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Pyle: It's not personal, only policy

Published November 2, 2012 6:08 pm

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

"It's not personal, Sonny. It's strictly business." — Michael Corleone, "The Godfather"

Over the past four years, the Our View editorials on this page have advocated for such things as stricter air quality rules, federal fiscal stimulus programs, tightened regulations on Wall Street, a more progressive tax structure, humane immigration policies that make special allowances for people brought here as small children and an end to the war in Iraq.

We held out a great deal of hope that the Affordable Care Act could be successful, arguing that Utah and other states should fully participate in its implementation rather than wage symbolic war against it.

Those are policy choices that were not always the most popular among many of our readers in conservative Utah. And those readers did not hesitate to tell us so, on the phone, in online comments and in letters to The Public Forum.

But those editorials did not garner worldwide attention and local disgust. They didn't lead to requests from such major worldwide journalism players as the BBC and Al Jazeera to interview members of our staff. They didn't touch off a slug of "cancel-my-subscription" letters.

No, all that had to wait for the Oct. 21 editorial endorsing the re-election of President Barack Obama. That's the editorial that followed logically from the editorial positions we had taken over the whole of Obama's term. And it was the first one that a great many people actually noticed.

The editorial struck a lot of folks — most of whom don't read this page — as highly counterintuitive. They were shocked that the largest newspaper in the state where Republican candidate Mitt Romney has so many ties, via his membership in the locally headquartered Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and his management of the 2002 Winter Olympics, would not back Romney for president.

To us it was, to paraphrase Michael Corleone, not personal. It's strictly policy. Yet, the fact that such a thought process seemed to shock so many people means that to many readers, voters, even journalists, the personal is all that matters.

The many low-information voters that democracy struggles with can be expected to think this way. They back a person, or a party, or a faith or a race, because real policy considerations are too complicated and, frankly, mired in a lot of lies and obfuscations.

Incumbents benefit from a confirmation bias of voters who don't want to admit they made a mistake last time. Challengers gain by personifying discontent and promising wholesale change unburdened by real world limitations.

What's troubling is the trend among newspaper editors and media critics to suggest that election endorsements are a bad idea for newspapers because they undermine a newspaper's institutional image of independence. That's only true if all concerned are fixated on the person and ignore the policy.

An editorial expressing a view on which candidate would do a better job in office is no more damaging to a publication's reputation than are all the other editorial views expressed on the other days of the year.

An endorsement editorial is no more likely to cross the blood-brain barrier dividing the editorial page from news reporting than every other editorial we write on tax, environmental, education or foreign policy.

And no more likely to skew future editorials. Unless, of course, a newspaper's editorial board falls into the trap of feeling an obligation to defend or excuse every policy decision taken by the endorsed candidate out of a misguided sense of loyalty, or a need to rationalize.

Unless, in other words, we make the mistake of making it personal.

George Pyle, a Tribune editorial writer, can actually be quite personable. Contact him at gpyle@sltrib.com or facebook.com/stateofthedebate.