The elections are over but reverberations continue to be felt in North Carolina. One race that may continue to have an impact is the Superior Court District 10E seat. The incumbent, Abe Jones, was defeated by challenger Bryan Collins in a race that featured a controversial survey that rated Collins higher than Jones on legal, administrative and personal skills. Jones has questioned the validity of the survey as well as the circumstances under which Collins came to run in the first place. Collins has acknowledged that he was encouraged to run for the seat by his boss, Donald Stephens, the chief judge of the Superior Court — someone with whom Jones has clashed. Jones has indicated that he may seek reforms, file a complaint or take some sort of follow-up action.
Both the News & Observer and the Independent published stories after the election exploring questions about the survey and about Stephens’ role in the election. This reporter wrote a letter to the editor of the News & Observer seeking to add insight and depth that I thought the story lacked. The letter was published but substantially edited. I am reprinting the entire letter here in the interest of giving this issue a full and fair hearing (and, to be frank, because in this age of the Internet there are other ways to get information to the public if the local newspaper refuses to print it.)
To the editor,
I was a newspaper reporter and editor for almost 30 years (10 at the News & Observer) and also spent time as a press secretary on Capitol Hill and as a media operative in a presidential campaign. I’ve seen the media’s shortcomings from both sides of the fence, and one of the most lamentable was evident in the story about Superior Court Judge Abe Jones.
The story left the impression that an N.C. Bar Association survey that gave Jones low marks was valid, and that Jones’ criticism of the survey was just typical defensiveness. The truth is a bit more complicated and, in my experience, reporters often cannot untangle complicated matters because they do not have the time to dig or cannot get the information they need. One side says one thing, the other side says something different; the reporter splits the two “truths” down the middle.
This was a survey with self-selected respondents, many of whom knew one another. That presented plenty of opportunity for mischief. How hard would it have been for one side to quietly spread the word to rate Jones’ opponent highly and to rate Jones poorly? No one can say for sure that there was mischief, but let’s not forget that, from the start, this was an orchestrated campaign against Jones by someone with whom he had clashed previously. Forgive me for being skeptical.
Full disclosure: Abe is a friend of mine. But you don’t have to know Abe to suspect that the survey was not quite kosher. His opponent, with not a blessed day on the bench compared to Abe’s 17 years, was rated higher in legal ability – by a wide margin. Seriously?
The kicker for me was that Abe received low marks for integrity. I have known Abe for more than 30 years. I have prayed with him and studied the Bible with him. Abe Jones has a problem with integrity? Please. It’s much more likely that the survey had a problem with integrity.
I think Abe’s biggest problem was thinking that voters would judge him by his years of dedicated service and pay little attention to a highly questionable survey – and that’s precisely because he is a man of integrity, used to playing fairly and expecting the same from others.
Assistant Professor of Journalism and Mass Communications,
Saint Augustine’s University