PRESIDENT BUSH'S re-election was driven by voters' support for his policies on Iraq and terrorism. But for more than one-third of those who voted for him, "moral values" was the most significant issue.
Moral values were not identified as a key issue in the campaign coverage of The Sun and other major metropolitan newspapers. And readers are letting us know that our failure to deeply explore such concerns is making us irrelevant to those who believe they are paramount.
FOR THE RECORD - Because of an editing error in the Nov. 7 Public Editor's column, a quote used to describe the debate over moral values was incorrectly attributed to Sun Washington bureau reporter Susan Baer. The quote, referring to gay and lesbian issues, should have been attributed to Vicki Gordy.
The Sun regrets the errors.
"What matters to me is not what you are writing about," said one Sun reader who said he had voted for President Bush.
The moral values that some voters are talking about can be defined as an emphasis on religious faith in daily life and a distrust of popular culture and secular lifestyles. Beyond providing a key push to the Bush re-election effort, voters concerned about moral values helped pass ballot initiatives banning gay marriage in 11 states across the nation.
There was some excellent coverage of moral issues in The Sun and elsewhere.
An Oct. 16 article in The Sun reported by Frank Langfitt from Ohio documented the potential effect the gay-marriage amendment could have on bringing new voters to the polls.
On Sunday, Oct. 3 Susan Baer of The Sun's Washington bureau offered a lengthy and insightful Page One piece spotlighting the political battle over values. Talking about advocates of moral values, Baer said: "This small minority group (1 to 10 percent of the total population) is well organized, active, vocal and intent on changing our social values in order to validate their lifestyle."
And Ron Suskind's Oct. 17 piece in The New York Times Magazine, titled "Faith, Certainty and the Presidency of George W. Bush," got to the heart of support for President Bush.
"Righteous rage - that's what Hardy Billington felt when he heard about same-sex marriage possibly being made legal in Massachusetts," Suskind wrote. "`It made me upset and disgusted,'" Suskind quotes Billington as saying. "`I prayed, then I got to work.'"
But the relatively limited coverage of moral values was lost in a sea of words written about terrorism, the war in Iraq and other more traditional issues.
If there was a national conversation about "moral values" on the Internet and in other forums, the debate did not reach a lot of American newsrooms. Based on the sense of disconnect many journalists experienced Wednesday morning, this assessment has merit.
Paying limited attention to moral values was part of a larger dilemma for newspapers that found themselves endlessly distracted by the campaign circus.
The news media did produce consistent and relevant journalism during the long presidential race. But diversions and sideshows so altered the election narrative that sometimes it seemed as if the campaign was between filmmaker Michael Moore and Swift Boat veteran/author John O'Neill, or between CBS' Dan Rather and Sinclair Broadcasting Group's Mark Hyman.
And as newspapers wrote about the circus, some readers accused them of becoming part of it.
Claims of liberal bias eroded the mainstream media's image as a voice of impartiality and affected its status as an authoritative voice. Surrounded by advocacy journalism on the Internet and on cable television, it was hard for many readers to accept that reports in The Sun and other newspapers were not agents of political agendas.
Sun reader Mark Morgues, for one, sees mainstream news outlets as just more opinion-mongers. "I continue to hear that the DNC fears voter intimidation at the polls. Well, let me say a few things on this topic. For the past 12 months, The Baltimore Sun, The New York Times, The Washington Post, the major TV networks and others have been non-stop in their attacks on President Bush. Who is really doing the intimidating? I am not intimidated by the daily attacks I see and read in the media these days and I did what all good Americans did today: I went and voted for the candidate of my choice, totally unencumbered and not intimidated."
Mr. Mourges' assessment, with its all-encompassing denunciation of mainstream media, is a sobering reminder of the changing landscape of how the press connects with its readers, listeners and viewers.
The news media must recognize that the boundaries of news coverage, especially about politics, have expanded permanently and now must somehow be incorporated into daily journalism without damaging its credibility.
They also need to do a much better job of recognizing social and political agendas that many journalists don't relate to personally.
This has been a grueling year for readers and journalists. It would be a good time to take a few deep breaths and turn down the volume. .
Sandra Nettina, writing two days before the election, said it best: "I do believe that it is time to start thinking about what we will do after November 2nd. Let's get ready to take down our respective signs and come together. As we pray for wisdom and strength in our elected leaders, let's open dialogue with our neighbors and come up with some non-partisan solutions to what ails our communities."
Paul Moore's column appears on Sundays.
The public editor
Readers who have concerns or comments may contact The Sun's public editor. He can be reached by telephone at 410-332-6364 or toll-free at 1-800-829-8000, ext. 6364, or by fax at 410-783-2502, or by e-mail at email@example.com.