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When some 150 delegates to Na‘i Aupuni’s month-long aha, or Native Hawaiian political convention, wrapped up their work last week by adopting a draft constitution for a Hawaiian government, it was a potentially historic moment, a turning point in the history of the Hawaiian community and the state.
The proposed constitution, if adopted through an as-yet undefined process, could trigger far-reaching changes that will affect Hawaiians and non-Hawaiians alike.
But despite the potential ramifications, there was a virtual news blackout on the proceedings over the four weeks that delegates were meeting. Instead of pouncing on the proceedings, developing sources, and informing the public, the news media seemed to turn their collective backs on the whole affair.
During the last week of the convention, as critical decisions were presumably being made, broadcast news was dominated by endless tag-team coverage of big waves and the on-again, off-again Eddie Aikau surfing competition.
What little reporting that was done failed to provide accounts of what was going on inside the aha, and instead focused mostly on those who chose to protest rather than take part in the process. Conflict became the story, not the nitty-gritty of finding common ground among the diverse delegates.
Think of all that that we don’t know as a result of the media’s failure to follow the proceedings. We know little about the delegates themselves, the issues that were being considered, the nature of the debates, the directions considered but rejected, the internal politics, the leadership that emerged, and the factors, including the key players, that made it possible to successfully reach the final historic agreement.
To get some perspective, I went to the library and looked at the reporting on the 1978 state Constitutional Convention, or Con-Con. The contrast in press coverage then and now is quite startling.
The 1978 Con-Con involved 102 delegates who were elected in May 1978. It got underway in June and finished its work in mid-September. The constitution had been drafted in 1950, and revised by a second Con-Con in 1968.
The index to what were then Honolulu’s two competing daily newspapers lists page after page of news stores, op-ed columns, and editorials, some published before the delegates were elected, others while the Con-Con was underway, and more when the proposed constitutional amendments were awaiting acceptance or rejection by voters that fall.
Each index page contains three columns containing the titles and dates of news stories that appeared in the two newspapers. I counted 16 columns of stories devoted to the 1978 Con-Con, and each column contained 30 to 40 stories. That’s a total of approximately 500-600 news stories. At least 300 of those stories were written while the Con-Con was underway.
Beginning right after the new year began, the newspapers were reporting on the candidates as they filed to run as delegates. Stories explored whether or not legislators should be elected as delegates, and identified interest groups that were encouraging their members to run. There were news stories on neighborhood appearances by candidates. There was polling of the public about issues likely to be on the Con-Con agenda.
Once the delegates were elected and got to work, there were news stories profiling those competing to serve as officers of the convention, and those ultimately elected. There was analysis of emerging factions and their differing view on controversial issues like initiative and referendum, privacy, labor rights, the death penalty, and so on. Articles explored interest groups in the community lining up and expressing opinions on the various issues.
And remember that these hundreds of stories all appeared in one or both of the Honolulu newspapers. Other reporting was done by television stations and neighbor island newspapers, along with wire services.
That was then, and this is now.
There were literally only a handful of news stories that reported on the Native Hawaiian convention once it was underway. Choose your favorite online search engine and you might be surprised at how little news coverage was devoted to the event.
How to explain the paucity of reporting on the convention proceedings?
Well, one factor is that the convention wasn’t open to the media. But that’s nothing new for professional journalists, who are often asked to dig out and report news that those involved would rather keep out of the press.
In this case, with some 150 delegates and a supporting cast as well, there should have been no shortage of sources for enterprising reporters. And some of the proceedings were broadcast live by ‘Olelo Community Media, and were available online for later viewing as well, which provided a starting point for reporting.
It’s more likely that this reflects the broad move away from covering the actual workings of government at all levels over the past couple of decades. Local news coverage of public affairs at all levels of government has been dramatically reduced.
This is partly due to financial constraints faced by all news media. But editorial philosophy also plays a role, with the dominant view being that the public isn’t really interested in the “inside baseball” reporting of how government decisions are being made. From this perspective, there’s no need to report on the process, because reporting the final decisions is all news consumers need or have any interest in.
Whatever the reasons, the news media missed the chance to document a historic moment and path-breaking process.
We see lots of news about infighting and conflict between Hawaiian groups. This was a missed opportunity to show the rest of the world that Hawaiians can also cooperate and effectively work through their differences. That missed opportunity is an unfortunate loss for all of us.