As our readers will learn in this anniversary issue, the Arkansas Times has appeared in many incarnations during its 30 years of existence. Our current weekly tabloid newspaper format debuted in 1992, mainly in response to the disappearance six months earlier of the Arkansas Gazette, which left Arkansas with only one statewide daily newspaper, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
Since that time, the Times has positioned itself as the primary alternative print news source in the state. We do not have the frequency, circulation or resources of the Democrat-Gazette. But if you want another local point of view - and, yes, we usually have a point of view - the Times is almost your only choice.
That said, another one of our self-appointed roles is that of Democrat-Gazette watchdog. After all, if we don't throw a penalty flag every once in a while, who will?
For instance, on Sept. 5 the Democrat-Gazette published the results of a questionnaire about gay marriage that was sent to the candidates for Arkansas's congressional seats this year. As the daily newspaper presented it, four questions were posed, and everyone's answers followed. In several instances, the words "didn't say" appeared next to a candidate's name. That seemed to indicate the candidate did not submit a response.
Turns out that is not exactly the case. Word filtered down to the Times that some participants in the survey were upset because they took the time to respond to the questionnaire, only to have their answers replaced with the words "didn't say." In the specific case of U.S. Rep. Vic Snyder, his apparent refusal to respond to one of the questions became fodder for an attack by his opponent - which subsequently was covered as a straight news item in the Democrat-Gazette.
Bill Simmons, the Democrat-Gazette's political editor who supervised the project, says that he applies the same policy to the questionnaires as he does to any interview. That is, there is never a guarantee that every word will be recounted in an article, and a journalist reserves the right to decide which comments are relevant. He also said that some of the responses did not directly answer the question or were too long to print in full.
Those are legitimate points, but it doesn't explain why a newspaper would say someone "didn't say" when in fact they did say. They may not have said with a directness or relevance or economy of words that the Democrat-Gazette would have liked, but it was inaccurate to say they didn't say at all.
Why not print the answer and let the readers decide for themselves? Or, if the actual responses are too dangerous for public consumption, the Democrat-Gazette could insert an editor's note explaining that, in its opinion, the candidate did not directly answer the question and so the answer provided would not be printed.
Such is the power of the Democrat-Gazette that only one candidate agreed to talk on the record about his concerns. John Boozman, the Third District congressman and a Republican, said that he found it "curious" that one of his answers to the questions about gay marriage was purged and replaced with "didn't say." He also said that if the Democrat-Gazette thought that his answer was not good enough, he wished they would have told him why and given him a chance to submit a better response.
Boozman's office provided his missing answer for illustration:
Q: Should marriage be defined as a union between one man and one woman? If so, why? If not, why not?
A: Marriage has always been defined as the union between one man and one woman and this is the way a vast majority of Americans believe it should be defined.
Did he answer the question? You decide. But you can't say he "didn't say."
Snyder's case was similar to Boozman's, except that three of his four answers were replaced with "didn't say." This prompted his challenger, State Rep. Marvin Parks, to excoriate him for failing to address the gay marriage issue. Or, as a Sept. 11 news article by Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reporter Seth Blomeley put it:
"Earlier this week, Parks criticized Snyder for not answering questions about gay marriage posed by an Arkansas Democrat-Gazette questionnaire as part of its coverage of issues leading up to the Nov. 2 election.
"Snyder later agreed to speak with the Democrat-Gazette in more detail on the subject."
Here is the recap: Snyder answered a Democrat-Gazette questionnaire about gay marriage. Without being offered an opportunity for elaboration or clarification, his responses were replaced with "didn't say." His opponent attacked him for not answering the questions. The Democrat-Gazette published a news article about the attack, without mentioning that they were responsible for not printing his answers in the first place. And then they said Snyder finally agreed to talk to them about the issue.
After a good discussion, Simmons said that "maybe we could have been clearer" in explaining what "didn't say" actually meant.
Several more questionnaires are slated for publication before the election, and after opening with a slate of social issues like abortion, religion, gun control, gay marriage, and the death penalty, the Democrat-Gazette promises to bring us the candidates' views on less important issues, like the economy, the war in Iraq, education, and health care.