Winders: When informed silent, ill-informed get stage

Paul Mayne // Western News

After spending most of his journalism career in The States, most recently as executive editor of the Athens (Ga.) Banner-Herald, Winders joined Western’s Masters in Environment and Sustainability program in 2009, and then the Western News as its editor in 2010.

It drove some people absolutely mad.

Newspaper endorsements. Something about an editor (more precisely an editorial board) taking a stand in favour of a candidate set off some readers – usually those whose candidate was shunned. Never mind every other day the newspaper offered an opinion on what movie to see, how to cook a turkey, how to dress better, score a date or play a certain golf course, why their favourite team’s manager was an idiot and every other issue in the community.

Something about elections got people feisty. And that is fine.

But it doesn’t mean newspapers should hide from their responsibility.

Once, cities boasted dozens of newspapers tailored to every political taste across the spectrum. Nobody had to read an opinion counter to their own. But economic collapse, corporate consolidation and competition from other media reduced those numbers in just a few decades. Soon, most cities had only one significant newspaper – and their endorsements became a bigger target among fewer voices.

But the practice has been dying. In its last survey on the matter, Editor & Publisher showed almost 70 per cent of American newspapers in 1996 did not endorse a U.S. presidential candidate, as opposed to 13 per cent during the 1940 election cycle. And the numbers have trended downward since – except for this year. For one rather large, bloviating reason, newspapers have returned to endorsing presidential candidates.

For the most part, most newspapers play it safe. They avoid partisan politics at the risk of offending; they would happily go along with their work without being challenged; they have fought back against a lot of conversation about their decreased utility in individual lives. Who needs a newspaper when there are so many other routes to knowing things?

For those of us in universities, those struggles sound quite familiar.

Perhaps that is why I wondered where university voices had been in this recent U.S. presidential election. If this is as important a moment as we are told, if this man is as dangerous as he seems to be, surely our scholarly elite would have been outspoken. But that just isn’t so.

So far, only one university president has made a presidential endorsement. Jerry Falwell Jr. of Liberty University announced his support of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump and drew the ire of his student body.

Now, Falwell has his own baggage as the seed of the Rev. Jerry Falwell, the late segregationist, homophobe, Teletubbie outer and “Chaucerian fraud,” as the late Christopher Hitchens so beautifully branded him. Daddy was a deeply flawed presidential hopeful in 2000; no surprise the son backs another one 16 years later.

But while wrongheaded and unpopular, the stand Li’l Falwell took is still interesting in that he took it.

Like newspapers, the academic world has abandoned its public intellectual role when it comes to politics – either out of timidity, arrogance or a strange combo of the two. We are too concerned about offending one side during this election cycle and then having to work with them if they win. In a way, that is too bad.

Now, nobody wants a university president taking a candidate stand for the entire institution. But where are the voices speaking publically for themselves or as a collective group of scholars?

I have been disappointed in the silence.

Admittedly, I miss the era of the public academic unafraid to lead with their voice and opinion. Universities are the intellectual leaders of the society and, part of that, should be taking a political stand when it is called for. There have been a few targeted demonstrations, but far from a groundswell.

For the most part, there has been public silence from the halls of academia.

I know newspaper endorsements are uncomfortable and unpopular. But I argued for years with publishers and corporate masters that these stands are a necessary piece of a healthy democracy. I see the same responsibility within universities. When the most informed among us stay silent, the ill-informed tend to dominate the conversation.