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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, October 27, 2002

Readers question our political coverage

By Jim Kelly
Advertiser Executive Editor

As the general election approaches, our political coverage attracts even more scrutiny from readers who want to make sure we're covering the candidates fairly.

Last week started with complaints about the Dining Out section in last Sunday's paper, not the first place you think of when you're looking for political coverage. The folks who produce Dining Out unwittingly wandered into a political minefield when they featured Democratic candidates Mazie Hirono and Matt Matsunaga on the cover of the section, celebrating the 20th anniversary of the Hungry Lion restaurant.

Dining Out is produced by our marketing department, not the newsroom, but I suspect that most readers don't know or particularly care. Readers saw the placement of Hirono and Matsunaga on the cover as a blatant example of bias.

I know the folks who produce Dining Out, and I know they weren't trying to push a political agenda along with the Hungry Lion's chicken katsu — they were trying to accommodate an advertiser. I'm sure it isn't going to swing the election.

On Thursday, some readers questioned how we covered a Linda Lingle fund-raiser. They thought it overemphasized the small protest surrounding the visit of Christie Todd Whitman, the head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, who was the keynote speaker.

The first quote in the story was from Matsunaga, the Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor, criticizing Whitman and the Bush administration for its environmental policies. That effectively put Lingle and the Republicans on the defensive for the rest of the story, and the news of how much money they raised and what Lingle and Whitman had to say became secondary.

As journalists, we are drawn to the conflict in stories because that is often where the news lies, especially after you've covered a few campaign events and their all-too-predictable platitudes. The protest and criticism of Whitman were a legitimate part of the story, but perhaps we gave it too much weight.

Our reporters and editors will face a similar challenge this week covering the two-day visit by former President Bill Clinton, who is campaigning for Democratic candidates across Hawai'i. Clinton is a charismatic guy who always makes for good copy, but he also attracts controversy like a porch light draws gnats. What will be the news — the fact of a former president's visit to four islands or the reactions to it?

A couple of callers complained about the mention of Lingle's religion in a profile of her running mate, Duke Aiona. The reporter, Dan Nakaso, was trying to describe how the demographics of the Lingle-Aiona ticket are a study in personal contrasts that would likely make it appealing to a broad cross-section of voters. I knew what Dan meant when I edited the story, but after it was published on Thursday, we both agreed that mentioning that Lingle is Jewish seemed out of place, and that we probably could have made the demographic point a bit more gracefully.

There also were some who questioned why we ran a long profile of U.S. Sen. Dan Inouye last Tuesday. The Democrat isn't up for election this year, and some questioned whether we were trying to send a subliminal message touting the Democrats.

The story was assigned months ago to our Washington bureau correspondent, but she was busy on other stories and only finished it now because of her impending reassignment to another beat. I thought it was an interesting glimpse into the work of our powerful but quiet senior senator. No secret agenda here — just an interesting story.