Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Election Afterthoughts

The front page of our election issue, on 
which we labored
so long and hard 
Tuesday night.
So Winston Churchill is often credited with saying something like "Democracy is the absolute worst form of government, except for all the others" and it is on Election Night that this quote most often haunts my thoughts.

This is not to say that it is a reflection of any particular candidate or race that I covered last night, although for the record I will allow myself the boast that I wrote up results for five.

(Reporter Frank Otto may have done even more, but let him write about this in his own blog!)

Rather, the quote makes me think about the wondrous and awful aspects of elections.

They are, in many cases, popularity contests. This means that the best, most intelligent or most experienced candidate does not always win, which might sound awful at first.

But in the 25 years or so I've been covering elections, I've come to realize that sometimes the best leader is not the smartest, or the most intelligent or the most experienced.

More wondrous to me, or perhaps I should say wonderful, is that there are still people out there who are willing to engage in public service at all.

There are fewer more thankless jobs than that of local elected official.

First of all, they get beat up in the press.

You're welcome.

Secondly, they get calls at all hours of the day and night; stopped in the grocery store; assailed on parent-teacher night from righteously outraged taxpayers who often labor under the illusion that they "pay your salary," and thus have the right to berate them over whatever complaint they are here to register.

In point of fact, most elected officials do not get paid, or if they do, it is in an inverse relationship to the amount of work they do for very little money.

Further, good governance is most often ignored or unrecognized, while bad governance is criticized and shouted from the roof-tops.

As a person who is paid to be one of the shouters, I make no apologies.

It is our role as an independent watchdog to do this. But this does not mean I am not sympathetic to the conditions under which the people about whom we are shouting must labor.

To be sure, there are no shortage of people who run for office for the most venal of reasons; for reasons of ego, or power, or a desire to protect their own interests or those of their friends.

And often enough, those motives become evident soon enough -- so long as someone is watching and can spread the word (the press).

But there is also no shortage of people who are civic-minded. Some decide to run to fix a perceived problem, or right a perceived wrong. Many run simply because they want to serve.

And as I sit here at 2:20 a.m., poking away at my computer keyboard, a well-deserved cocktail at my left hand (all of which might explain the rambling nature of this post), it occurs to me that all of those people deserve a tip of the hat for throwing their hat into the ring in the first place.

Since I'm in a quoting mood, allow me to present one of my favorites from Teddy Roosevelt:
"It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better.
The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat."
This is what it often means to be in public service.

But there are fewer and fewer it often seems.

It sure is easy to cover an uncontested race, but I don't think its terribly good for a healthy democracy.

Some may see as a sign of a contented public.

A natural cynic, I usually see it as a sign of a complacent one.

Pottstown had three uncontested council races this year.

There was no contest for the school board at all.

In Lower Pottsgrove, no contest.

In North Coventry, no contest.

In East Coventry, no contest.

Numerous boroughs had no contest for mayor and little or no contest for borough council.

It worries me to think that it is getting harder and harder to find people who "want to serve." They couldn't even find people to man two polling places in the borough.

But then there are bright spots.

There were races where upsets occurred or, like in the Collegeville Borough Council contest, a race so close that there was a tie for fourth place, with as little as three votes separating the winners.

An upset is not a good thing for its own sake. Often enough, worthy people who still have something valuable to contribute are tossed out of office for the flimsiest of reasons on a wave of voter resentment.

But big picture, I believe it is a good thing to keep the elected officials themselves from becoming too complacent; for them to recognize that however imperfect the public's understanding may be, they are still answerable to them.

Which brings us to the public's understanding.

To a large extent, that is the responsibility of myself and my colleagues in the media.

I would be lying if I told you I think we do a very good job of it.

I think we often do the best job we can under the circumstances, but that's not the same thing.

As a devotee of the history of early America, I know that the press enjoys certain privileges, privileges spelled out in the Bill of Rights, privileges it deserves only as long as it lives up to certain responsibilities.

The most important of these responsibilities, in my view, is informing the public about the issues and
candidates that will be decided at the polls.

Freedom of the press is not enshrined in the Constitution so that we have a right to cover car crashes, although they sure sell an awful lot of newspapers.

Freedom of the press is guaranteed on the Constitution so we can watch government and help inform voters.


Its the reason early newspapers were delivered free of postage; the reason that radio and then television were granted free access to control certain wavelengths of the public's airwaves, that we had a responsibility to inform the public and thus to maintain an informed electorate.

I will spare you the diatribe that might be unleashed here regarding the national media; and I will let radio and television speak for themselves.

Just one of many great newspapers that are no more.
In the newspaper business, we are in crisis. For the first time, we are trying to figure out how to stay profitable, or at least sustainable, in a changing media environment.

We are not volunteers. We do this for pay and, we hope, that results in a degree of professionalism and fairness which fulfills our Constitutional dictate.

But our industry's inability to adapt quickly to changing times has resulted in a widening hole into which things we should cover are falling unreported.

We did not cover the Collegeville, Royersford or Spring City council races until they were over. It's not because we didn't want to, its because we did not have the staff or resources to.

That's a reason, but not an excuse.

Whether our reasons are good or not, the voters of those communities went unserved.

If I were you, I would find that as worrisome as uncontested races.

It can't be good for our democracy, and for all our sakes, I hope we figure out a way to reverse this trend very soon.

Happy Election Day.



  1. Evan Brandt

    I've never thought I'd know one of those guys who would rip off their shirt down to the bare skin and start flogging their own backs with a multi strap whip. Maybe, Evan, you physically didn't do this but, in my mind, it's the first image that came across my mind as I read your morning's blog. 

    During my public life, I've lived many years across the divide from the printed news. Too often, I probably over spoke many times thinking that the press only quotes short statements not long dissertations so I  rambled on and on. Even now, when writing my own blog, The Posted Poet, I catch myself rambling on.

    You write so well that you're paid to write; I write for my own pleasure and post so others, so inclined, may follow. Your's is a success, mine's the opposite. 

    Pottstown needs to publicly compliment you for the fine job that you do. Please stick it out and stop flogging yourself so much. No matter how irrelevant you sometimes feel when reporting, just think, how irrelevant you'd really be if you had tried on the other shoe and had become a politician. 

    Ronald C. Downie

    1. If I had become a politician Ron, this country would be in REAL trouble.
      :) Thanks for the kind words as always.
      FYI, not flogging myself so much as worrying about the state of my industry and what I see as its eroding ability to carry out its most important Constitutional mission.