Joni Ernst at AgriVision in Ankeny, IA.
State Senator Joni Ernst (R-Red Oak) speaks at a campaign event at AgriVision in Ankeny, IA

The big news of the Iowa U.S. Senate race is that State Senator Joni Ernst (R-Red Oak) skipped out on her scheduled sit-down with the Des Moines Register editorial board.

“Recent editorials in The Des Moines Register make their position in this race perfectly clear, and it’s one that many voters across our state seem to disagree with,” Ernst spokesman Gretchen Hamel told the Register. “With less than 12 days to go, time is precious and Joni wants to spend every minute talking to undecided voters, hearing their concerns, and demonstrating why we need a change in Washington.”

“We were disappointed by the Ernst camp’s decision to not spend an hour with the editorial board and share her vision for our state and the rest of the country. This has been an incredibly nasty, competitive race where both sides have spent millions and aired tens of thousands of TV spots,” said Des Moines Register Publisher Rick Green in a released statement. “Undecided voters I talk to want Sen. Ernst to break through the rhetoric and cacophony of campaign ads about hogs, Obamacare and balanced budgets. It’s a time for sharing specifics. It’s a chance to have a serious conversation about vision, priorities, the economy, national security, foreign relations and Social Security. I’m not angry she snubbed the Des Moines Register editorial board, which is in final deliberations about our Senate endorsement. It truly isn’t about us. We wanted to discuss the future of the state and allow Joni Ernst to share insights and specific responses to the concerns and questions of Iowans and voters. It’s unfortunate that cannot happen.”

Des Moines Register liberal columnist Rekha Basu took to Facebook and said:

Is Joni Ernst afraid of newspaper editorial boards? After much negotiating, she was scheduled to meet his morning with writers and editors at The Des Moines Register, but last night her people called to unilaterally cancel. She has also begged off meetings with The Cedar Rapids Gazette and The Dubuque Telegraph-Herald.

Is Ernst that sensitive to the kinds of criticisms that invariably will come in such a high profile U.S. Senate race? Is she afraid of the scrutiny? Sure, it’s stressful, but all the other candidates for Congress are doing it to get their messages out, including Steven King, the target of frequent editorial criticism. Would Ernst similarly thumb her nose at the press in the Senate, if elected?

Some thoughts on this….

First, to the Des Moines Register editorial board… join the club.  Her campaign has been very stingy since even before the primary who they interview with.  Caffeinated Thoughts was unable to do an interview with her even before the primary where I admit it would have provided more value for her campaign than an interview leading up to the general election.  I know WHO Radio Morning host Jan Mickelson has been in the same boat.  That has been an issue of personal frustration which I fault the campaign more than I fault the candidate.  I think it is a bad strategy.  In my case I’ve heard via the grapevine that Caffeinated Thoughts and Mickelson have been deemed “too risky.”  I find that ridiculous.  I see it as a missed opportunity, particularly before the primary, to reach the base.

Second, I generally don’t recommend a candidate skip out on media opportunities.  Especially when those interviews are made available unfiltered.  I’m not a fan of stories, media outlets, that only report pieces of interviews which is probably what happens in the print version of the DMR.  The Register does include their interviews, in their entirely, online however.  Interviews with mainstream media and new media like Caffeinated Thoughts are helfpul in giving voters more information about a candidate.  Voters, however, need to make sure they seek information and don’t depend on commercials (that topic could be blog post in and of itself).  Rick Green is right that independent voters and undecided voters could benefit from lengthy interviews.  As far as Basu’s question whether Ernst is somehow afraid of scrutiny.  If that were the case she’d skip out on debates as well.  Ernst is not thumbing her nose at the press, she’s thumbing her nose at an editorial board with a bias that is on record… it’s too bad Basu doesn’t see the distinction.

Third, I can’t be sympathetic with a media outlet that has taken positions that are polar opposite than the candidate and have been openly critical of that candidate and then wonder why the candidate won’t do the interview. I don’t expect liberal candidates to want to interview with me.  I’ve been unable to interview Governor Branstad and I’m sure that is due to my criticism of his education policy.  I get it, par for the course.  The DMR editorial board has a liberal bias and bent. Sure they have endorsed some Republican candidates in the past.  Those candidates, by and large, have been deemed centrist, moderate or running against a largely incompetent incumbent or candidate or are an incumbent that has been fairly under the radar on positions the DMR disagrees with. For instance, they endorsed David Young, in Iowa’s 3rd Congressional District race, but they labeled him a centrist, pragmatic and pretty much said Staci Appel doesn’t have a handle on the issues – not exactly an endorsement of Republican ideals and policies. Also I find it interesting that in Iowa’s 1st Congressional District they endorsed the liberal, Pat Murphy, when the local newspapers in the district endorsed Rod Blum. I wouldn’t consider The Cedar Rapids Gazette or Dubuque Telegraph Herald to be conservative media outlets by any stretch of the imagination.

Fourth, newspaper endorsements don’t carry the same weight than what they used to. In some respects, like with The Des Moines Register, an endorsement could actually be harmful. I don’t think an endorsement from them helps Ernst and frankly would probably hurt with some of her base who may be reluctantly voting for her.  So why do the interview, especially when you think it’s going to be stacked against you.  The Register’s declining circulation makes it less and less influential every election cycle.

If the Des Moines Register want to be treated seriously by Republican candidates they need to reconsider the make-up of their editorial board. and I don’t mean stack it with conservatives.  Think more members like Kathie Obradovich and less people like Rekha Basu.  Then perhaps you’ll have an editorial board that Republicans and right-of-center independents will pay attention to.  Right now, with the current make-up, what’s the point?  Maybe more Republican candidates should boycott until they get the message.

The only ones making a big deal out of Joni Ernst skipping out on this interview are media outlets, Democrats and the Register itself.  This won’t make any difference in Iowa’s U.S. Senate race.

Update: I just read Chris Cillizza’s piece at The Washington Post.  I agree with his analysis until the very end.

As a strong believer in the media’s role in educating the public about the candidates — who they are and what they really think — this is a depressing conclusion.  No partisan media outlet will vet a candidate in the way a non-partisan one does. But, judging from the conclusions above, it seems likely that there will be lots more people who follow Ernst’s blueprint in future campaigns. Smart for them. Bad for democracy.

This is making a huge assumption that The Des Moines Register and other “mainstream” media outlets are “non-partisan.”  Do newspapers need editorial boards or need to offer an opinion to educate the public about candidates?  Nope.

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