A father’s lesson in the value of talking politics

Well, it’s over — the attacks, the counterattacks, the fact-checking of attacks, the months of avoiding discussions with friends who hold political views different from ours. We can finally stop switching channels to avoid commercials by candidates who should have been as embarrassed by those commercials as the opponents whose characters the ads assassinated.

This political season takes me back to conversations I used to endure with my father, a rough-at-the-edges guy who worked as a mechanic at a trucking company, but never missed the daily paper or the nightly news. He was vitally interested in the issues of the day, and he loved to argue with his oldest son about what was going on in the world.

When I was younger and living at home, I couldn’t resist the bait. He would toss out a comment he knew would set me off, and I’d engage him. But in his later years, I came to dislike those arguments as much as I hate the attack ads that have mercifully ended, for now.

While Dad still had the mental capacity to argue, he’d start almost before I had opened a beverage to rinse the road dust at the end of a 700-mile trip from Minnesota to Michigan. At one point, not long before he died, I asked him why he would start an argument as soon as I walk into the house.

“That’s the way I learn,” he said.

He barely made it through high school after his father died suddenly during the Great Depression. He’d always dreamed of attending college, but having to care for his mother and siblings dashed that ambition. So he learned by reading the paper, watching the news and debating me and others about war and peace, religion, race relations, partisan politics and the latest trade by the Detroit Tigers or Lions. Whatever was in the daily paper was fair game for our father-son battles of words.

If my father were still alive, I would enjoy talking to him about the elections just past. I would want to ask him if the discourse wasn’t a little rough even for him. As director of news for ECM Publishers, I fielded calls from readers who were so angered by some of the positions taken by our editorial board that they canceled subscriptions and ads. The letters pages of our papers were filled with opinions as strong as those my father held. The election season provoked discussions in my business about the value of editorial endorsements.

One of our local daily newspapers, the St. Paul Pioneer Press, broke tradition by avoiding endorsements. During some encounters with callers, I found myself wondering whether it’s worth the trouble to take stands on candidates and issues such as the proposed amendments to Minnesota’s constitution.  ECM’s editorial in opposition to the marriage amendment provoked readers to say things about us I hope they don’t really mean.  Our editorial board doesn’t consist of Godless sinners. Really.

My father would have loved to argue about that one. He would switch from politics to religion in mid-debate, and that issue had both.

But when the calls and letters began to wear me down the way my father used to wear me down, and I began to wonder whether the editorials were worth the trouble, I picked up a book that sits on my desk. It’s called “A Man’s Reach,” the autobiography of Elmer L. Andersen, our company’s founder.

After a distinguished career as a businessman, legislator and governor, he decided to become a newspaperman. He bought competing weekly papers in Princeton and combined them. By the time he died in 2004, he had built ECM into the second-largest weekly publisher in the state. Since the acquisition of the Minnesota Sun papers last December, we’ve been the largest Minnesota publisher of weeklies, delivering newspapers to 650,000 homes.

At ECM, we jokingly ask, “What would Elmer do?” when we have tough decisions to make. And in the case of editorial endorsements, there’s no question what he would do. He would have us take stands on candidates, on issues, because he felt it’s the paper’s role to provoke discussion.

“I believe that community newspapers have great potential to make a positive contribution to the communities they touch,” Elmer wrote in his autobiography. “I have enjoyed the time I spent writing editorials about as much as any time I have spent doing anything.”

So under the leadership of Julian Andersen, our publisher and Elmer’s son, our papers offered opinions that aggravated many of you the way my father loved to get my goat with his opinions.  We hope you found the discussions provoked by those editorials as educational as my father found the arguments he used to have with his son. — Larry Werner (Editor’s note: Larry Werner is director of news for ECM Publishers. His e-mail is larry.werner@ecm-inc.com.)

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