As night follows day, I knew Monday's sentencing of Congressman Chaka Fattah to 10 years in prison would generate a firestorm of comments implicating the Inquirer and Daily News in Fattah's betrayal of the public trust.
Sure enough, when Fattah's sentence was announced, the Philly.com commentariat declared that both news outlets should be hanging our heads in shame because, after all, we endorsed him! I can't tell how how many times this response – Your fault! You endorsed him/her! — dominates the comments sections of stories detailing the latest lawmaker to be indicted or sentenced on corruption charges.
Actually, that's not true, I can tell you: Every. Single. Time. Kathleen Kane? Our fault. LeAnna Washington? Our fault. Vince Fumo? John Perzel? Yup, we did it. We endorsed these criminals, so that must make us practically co-conspirators. Right? Well, not exactly.
I have presided over the endorsement process for the Daily News for over a decade. Here's how it works (I can't speak for my colleagues at the Inquirer, but I do know they, and news organizations elswhere, follow a similar pattern).
Before meeting with candidates, we research their records and backgrounds. Then we ask them pointed questions, and not just about the issues that appear in soundbites on their websites or commercials. Often, opposing candidates are invited in together, so we can challenge both at the same time. Then we deliberate, and make our choice.
We believe that even if the choices aren't great, it's our responsibilty to make an endorsement anyway. To make no endorsement is to say "don't vote for either," which is too close to saying "don't vote." And we would never suggest that not voting is an option.
Sometimes candidates challenging an incumbent are smart and promising, and sometimes they're not. But we always give these earnest candidates a full hearing, because they represent democracy in action. Here's an ugly truth, though: Too often, people running for office aren't serious contenders. Some don't show up for endorsement meetings, or don't respond to phone calls. Others that do show are clearly unqualified, or seem to have no clue about the function of the office they're running for.
That goes for both Republicans and Democrats. Both parties often put forth token candidates with no real hope of challenging a powerful incumbent. We don't like that situation any more than you do. In fact, we have repeatedly made the point that the Democratic and Republican machines in this city have become lazy and moribund, more interested in holding onto power than representing the people – whether in the highest offices in the city or in enclaves like the parking authority. All that spells a broken democracy. But we didn't break it. And like you, we're not buying it.