Herald Journal Columns
November 6, 2006 Herald Journal

Last-minute attacks: a peek inside McLeod Co. newsrooms


Last week, we printed several pieces on the Viewpoints page related to the McLeod County sheriff’s race.

This happened when the outgoing sheriff, Wayne Vinkemeier, personally delivered a last-minute attack letter, which was printed on McLeod County letterhead, to newspapers in McLeod County.

There are six newspapers in the county – Herald Journal, McLeod County Chronicle, Glencoe Enterprise, The Bulletin of Brownton and Stewart, Silver Lake Leader, and Hutchinson Leader – the latter of which prints twice a week (the rest are weeklies).

This week, I thought it would be interesting to write a follow-up about how each editor in McLeod County handled this ethical situation.

Before I do this, I would like to make two points:

1. As an editor, my objective is to present readers with as much relevant information as possible, in order for voters to make an informed decision at the ballot box, within a reasonable frame.

2. Ethics are an interesting realm, since it’s a blend of personal decisions, combined with what you feel is morally right or wrong. How each paper handled it depends on this, and may not necessarily be right or wrong.

Herald Journal

First, I’ll start with my response as an editor.

The letter arrived after deadline, while we were under production for our Oct. 30 issue.

My first reaction was angry exasperation at being forced into an unnecessary ethical situation of this nature.

I consider myself a bystander and observer in all the election races, whether they are negative or otherwise.

But when the sheriff showed up at my door – to my astonishment, since I always had a good relationship with Wayne and thought he was a nice guy – it forced me to make some hard decisions.

I perceived three different courses of action to take:

• If I followed tradition, the sheriff’s letter could be printed in the second-to-the-last issue (Oct. 30).

This would leave the issue of Monday, Nov. 6 (the day before election day) for a response from Scott Rehmann, who is the candidate running against the sheriff’s hand-picked candidate and chief deputy, Mark Taylor. Vinkemeier is retiring.

This seemed inherently unfair to me, and didn’t satisfy the time frame that voters require to make an informed decision. It wasn’t a level playing field at all.

What’s more, Scott Rehmann is a respected local man who has run a clean campaign. The claims in Vinkemeier’s letter didn’t seem credible to me.

When I went to college, professors taught us to give a one-week response for this type of thing. But that was in the 1980s, before the Internet became a way of life, etc.

Is that satisfying the mission of arming the voters with relevant information, by forcing them to conform to our long time frames?

Are weekly newspapers moving toward extinction, because we are handicapped by a time element in certain situations, such as the last week of the election?

We can’t afford to allow this to happen. We must remain as a competitive, relevant, and forward thinking resource for voters to use, if we are to stay in the game at all.

• I could ignore the letter altogether, tell the sheriff that it was past deadline and that it didn’t qualify for the last issue before election because of our last-minute attack policy.

If I did this, it’s possible he would pay for an ad, and get it in anyway, despite my attempts to cut off something I felt was unethical.

Besides this – and this breaks my heart to say it – but readers can’t always tell the difference between an ad and editorial copy.

• I could contact Scott Rehmann and give him a fair chance to respond to Vinkemeier’s letter.

This would give Herald Journal readers first-hand information, level the playing field once again, and scoop the other papers, too.

In the end, I decided to hold the Viewpoints pages over the weekend, contact Scott Rehmann, and run all the pieces together on one page that pertained to this issue, including Rehmann’s original letter to the Hutch Leader that sparked the debate in the first place.

That way, voters can read all the pertinent information in one place, at one time, and decide for themselves what they think.

I also wrote a strongly worded editorial based on my observations of this race. I don’t appreciate being dragged into someone else’s negative campaign in such a fashion.

The Hutchinson Leader

The Hutch paper received Vinkemeier’s letter Friday and printed it Tuesday, Oct. 31. They also received Scott Rehmann’s response to it over the weekend (their deadline is Friday), but held his letter for publication until Thursday.

This angered Rehmann supporters, who felt that Vinkemeier’s attack on Rehmann’s character was allowed to have a two-day life, since the newspaper actually held back Rehmann’s response at that same time.

Rehmann’s letter was turned in late. The Leader’s policy is that it will not print letters submitted after deadline, and that the issue before election is reserved for rebuttals or non-controversial issues only. It does not print letters on election day.

“The Leader avoids accusations in the last edition before the election by setting an early deadline,” reported Publisher Matt McMillan.

“The Thursday edition before election day is reserved for only those letters responding to new allegations from the Tuesday issue,” he added.

This adds an interesting dimension because the “rulebook” doesn’t say one way or the other what to do when you receive a rebuttal and then decide to hold it, purposely allowing an attack to take place, while simultaneously holding back the response at the same time.

One other point of discussion: if anyone knew that the last-minute attack would happen sooner, it probably would have been a pyschic reading of some kind, and the deadline could have been made properly?

McLeod County Chronicle

Editor Rich Glennie refused to run the last-minute attack letter due to a strict policy the Chronicle enforces.

“We rejected Sheriff Vinkemeier’s letter for two reasons: first, it raised new issues for the final issue before the election. Second, it addressed a letter to the editor that appeared in the Hutchinson Leader, and not in the Chronicle,” Glennie said.

Instead, the Chronicle suggested to Vinkemeier that he place an ad with the letter as content, which he did, as well as giving Rehmann the chance to place an ad.

Vinkemeier’s ad was later cancelled by the candidate (Taylor) the following Monday, after there was an outcry. Rehmann then cancelled his ad as well, which would have been his response letter.

Here is a note from editor Rich Glennie: “For the final issue before the election, we received about 25 letters, but ran only those that addressed specific letters from previous weeks.

“We stuck to our guns, and so far, no one has complained, or accused us of being biased. As to the Vinkemeier/Rehmann issue. It’s sad it happened, but politics are not always pretty.”

The Bulletin of Brownton and Stewart

Editor Lori Copler sent me this note: “I never received any letters to the editor from either Vinkemeier or Rehmann. I was supposed to have received Vinkemeier’s first letter endorsing Mark Taylor; he had submitted it to the Chronicle and asked that they pass it on to me, but no one notified me until it was too late.” (The same publishing group owns both the Chronicle and The Bulletin).

Silver Lake Leader

Publisher Ken Merrill chose not to run either of the letters, reported Editor Dorothy Merrill.

“We received both of them (Vinkemeier’s and Rehmann’s), but chose not to print either one,” she said.

Glencoe Enterprise

“I put in the letter from the sheriff, and the response letter to Sheriff Vinkemeier from Scott Rehmann,” reported Marlys Wacker of the Enterprise.

“I also received a letter to the editor from Mark Taylor, but I’m afraid I didn’t have room for that.

“I felt that Taylor already had his comments on why he wants to be sheriff in Thursday’s paper,” she added.

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