidate's TV ads. Also, do you think that readers listen and make choices base on a paper's endorsement of a specific candidate?
Thank you

Fred Hiatt: Well, I'm not sure how important they were in the past, or which "past" you're talking about. After all, at one time, Washington had many daily newspapers, each competing for readers. More recently most cities have become one- or two-paper towns... But there are so many more sources people can go to now for opinions and analysis. Which is all the more reason why an editorial has to be well-argued, and not just expect people to take our word for anything.

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Washington, D.C.: What criteria do you and your staff use to evaluate guest editorials and to decide whether to publish them or not?

Fred Hiatt: Whether they make an original argument on an important topic--that's most important. Being well-written certainly helps. Sometimes the author's reputation is key; for example, we recently ran an oped by Jimmy Carter on Florida's voting preparations. Since he's an ex-president--and someone with a lot of experience monitoring elections--his views carried more weight than another person's might have.
And if you're thinking of submitting--no more than 800 words, please!
By the way, we get as many as 100 unsolicited guest opeds each day. We do look at all of them.

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Washington, D.C.: Is it true that in The Post's history, at one time, reporters were not allowed to vote for fear of biasing coverage? Is this still the case?

Thanks!

Fred Hiatt: Not that I've ever heard (and I've been at the Post about 22 years). What you may be thinking of is this: the Post's executive editor, Len Downie, has said that he doesn't vote, because he doesn't want to bias his news judgement in any way. But he doesn't ask reporters or editors to follow his lead on that.

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Washington, D.C.: Your response to the question about Cheney's comment seems to imply that the Post's "independence" is exemplified by alternatively meting out some praise and some criticism to each administration or party involved in the issue your are commenting on. Doesn't this view of independence give rise to the Post's "pretense of objectivity" criticized in your Outlook section last month?

Fred Hiatt: No, what independence means to me is that we have certain principles that are important to us, and we judge policies and politicians by how they measure up to those. We don't automatically hate something because it comes from Tom DeLay or because it comes from Al Gore, and we don't automatically love it for that reason. If we had a certain view of, say, U.S. policy on human rights in China when Clinton was president, we should be consistent on that when Bush is president.
But independent doesn't mean being mushy, or looking for pluses and minuses in every administration just for the sake of looking balanced.

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Indianapolis, Ind.: Even though the editorials are not related to the news portion of the Post, don't you think that by endorsing a candidate in such a heated race will alienate many of your readers and spill over their perception of The Post into other areas of reporting?

Fred Hiatt: Yes, that is a danger. That's why we try to reiterate as often as possible that news and editorial are split. But ultimately, we recognize the downside, and decide that writing an endorsement is important enough that we have to live with that risk.

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Bethesda, Md.: To follow up on the question of the impact of endorsements on an election's outcome, is there a sense at The Post that the paper's support of a local candidate may tip the balance? There at least, the readership is confined to a local jurisdiction such as the District or county where the newspaper's nod might sway a sufficient number of voters to make a difference.

Fred Hiatt: I think in some local races we may be more influential than in national races. That's why we take our job in those races very seriously, and learn as much about the candidates (or ballot questions) as we can before endorsing.
Even there, though, I think what matters is to put forward argumentation that makes sense--not just to applaud one side or the other.

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San Antonio, Tex.: The Lowell Sun in Massachusetts recently endorsed President Bush; conversely, the Crawford Iconoclast in Bush's Western White House hometown of Crawford endorsed Senator Kerry. There has been significant economic fallout for the Iconoclast as a result of their decision? Is it more perilous for a smaller newspaper to make a presidential endorsement -- especially when it goes against community sentiments -- than it is for a major metro daily with substantial circulation/readership numbers?

Fred Hiatt: I suppose a smaller paper may be taking a commercial risk if it writes editorials that go against local opinion--or that offend one or more big advertisers. You have to admire small papers that go ahead and take that risk.
At the Post I'm fortunate to work in an environment where no one from the business side--I mean, the people who worry about advertising and circulation--ever, ever try to tell me what to write. That's one of the great things about this newspaper, in my opinion.

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Doha, State of Qatar: How much of Senator Kerry's 20 years in the Senate did you consider in making your endorsement?

Fred Hiatt: We considered his Senate record pretty carefully. That said, we also kept in mind that being a legislator is very different from being an executive, and it's important to judge records in their context.

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New York, N.Y.: Do you think news media can be completely independent, objective, and free from any bias?

Fred Hiatt: No.
I think the media should strive to be as fair as possible; should be as transparent as they can in how they are doing that striving; and should be open to criticism (as, for example, from our in-house ombudsman).
I also think the best regulator of bias is to have so many outlets competing against each other that every viewpoint gets heard, and every medium gets judged.

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California: Please tell me the best way to submit an op-ed piece to The Post.

Thank you.

Fred Hiatt: you can e-mail it to oped@washpost.com.

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Philadelphia, Pa.: What do you think of the approach the Philadelphia Inquirer took in endorsing Kerry: a series of 21 editorials detailing their reasons, with an opposing viewpoint for each issue published on the op-ed page?

Fred Hiatt: Looked like a lot of work!
Seriously--I admired it. And it goes to my previous point--the more of us weighing in, and weighing in in different ways, the better.

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New Orleans, La.: Mr. Hiatt,
Does the editorial board take into consideration the balance of power in Congress when weighing its decision? In other words, Bush may take a position and have a better chance of turning that position into legislation given the Republicans greater power in Congress while Kerry's contrary position may have absolutely zero chance of passage. For example, surely no one believes Congress will undo Bush's tax cut for the top 2 percent of earners yet some give credit for Kerry advocating that position.

Fred Hiatt: We talked about that; and if you look, for example, at our editorial on Choices in the courts, we noted that at this point in history, there's a greater danger of the Court, and the courts, becoming ideologically right-wing than of them tipping left.
In the end, though, we decided on the presidential that we should just weigh the two candidates, and not try to factor in guesses about whether the Senate might or might not tip, and the like.

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McLean, Va.: Do you think there will be challenges to vote counts in more than one state? I am particularly concerned not with the specific results of a particular state or states, but rather with the president-elect governing all states. We heard what a uniter Bush was supposed to be, but the truth has been far from that. Do you feel that both candidates have a win-at-all costs mentality?

Fred Hiatt: I'm afraid there is a good chance of challenges in more than one state, and a good chance we won't know the outcome on Nov. 3. That's if the votes are as close as a lot of polls now suggest--and who knows if they are right?

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Milwaukee, Wis.: How will the rise in voter registration in the battleground states play into the election?

Fred Hiatt: I think no one knows--since both sides have been trying so hard to recruit new voters, and no one knows for sure how well those new voters are being accounted for in the polls.

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South Pasadena, Calif.: What is your opinion on the possibility of states splitting electoral college votes, leading to a closer correspndence of popular and electoral college victory?

Fred Hiatt: We haven't written an editorial yet on the Colorado proposal to do that (I'm sure Colorado voters are waiting anxiously for our advice).
The whole question of electoral college reform is really an interesting one. For those of us in Maryland, DC and Virginia who are being pretty much ignored by the candidates, the arguments against the e.c. are obvious. But every proposed solution does have its own pitfalls (see, there's the editorial writer in me again).
Looks like we are out of time. Thanks so much for the questions, and for reading our pages!

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