Here’s a good "talk amongst yourselves" topic.
As regular readers know, I’ve written a lot over the last few years on the topic of the newspaper’s endorsements — from the high-altitude stuff like why we do them and how we do them, to the nitty-gritty of how we came to decide on a particular endorsement, and the party affiliations and won-lost record of candidates we’ve backed, and plenty of other stuff that’s probably way more than you ever wanted to know.
But there is a significant anti-endorsement faction in the news trade that simply doesn’t want us to do them at all. That’s a tempting proposition when I’ve just been through something like these presidential primaries, and when starting next week I’ll be resuming the gantlet with city elections, then county and state primaries, and then the general elections themselves, with scarcely a moment to breathe. Nevertheless, I find the arguments of the "don’t do ’em" crowd unmoving. I’ve run across two such arguments in the past week.
The first was in TIME magazine, which basically doesn’t have a dog in the fight, not even being a newspaper. A longtime thoughtful reader brought the piece to Cindi’s attention, and she brought it to mine. It’s called "Should Newspapers Still Be Taking Sides?" An excerpt:
I confess that I’ve never quite understood why newspapers endorse
presidential candidates. Sure, I know the history and the tradition,
the fact that newspapers in the 18th and 19th centuries were often
affiliated with political parties, but why do they do it now? Why do it
at a time when the credibility and viability of the press are at
all-time lows? More important, why do it at a time when readers,
especially young readers, question the objectivity of newspapers in
particular and the media in general?
This guy’s argument reminds me of one that Tony Ridder, the top dog of the now-defunct Knight Ridder, made to a roomful of KR editorial page editors in the waning days of the empire (early 2005). Never mind why there was such a gathering of EPEs when corporate had zero say in the running or content of our editorial pages, but they use to hold such meetings about once every five years whether I wanted them to or not. Anyway, Tony’s argument didn’t go as far as this guy’s, he just didn’t want us endorsing in presidential elections any more. His spiel sort of amounted to, "Golly, folks, why do this when it just makes a lot of folks mad at us?" In fairness, he saw it as a distraction to our main missions, which is writing about our respective local communities. We mostly just stared at him blankly. If anyone in the room took his advice to heart, I don’t know about it — and in any case, by the time of the next presidential election (this one), there was no more Knight Ridder.
Then, there was this piece in The New York Observer about the NYT‘s policy against its op-ed columnists endorsing candidates. An excerpt:
Unlike the board that puts together The Times’ endorsements, they can say whatever they want. They can even court an R rating. They cannot, however, endorse a candidate.
“I came here in 1995 and Howell Raines told me
about it,” said Gail Collins, the former editorial director, who is now
herself a columnist. “His thought, as I understood it, was that it
would confuse people. Columnists could hint, and could make it clear,
but we couldn’t explicitly say it.” The logic goes like this: If Gail
Collins endorses Barack Obama, then a reader might confuse it for the New York Times newspaper endorsing Barack Obama.
This makes no sense to me, but then I’ve never been in the position of having staff op-ed columnists who were not members of the editorial board, so it’s hard for me to imagine. Personally, I wish they’d go ahead an overtly state the preferences that some of them so obviously have, instead of hiding behind this absurdly small, thin fig leaf of impartiality. I mean, come on — do you really doubt whom Paul Krugman preferred in the last two presidential elections?
As David Brook was quoted as saying in the piece, such obfuscation is a great challenge to a writer: "It’s like a two-year process of deliberation without reading the verdict."
Of course, we write personal columns on the editorial page of The State (not op-ed), and those columns are intentionally separate from editorials, which express consensus opinions. And no, we never write "I endorse so-and-so" in columns, but for slightly different reasons. One, there’s the word itself — endorsement is reserved for the newspaper itself, not for individual writers. Also, however many good things we might say about one candidate or bad things about another, there’s always a little bit of hanging back from a final, total commitment because we know we can get embarrassed by having the real endorsement go against us when we get around to it as a board.
Of course, readers of my work will note that as time goes by, I worry less and less about that. I’m more interested in being completely candid with readers as to what I think here and now, and less concerned with the potential embarrassment of losing the endorsement debate. My mania for disclosure even extends to publicly wallowing in my humiliation and mortification at losing the argument so spectacularly in 2000. But not everyone is that weird; others prefer to keep their dignity, and I respect that.
Anyway, I thought I’d share these pieces with you. You decide what you think. And I know you will. That’s one of the reasons why I’m so dismissive of one of the lamest arguments mounted against endorsements — which the TIME guy dusts off and trots out yet again: That we shouldn’t tell people how to vote.
As if we could.