Yes-no answers, `wedge' issues and a Sun article


The Sun last Sunday published an article, "Edge from a wedge," about how "wedge" issues - those that can sharply divide voters and motivate larger that expected turnout - might affect the U.S. Senate race in Maryland.

The writer, Melissa Harris, attempted to send emails or phone messages to the 29 declared candidates in that race asking whether they favored or opposed possible congressional action on three wedge issues currently in the news.

Harris asked the candidates to respond yes or no to these questions. Should Congress increase the federal minimum wage from $5.15 an hour? Should Congress pass federal legislation or a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage? Should Congress overturn the ban on federal funding for research on new embryonic stem cell lines?

Ideas section editor Larry Williams said: "The article and chart were designed to complement our news reporting on the Senate race. The chart was a means to offer the many candidates a chance to succinctly share with voters their views on issues now dividing the Congress. The questions were framed to facilitate yes or no responses. It is a newspaper's responsibility to push candidates to be as clear and succinct as possible on pivotal issues."

By late Thursday evening, Aug. 3, 22 of the 26 queried candidates had responded. Nineteen, including all but one of the leading contenders, had provided yes or no answers. Three of the candidates, including Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, had declined to answer in the yes-no form. Their answers or decisions not to respond in that form were offered on the chart.

Reader G.T. Owen reacted to the chart: "I was astonished to read that Michael Steele declined to respond to questions about three current issues which were posed to Maryland U.S. Senate candidates by the state's major newspaper. "

In fact, Steele did respond. His press secretary, Doug Heye, sent general comments from Steele on the three issues via e-mail to Williams Thursday evening - just before the section was scheduled to go to press. Williams quickly summarized Steele's comments and inserted a paragraph into the article, ensuring that his views were on the record.

In retrospect, adding a sentence to the story explaining Steele's objections to the questions would have made things clearer for readers.

That evening, Williams told Heye by telephone that Steele's comments were not responsive and that yes-or-no answers were needed.

Heye told Williams that the candidate would not give one-word answers on complicated issues. Heye argued that yes-or-no responses "pigeon-holed the candidate's view to fit an arbitrary form."

Williams told Heye the newspaper respected Steele's right to respond in any way he liked but that it would be unfair to others who followed the yes-no format to allow Steele longer responses on the chart. As a result, Steele and two other candidates who declined to answer yes, no or undecided were listed in the chart with the line: Declined to respond in this form.

Last week, Steele decided not to answer a more substantial set of questions asked by The Sun's editorial board.

The Sun's editorial board recently sent out detailed questionnaires to all candidates in the 68 primary and general election races in the newspaper's circulation area. The questionnaires - which had a two-week response deadline - requested background on each candidate and their views on a variety of issues. They were tailored to each specific race, from governor, to congressional and legislative races down to state's attorney and county councils.

The questionnaires are used by members of the editorial board to monitor certain races. They are important in helping the board members assess candidates for endorsement. More than 230 candidates responded to the survey.

Steele, however, was not one of them.

The Sun reported on Aug. 8 that his campaign had decided not to return the editorial board's questionnaire but had instead posted the document with Steele's answers on its campaign Web site. Calling the decision a way to submit his views directly to the voters "unfiltered and without bias," Steele demonstrated his determination to avoid contact with the newspaper's editorial pages.

On his Web site, Steele makes reference to a 2002 Sun editorial that said he brought little to the Republican gubernatorial ticket but the "color of his skin." In my view, citing that editorial demonstrates the continued strained relations between Steele and the board. It also signals that Steele may use that editorial as its own "wedge" issue against the newspaper.

Will this situation affect Sun readers? It will if it becomes a distraction for reporters and editors who are trying to focus coverage on issues and the track records of all the candidates. The newspaper needs to be vigilant to ensure that this does not happen.

Paul Moore's column appears Sundays.

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