Way back in the 90s, I put a Sam Katz for Mayor sign in my Philadelphia window. To my recollection, it is the only political sign I have ever put out, if you don’t count my old “don’t blame me, I voted for Perot” bumper sticker.
Sam Katz was a republican candidate running for mayor in a Democrat town. Ed Rendell had run his two terms and up next on the Democratic ticket was John Street, a bully of a City Councilman who’d decided to throw his name in the ring. The city was still (yes) reeling from W. Wilson Goode’s two terms in office and finally getting over Frank Rizzo. Katz came out of nowhere and ran a solid campaign, convincing the city’s intelligentsia, and moreover, the editorial board of the left-leaning Philadelphia Inquirer.
The Inky endorsing a Republican candidate for mayor was the east coast equivalent of a magnitude 8 earthquake, and it left the Philadelphia Daily News editorial board in a bit of a pinch. The Inquirer had leaned left for so long that this shift caught everyone by surprise. The News pulled their endorsement editorial and sat on it for a week, during which the editorial board decided to endorse Street. Street went on to win the election, and by all measures was a good mayor for the city during his terms.
Some time after the election, the editor of the Daily News was interviewed about the endorsement of Street, and opened pointed out that endorsing Katz as they had wanted to do would not sell papers. Endorsing Street was news on many levels. First, it made a race out of the contest. Second, Street was a character – he sported a big afro with a white Bride-of-Frankenstein streak and kept a fleet of conversion vans and ATVs on his Overbrook property – and was known to lose his cool in Council meetings. Third, brother Milton Street was a multiply-convicted felon, so there was opportunity for scandal. And fourth, the flip-flop of positions by the two papers was news in and of itself. By holding their endorsement editorial, they kept the discussion of the papers’ roles in city politics at the forefront of discussion, selling a ton of papers on that news alone. Street’s personality was good for at least one feature a week. Milton stayed out of trouble for the most part. The race was on. Three out of four bets paid off. Papers sold, both from the News and from the Inquirer, too. Subscriptions at both papers went up.
It’s arguable whether the Daily News’ endorsement and coverage actually influenced the election – Street was a popular black councilman with well-honed skills in back-room city management, and Katz was a total outsider of the Ross Perot mould who tanked with the working class. All the wishful thinking in Chestnut Hill wasn’t going to get Katz elected, and Street swept the neighborhoods. To be clear: this is about the media using the candidate, not the influence the media had over the public. Papers sold. The two papers successfully (if unplanned) co-opted the election for themselves.
This co-opting is happening again in our entire US media. The demand for clicks is so high that our newsmedia is going for anything that will sell their content, regardless of what it looks like. This is scary, because Donald Trump is no John Street. He’s no Sam Katz, either, not by a long shot.
So, dear media, please stop worrying about selling clicks. They are coming to you regardless. But I need reporting, not clickbait. I need the deep analysis more than ever. I need you to treat politics like the future of our country, not the Kardashians. I need your editors to double down on the meaning of “fit to print”. Please. Now.