Freedom of the press — and responsibilities

How the hell does a newspaper step into a race like this without making everybody angry and making things worse?

BRATTLEBORO — I can speak only for myself, but I bet other newspaper editors - and particularly editors of editorial pages and op-ed sections like this one - share my perspective that our political landscape is forcing us to question and re-evaluate how we cover political races and what we choose to present in these pages under the guise of opinion and commentary.

My current conundrum: To what extent do readers have the right, and to what extent do I have an ethical obligation as your editor, to shine a light on what a potential candidate thinks and how she communicates? And to what extent is that amplifying potential misinformation and misunderstanding? How best should we editors contextualize this information? What constitutes putting a thumb on the scale?

Those choices came to a head last week when I started looking at some contributions about the Windham-1 race. As I was working on a piece submitted by the Republican Party candidate, Nancy Gassett, I started fielding emails from people who were calling into question a piece that she had just published in the very-much-right-of-center website True North Reports.

As it happens, I was working on the same piece.

The people writing me - who are among Gassett's would-be constituents - believe it was fundamentally wrong. I did check the accuracy of the quotes, but the piece challenges the constitutional muster of legislation that her opponent, incumbent Sara Coffey, has supported over her four years in the Legislature.

The people contacting me were even more upset at a campaign brochure that had hit their mailboxes last week. When they sent over scans, I saw one of the most surprising and appalling displays of nasty, name-calling invective against Coffey, that I've ever seen in Windham County in my 15 years of editing this newspaper.

Over the years, I have found Coffey, a Democrat, to be a smart and thoughtful member of the community who is measured, even, direct, and fair, and she has received good grades from a number of people in her district, including many who probably don't see eye to eye with her on a number of issues. She has run a campaign whose supporters took such a high road that one would have been hard pressed to realize that she was even facing an opponent.

I have had nothing but the most cordial and friendly personal correspondence with Gassett. But that stands in the starkest contrast to her campaign's and her supporters' accusations against Coffey - accusations that read like they came from Revolutionary War cosplay via fifth-grade history textbooks published in the 1950s.

I have the highest respect for anyone who has the resolve and the desire to run for elected office, anyone who has the strength and integrity to promote and defend ideas and convictions. In Vermont, politics is more intimate and deeply personal. This debate is not worthy of good people, and I believe - I hope - that outside influence and national right-wing political headwinds are responsible for bringing out the worst in neighbors who otherwise would never think of saying this stuff to each others' faces.

What on earth are we doing here? Have we lost any connection to the days when we can just sit down and talk to one another? And have we lost sight of the fact that if elected officials in a democracy can't or won't do just that, the whole thing just stops working?

And sitting here, I wonder: How the hell does a newspaper step into a race like this without making everybody angry and making things worse?

Well - I guess we'll find out. Here I go.

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At its best, a good community newspaper will reflect the conversation that's happening in the community and also drive it forward, and I love seeing differences of opinion reflected in these pages.

But we also have to factor in the wisdom, fairness, and outright danger of giving voice to candidates who subscribe to politics that goes beyond honest difference of opinion into the realm of thoughtlessness, cruelty, racism, anti-Semitism, dehumanization, extreme sexism, and sheer, provable untruths - delusions at best, bald-faced lies at worst. In some cases, this difference of opinion takes the form of fever dreams of outright fascism, of the sort we saw in Washington on Jan. 6, 2021.

In the meantime, this issue marks our last before Election Day 2022, and with the clock ticking, I want to err on the side of giving voters in Windham-1 a chance to see this conversation in its entirety. I am, still with some obvious discomfort, publishing Gassett's commentary here. I've also received a candidate statement from Coffey.

I'm also running a piece by outgoing Sen. Jeanette White, who also took issue with the factual underpinnings in Gassett's commentary when it appeared in True North Reports. White, though obviously bringing her own politics to the table, also has some degree of authority in directly countering the candidate's assertions from a lawmaker's perspective.

I love newspapers as an agent of helping people articulate honest difference of opinion, and I hope in some small way that the way we are framing this array of vastly different perspective will give readers food for thought. I hope readers will look at this material critically and thoughtfully and with respect.

In the end, all I want is to be fair to everyone, to help people make their best arguments with accuracy regardless of my own opinions.

In the end, all I want is what I think everyone here wants - to get at the truth.

* * *

As we wind down this election cycle, I am looking forward to some new and different approaches for how The Commons will handle elections in the years to come.

I also must admit that although we have published some good stories along the way, the 2022 elections deserved more focused, consistent coverage in our news sections. This particular local House race became one of the many worthy stories that slipped away from us.

But I am happy to tell you that if plans hold, starting soon we'll have a writer assigned to cover the 2024 election and how it will play out through Windham County. I also will evaluate how we handle candidate profiles fairly, how we handle contributions to Voices, whether the current formats of election letters are in our readers' best interest, and figure out more ways about how this newspaper can reflect and support our political processes in the most constructive of ways.

I don't have the answers yet - I don't even know if there even are answers, given the challenges and changes we face to our democracy on a national level. Everything in local politics has changed.

For those of us who believe in newspapers and their role in sustaining community, we will have to step up and cover these changes with fresh eyes, open minds, and clear resolve if we are going to have the community that we deserve.

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