Public Editor

Evaluate politicians’ positions against reality, say readers

Donald Trump
Donald Trump File photo

Journalists have a responsibility to hold elected officials accountable for their statements of policy versus their real-life actions. There are few areas where that charge is more important than in how the U.S. military is deployed.

I have heard from many readers throughout President Barack Obama’s presidency who have called for The Kansas City Star to keep tabs on troop levels in countries such as Iraq and Syria, and compare them to Obama’s statements.

When a reporter asked State Department spokesman John Kirby about Obama’s call for “no boots on the ground” in Syria, Kirby said: “And there was never this — you know, there was never this, ‘no boots on the ground.’ I don't know where this keeps coming from.”

Well, he might want to start with the White House Office of the Press Secretary’s transcript of the president’s Sept. 10, 2013 address: “My answer is simple: I will not put American boots on the ground in Syria.”

Yes, I know Kirby and reporters have quibbled about what extent of troop involvement constitutes those boots, and defensible conclusions can be drawn from both sides.

But it’s key that the questions are posed, so that journalists and the public alike can evaluate the answers. “That’s why you’re there,” said one recent caller. “You’re in the room, so you’re the only ones that can ask the questions when they can’t say, ‘Oh, I lost your email,’ or ‘I had to many calls to call you back.’” (This sounds like an involved constituent to me.)

Readers also remind me that they look to the media to vet candidates as they run for office. I’ve talked to many who felt The Star and other sources don’t delve deeply enough into prospective office holders’ backgrounds so that voters can make informed decisions.

“None of my friends understand how important the people we elect to (the statehouse) are, even more important than who we send to Washington,” said one caller recently. “Why don’t you tell people they have to worry a lot more about what these nincompoops in Jeff City are up to? Do an exposé on where they come from, before they get there.” I can’t argue with that idea.

Many officials elected to state offices have never held public office before. How do voters evaluate what they’re likely to do without a voting record?

Now take this question to the national stage and look at the likely nomination of Donald Trump to the Republican presidential ticket.

It’s not entirely unprecedented for a major party candidate to be seeking the presidency as a first elected office. Presidents Zachary Taylor, Ulysses S. Grant and Dwight D. Eisenhower had never been part of national politics, though each had extensive military experience.

Trump has neither a political nor a military pedigree — and that institutional inexperience seems to be a big part of his appeal.

So instead, journalists must focus on his history and rhetoric during the campaign.

I have heard from some Trump backers chagrined at reports in The Star of high-profile Republicans’ objections to his policy statements and personal style. But in many ways, that’s all journalists have.

When he mocks and impersonates a physically disabled reporter, and then claims he doesn’t know the man, that’s undoubtedly fair game. Though it may not have a direct public policy implication, it is certainly a window onto the candidate’s temperament.

When he proposes a wall between the U.S. and Mexico — a venture the Brookings Institution calls “really dangerous” — it’s the duty of the press to talk to experts and evaluate the feasibility of those grandiose plans.

It’s a whole new ballgame with a candidate like Trump in the GOP driver’s seat. The next few months will bring a host of journalism questions none of us can foresee.