Wehby, Merkley and a cowardly newspaper in Oregon

The Oregonian, Portland’s no-longer-daily newspaper, recently exhibited the sort of editorial cowardice that is symptomatic of an industry in decline.

The paper’s editorial board chose not to endorse in Oregon’s U.S. Senate race between Democratic Sen. Jeff Merkley and Republican Dr. Monica Wehby. It printed a non-endorsement endorsement.

The Oregonian doesn’t like Merkley because he’s a progressive Democrat. It doesn’t like Wehby because … well because she’s just that terrible of a candidate.

Watching Wehby’s campaign implode has been fascinating. Just a few months ago, George Will held her up as the sort of strong female candidate Republicans need, and proclaimed her slogan, “Keep your doctor/Change your senator,” the best bumper sticker of the year. The Oregonian itself endorsed her in the primary.

Then came the police reports of stalking filed by her ex-boyfriend and ex-husband, the two plagiarism incidents, and her hiding from the media and debates.

Monica Wehby

Monica Wehby

Most embarrassing of all for everyone who jumped on the Wehby bandwagon early, is that she proved a complete policy lightweight. Perhaps she’s a good doctor, but on the substantive issues people might expect their senator to be versed in, Wehby is out of her depth.

Even a partisan editorial board could not endorse her. Well, at least not The Oregonian’s.

Merkley will win, Wehby presumably will go back to neurosurgery, and The Oregonian will continue its sad slide into irrelevance.

The Oregonian is not the only newspaper that eschews controversial endorsements. In Virginia last year, few papers could bring themselves to endorse über-conservative Ken Cuccinelli, or his challenger Democrat Terry McAuliffe, in the race for governor. Newspapers have written none-of-the-above endorsements in congressional and even presidential races in recent years. Columbia Journalism Review has a good report on the papers that are abandoning editorials — and the few returning to them.

Some editors and publishers fear that anything controversial will lead to canceled subscriptions, hastening their doom. Others simply don’t want to deal with phone calls and emails from irate readers And still others think they somehow demonstrate wisdom and nuance by beind fearfully neutral. They have weighed the options and found both sides wanting, so they choose not to decide.

If only voters had that luxury. Individually, they can under-vote. But unless they do so en masse (including convincing the candidates, their friends and family not to vote), someone will emerge victorious on Election Day, or after a recount.

I’ve written editorials for newspapers for more than 15 years. One of my first editors had a philosophy that stuck with me. “If the voters have to decide, we have to decide,” he’d say. We endorsed in almost every contested race from president down to the local library board.

Sometimes we didn’t like any of the candidates, and we’d say so. Then we’d hold our noses and recommend the one who was least bad.

The Oregonian lacked that courage. (And it’s not like the Wehby-Merkley race has two bad options. Merkley actually is quite good.)

Sometimes the best candidate isn’t even a Democrat or Republican. In its haste not to endorse, The Oregonian ignored three candidates in the race. The Pacific Green, Libertarian and Constitution candidates might be long shots to win, but if the major party candidates were so bad, they at least deserved consideration.

There’s a case to be made that newspaper editorials, and endorsements in particular, are an anachronism, that they don’t influence readers or public policy, that they are “nothing but a propagandistic ploy.” It’s not a view I share, but it’s certainly a discussion worth having.

But if newspapers do decide to print editorials and endorse candidates, they should do so boldly. Waffling and hand wringing wastes everyone’s time.

Christian Trejbal is a freelance editorial writer, editor and political consultant based in Portland, Ore. He wrote exclusively for The (Bend) Bulletin and The Roanoke Times before founding Opinion in a Pinch. He serves on the board of directors of the Association of Opinion Journalists Foundation and is open government chairman. Follow him on Twitter @ctrejbal and facebook.

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