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A newspaper has a novel strategy for covering one politician’s falsehoods: Don’t

Former Ohio state treasurer Josh Mandel, seen in 2014, is campaigning for the Senate seat being vacated by fellow Republican Rob Portman. (Tony Dejak/AP)

Ohio’s biggest newspaper is taking an unusual tack toward covering falsehoods from a U.S. Senate candidate: It doesn’t plan to do so at all.

The Plain Dealer in Cleveland said its journalists intend to ignore inaccurate statements from Republican Josh Mandel that they consider to be ploys for attention.

“Mandel is pretty much a nobody right now, a nobody begging for people to notice his Tweets a year ahead of the Senate primary,” Chris Quinn, the Plain Dealer’s editor, wrote in an opinion piece published Saturday. “Just because he makes outrageous, dangerous statements doesn’t mean it is news.”

Quinn’s decision is a marked departure from conventional journalistic wisdom that politicians’ statements inherently deserve coverage and that every story has at least two sides. Newsrooms across the country have increasingly reevaluated that approach because of President Donald Trump’s more than 30,000 false or misleading claims, many of which dominated the news cycle and helped him amass a following.

In an example of that kind of reckoning, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel recently annotated an opinion piece from Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) with context for his claims about the false theory of massive fraud in the 2020 election. The newspaper’s editorial board wrote that it took the unusual step to give readers “a fuller understanding of the senator’s actions.”

In Ohio, Quinn argued that Mandel is different from most political candidates the Plain Dealer has covered. He’s shown a willingness to “say just about anything if it means getting his name in the news,” Quinn wrote — a gambit that he characterized as unprecedented at the state level.

Mandel promoted the baseless theory that widespread voter fraud cost Trump reelection. He repeatedly stated incorrectly in 2017 that Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown (D) worked a tax break for private-jet owners into a bill. During Mandel’s first run for Senate in 2012, PolitiFact Ohio named him its “Pants on Fire” champion for his inaccurate statements.

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The newspaper firmed up its decision to ignore Mandel’s falsehoods when he started calling on Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, a fellow Republican, to follow the lead of Texas and Mississippi by rescinding the state’s mask mandate. There is widespread consensus in the scientific community that face coverings have helped to slow the coronavirus’s spread during the pandemic.

To Quinn, Mandel’s call to overturn Ohio’s mask rule was an attempt to endanger the state’s residents and not a legitimate policy position.

Plus, Quinn wrote, there’s currently no evidence that Mandel, a former state treasurer and legislator, is a viable candidate to fill Republican Sen. Rob Portman’s seat at the end of his term. The newspaper plans to adjust its coverage strategy if it sees Mandel as a serious contender.

Mandel is far from unknown in Ohio. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) campaigned for him in 2012, while Portman and Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) also endorsed him. Mandel lost to Brown only after what the Plain Dealer described as a “well-financed and relentless” campaign.

Mandel and the Ohio GOP did not immediately respond Monday to requests for comment on the Plain Dealer’s decision.

The choice to publish an opinion piece about the newspaper’s coverage plan was an attempt at transparency, Quinn said in an interview. While Mandel’s propensity to make false claims is hardly unique among politicians, Quinn said, his candidacy warranted a specific strategy because his falsehoods endanger Ohioans.

Quinn said that politicians have learned to game news outlets’ attraction to controversy and that journalists have a responsibility to not report on “specious and ridiculous” claims as if they are valid viewpoints.

“We’ve kind of fallen down to the conclusion that that’s not really our responsibility,” he said. “Our responsibility is to seek the truth.”

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Of the roughly 50 readers who responded to the opinion piece, Quinn said all but about five supported his decision. People acknowledged that figuring out how to cover Mandel is difficult and expressed concern that some of the politician’s falsehoods about coronavirus prevention were reckless.

Kathleen Bartzen Culver, director of the Center for Journalism Ethics at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, praised the Plain Dealer’s transparency. She said journalists should be thoughtful about when to cover disinformation and when doing so would simply give the falsehood a platform. They should also consider how a politician might say or do something to distract from an inconvenient news story, she said.

Culver drew a distinction between a politician exaggerating the implications of policies and someone damaging public health, sowing distrust and increasing polarization. The second category requires newsrooms to have more serious conversations — ideally involving readers and ethicists outside the newsroom — about a coverage strategy.

“They have a responsibility to serve the public interest,” Culver said. “And giving a platform to things that are not true does not serve that public interest.”

As a newsroom of 66 journalists, the Plain Dealer’s choices to cover or not cover something are judgment calls, Quinn said. Mandel’s statements are no different in that regard, but Quinn said they force an open and intentional conversation about how to apply that reality to a unique candidate.

Some of that plan remains undecided, Quinn said, but the newspaper’s journalists are sure about one thing.

“What I think we’ve all concluded,” he said, “is we’re not going to do it the way we’ve always done it.”

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