Sunday, January 28, 2007

Crazy Candidates' Free Press Pass

At times, I like to point out examples of bad or slanted reporting in the local news media. This isn't because I'm particularly mean, I just think sometimes I can provide perspective on issues that you don't normally see covered by reporters. However, I have found an issue that has caused me to sympathize with local media. That is; how do you cover candidates that are completely crazy?

I'm not talking "crazy" in the sense of "I disagree with every word they say," kind of crazy. Take the mayoral race here in Madison as a prime example. Will Sandstrom is once again running for mayor, and he is completely nuts. Seriously - somewhere there is an empty bed at a mental health facility crying out for him. During mayoral candidate debates, he is prone to long diatribes about his mother contracting gangrene, his father cooking moonshine, kids calling him "China Boy" growing up, his time dodging bullets in a Russian prison, and how he coined the term "Fish and Wildlife."

A 2003 State Journal piece on Sandstrom contained this gem:
In 1970, he tried to run for governor, insisting the Mafia had stolen the nation and was prolonging the Vietnam War to protect its drug trade. But when he tried to deliver nominating petitions, he said, he was arrested at the state Capitol for an outstanding parking ticket. He was disqualified over questions about nominating petitions, news accounts say.
In a recent question posed by The Isthmus regarding public financing of the Overture Center, Sandstrom accused Mayor Dave Cieslewicz of funneling "millions" of dollars to the Mafia. At a 2003 debate, he brought up nude swimming, Bing Crosby and Argentina's economic crisis, and called his opponents "boobs."

In 2003, Sandstrom caused a stir when he warned of the dangers of Mexican and Chinese immigration, and the increase in crime that would result. The Capital Times printed a feature where candidates were allowed to question each other on whatever issue they saw fit. Candidate Bert Zipperer, who listed race relations as his "number one" issue for Madison, asked the following question, and received this response from Sandstrom. Seriously.

Zipperer's Question:

Research done by a professor at UW-Green Bay has identified the nation from which the most undocumented workers in Wisconsin come from. That nation is Canada. Do you believe that we can create a community where all groups, including our Canadian brothers and sisters, are valued for their contributions?

Sandstrom's Response:

We need not buy into some Green Bay-New York City professor's schmaltzy spin. In the 1950s I heard a New York City "wolf authority" professor state, "In winter wolves do not murder Bambi and Daisy, the deer, but rather dig through snow to eat frozen grasshoppers." That professor was "hopping on grass." I agree that many illegal immigrants come both by Mexico and Canada. But their contributions are needed desperately in their homelands. It is morally wrong that both America and Europe entice and steal people of value from their homelands and allow very low wage labor illegals to bust unions and take jobs from American citizens.

The hard part for the media is to figure out how to cover fringe candidates like this. The State Journal can't just introduce him as "Will Sandstrom, crazy person," even though anyone who has heard him speak for more than a minute knows this is the case. The paper can't pretend like it's taking sides in its non-editorial coverage of the race, so it has to present him as a viable candidate.

On the other hand, when the paper does cover a nutjob like Sandstrom, it's a complete waste of everyone's time, not to mention valuable column inches (Madison Magazine agrees).Plus, anyone who knows anything about the mayoral race knows that Sandstrom is a crazy person, so the paper loses a little credibility when they try to cover him in a serious way. We know he's nuts, and we know the reporter knows he's nuts, so why can't the paper just say so?

Take the article that appeared in the State Journal about Sandstrom today. The worst the article could say about Sandstrom was that Bert Zipperer thought he was a racist. If you oppose spending 80% of the city's budget on race relations programs, Zipperer likely thinks you are a racist, so is this really a damning charge?

In 2003, the State Journal published a brief "pros and cons" section about the mayoral candidates. For Sandstrom, they wrote:
* Will Sandstrom. Well educated and boldly speaks his mind, and has appealing property tax cut theme. But he lacks name recognition and executive experience, and ethnic comments have drawn boos.
Oh yeah, that and he's F'ING INSANE! They forgot that part.

I do think the local papers have tried their best to strike a balance with crazy candidates. Often times, they are only casually mentioned in their coverage of debates. But rarely are they covered in the negative light that they deserve. Often times, they are handed the attention they seek, which just promotes more and more non-serious candidates in the future.

Mostly, I blame the good government crowd. They demand that all these wierdos be allowed to participate in debates, when it's the public that suffers the most. People that go to a debate to hear Ray Allen, Dave Cieslewicz and Peter Munoz discuss relevant issues instead have to suffer through a half hour of Will Sandstrom's take on how Russian prostitution is Madison's number one issue. And everyone will sit politely, squirming in their seats until he's done, and pretend like it never happened. And we're all poorer as a result.

UPDATE: Here's the audio from a 2003 debate where Sandstrom goes on a legendary diatribe that is somehow supposed to explain why he should be mayor of Madison, Wisconsin. The question was about garbage collection or something, and he went on for two minutes about being embarrassed to walk around with his mother because she had gangrene. When he finished, the look on Paul Soglin's face was classic, as he actually had to try to answer the question without laughing.