A Senate race unfit to print

“New Jersey voters deserved a better race this year than the nearly invisible contest between Senator Frank Lautenberg and Richard Zimmer, his Republican challenger,” begins the New York Timesendorsement of U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg.

Although accurate, a generous interpretation of this seemingly hypocritical charge is that it is in fact a veiled criticism of their own paper’s decision to ignore the U.S. Senate race in New Jersey. Not once has the Times written a story about the general election contest between Frank Lautenberg and Dick Zimmer. (By comparison, Cynthia Burton at the Philadelphia Inquirer has written 11 pieces on the race.)

To add insult to injury, Zimmer told PolitickerNJ: “One of the editors of the New York Times who interviewed me for their editorial thought I was still a member of Congress.”

It wasn’t always this bad. The New York Times wrote about 70 stories — mostly by long-time Trenton reporter David Chen — on the 2006 general election race between U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez and state Sen. Tom Kean, Jr. They even had a great blog providing daily coverage of the 2006 Newark mayoral race. Fifty years ago, when campaign season was considerably shorter, the Times printed more than 30 stories on the Senate contest between Harrison Williams and Robert Kean.

The Times also made endorsements in New Jersey’s 3rd, 5th and 7th Congressional Districts. Although both the 3rd and 7th are widely considered to be more competitive, the paper never wrote about those races and only once covered the 5th in a mainly biographical piece on challenger Dennis Shulman. That’s right — a relatively long-shot Congressional bid got more coverage than the U.S. Senate race.

The New York Times had a strong tradition in New Jersey with journalistic giants like Joseph Sullivan, Ronald Sullivan, Iver Peterson and Maurice Carroll. There was a time — and it wasn’t very long ago — when the paper played an influential role in New Jersey politics. Just seven years ago, it was David Halbfinger whose reporting helped take down then-Acting Gov. Donald DiFrancesco. But nobody reads the Times any more for its coverage of New Jersey — they couldn’t, even if they wanted to.

A changing media and economic environment has forced many papers to make cuts and prioritize their coverage, and the Times is no exception. Over the summer they pulled staff out of their Trenton and Newark bureaus. David Chen was promoted to cover New York City Hall, and no replacement was ever announced.

It’s not fair to blame the editorial board for the decisions made by the paper’s management, and they’re free to endorse whichever candidates they please, but they could have avoided the hypocritical tone in their endorsement if they had checked their own paper to see how often they covered the race.

Perhaps because of their long history of covering New Jersey politics and only recent change in focus, it doesn’t appear so out of place to see their editorial board offering recommendations on races their paper no longer covers. But geographic proximity alone does not qualify one as an expert on his neighbors. Even the Times rightfully mocked Sarah Palin for that suggestion. And so in the not-too-distant future, a New York Times endorsement of a New Jersey race may very well seem as misplaced as a Star Ledger editorial weighing in on the New York City mayoral election.

A Senate race unfit to print