Monday, October 20, 2008

Today's Word—Presidential Endorsements

Editor’s Note: It was quite a weekend for Barack Obama. Coming off the last debate with John McCain, Obama received endorsements from three big newspapers: The Washington Post (natch), but also The LA Times, which hasn’t endorsed since Nixon in 1972, and The Chicago Tribune, a traditional GOP bastion that has never endorsed a Democrat. Then there was Christopher Buckley, the conservative icon’s son (“Sorry, Dad, I’m Voting for Obama”), who was promptly fired as a lead columnist for his father’s National Review. And over the weekend, Gen. Colin Powell went on Meet the Press to announce, eloquently, that he was voting for Obama and why. (Locally, in reddest Utah, The Salt Lake Tribune also endorsed “That One.”) Meanwhile, the Obama campaign announced it had raised a stunning $150 million in contributions during the most recent reporting period. Exclaims McCain, “We've got ’em right where we want ’em!” The question is what newspaper (and other) endorsements do, especially these days, when voters are certainly not dependent exclusively on newspapers for information anymore. It’s possible, I suppose, that undecided voters, seeing the Tribune or the Times or the local Bugle, might experience a sudden epiphany. And I do believe that newspaper staff pay much closer attention to the races, and so are much better informed about the candidates and issues than most of us. But are there unintended negative consequences? What do you think? Click on "Comments" under this WORD and chime in. File as “anonymous” if you like.

Endorsements & Credibility

“Young news consumers are suspicious about traditional authority. They prize objectivity, straight-forwardness and transparency. I doubt there’s a reader under 30 who gets why newspapers endorse presidential candidates—and most of the ones I talk to ask the following: How can a newspaper be objective if his newspaper endorses a candidate on the editorial page?”
Pat Bagley, Salt Lake Tribune 2008
—Richard Stengel, managing editor, Time (March 2008)


  1. I think there are also a lot of newspaper readers over 30 who don't "get" why newspapers endorse candidates. I hear the same complaints from my 70-something liberal, Christian friend that I hear from my 60-something conservative, agnostic relative that I also hear from my 30-something independent, uncommitted sons: Forget the "story" ... give me the facts ... and don't tell me what to think about the facts.

    Yes, they still use traditional news organizations (in all media,including online), but reluctantly and with shoe in hand to throw at the TV set when the tone becomes too sarcastic, the word choice too leading, the picture chosen is too blatantly biased, the "breaking news" too trivial. And when they're done, they rinse their mouths to remove the residue.

    Second problem with news orgs endorsing candidates is that every person who works for that news org then becomes identified with that candidate -- regardless of their personal convictions. Tell me that doesn't lead to choices in the interest of job preservation, even subconscious choices, as to which articles are written and how they are framed. And, even if that isn't true, tell me readers can tell the difference. Right.

    It's going to take more than a redesigned format to change this Titanic's course.

  2. Where does the data come from that says under-30s crave objectivity and transparency any more than their elders do? I don't see that in their choices of news sources (from the Daily Show to Fox News to numerous websites with decidedly partisan points of view, people in this group, the age of my children, seem to pursue news that affirms their own views, much as their elders do).
    But granting the point of Today's Word for the sake of argument, the issue of endorsements seems unchanged from when I was in J-school 30 years ago. So you need to ask, what's your aim in making endorsements? Is it to speak to those readers who do value the editorial board's expertise? Or is it to try--yet again, and probably futilely--to get the younger folks to read newspapers? Not endorsing candidates could be just one more case of abandoning journalism in pursuit of marketing--just like reducing the hard news space in favor of celebrity gossip, entertainment reviews and recipes. Maybe papers need to explain how and why they endorse (or why they don't) in an open forum that interacts with the readers.
    I'd be wary of reacting to yet another survey of people who don't read daily papers to determine what is offered to the people who do pay for and value newspapers for what they are. While journalists are often reluctant to blow their own horns, we need, somehow, to educate the public as to what makes real journalism different from blogging or yuck-yuck "perspective" on TV. Some of us could stand to educate ourselves on that score, too.

  3. Sahila ChangeBringerOctober 20, 2008 at 9:34 AM

    I've never understood the practice of endorsing candidates - I was taught in journalism school that its not a journalist's (and by extension a newspaper publisher/owner)job to do that.... an endorsement is a statement of opinion, not a statement of fact.... isnt it a journalist's job to offer the facts and let the readers/viewers make up their own minds?

    Its not a journalist's job to influence individuals, the shape of society and the course of history - become a commentator, lobbyist, activist, legislator or policy advisor if you have strongly-held views and passion that need to be expressed in action...

  4. Good discussion. I tend to think that newspaper endorsements are more influential during local, rather than presidential, elections. Studies have shown that newspaper endorsements are not all that effective, but I think they can be, especially if a paper that normally endorses a Republican candidate (like The Chicago Tribune) endorses a Democratic candidate for the first time. Newspapers are clearly not the only way that people get their news about the candidates, but I like to think they're still part of the way and that they still matter.

    I wrote an article for The Poynter Institute about newspapers and endorsements last year. You might find it interesting in light of this discussion:

  5. I think it's a testimony to how little Americans know about newspaper history that there is such confusion about newspaper endorsements. It's a fine old tradition that has sometimes meant the kiss of death of an endorsed candidate. ("I wouldn't do anything that rag suggests..."). In this case, I hope the emdorsements do mean something. We can't afford another 4 or 8 years of dumbness in the White House.

  6. As an editoral writer for the p.m. Raleigh Times and, after it died, for the News & Observer of Raleigh, I wrote a ton of endorsement editorials (and sat through many interviews with abysmally unqualified aspirants, along with the good ones). Bottom line from 20 years of this: Most readers will NEVER see the difference between any newspaper's straight (we hope) news reporting, its editorial voice, and whatever op-ed commentary it may carry. No matter how many times you print it, THEY DON'T BELIEVE the editorial staff and the news staff are separate, or that editorial doesn't dictate news. These distinctions are either too hard or too unimportant to bother with. So endorsements are, to many, just another case of "the paper" picking the same ones "they" (news AND editorial, the whole schmear) always favor. So why does any candidate still covet and love a resounding endorsement? I think it's that for most who run, at least non-incumbents, positive feedback is scarce. I'll bet a lot of those endorsement clips get laminated and framed.

  7. Thanks, Mallary, for sharing your article.

    Here are a couple of paragraphs from Mallary's article about The Concord (N.H.) Monitor's anti-endorsement of primary candidate Mitt Romney:

    "Despite research challenging the effectiveness of endorsements, many news organizations embrace the tradition because, as they see it, endorsing candidates is a journalistic obligation to readers.

    "We have such a rare opportunity as residents but also as journalists to listen to these candidates," said Monitor editor Felice Belman, who wrote the anti-endorsement. "Why wouldn't we give readers the opportunity to tell them what we've learned?"

    So -- from the comments on this blog entry and from the above two paragraphs, I would ask these questions:

    1) RE the above two paragraphs: Weren't we supposed to be writing articles telling readers what we've learned?

    2) Is "it's a fine old tradition" sufficient reason for news organizations to continue the endorsement of candidates?

    3) If candidates "covet and love a resounding endorsement," how much pandering to the media do candidates do to win that endorsement?

    I understand the concept of editorial leadership and I do believe there is room on the editorial pages for detailed analysis of an issue or of a candidate's stance on an issue. Most certainly, the opinion pages need to provide space for public comments from the community.

    But endorsing candidates? I think the space could be better used.

  8. I think it's a testament to how important this election is that so many organizations are throwing their support behind Barack Obama. Even National Organization of Women chooses to support Obama over the McCain/Palin ticket. Obama is raising money and raising awareness and getting young people interested and involved in politics again. I think endorsements are huge, especially for the casual news consumer. I definitely think they'll influence this election.

  9. TED: Why should newspapers endorse. In my opinion, they should not. Newspapers and other media should be solely in the business of informing people so they can form their own opinions.

    Endorsements are another tool in the power game. Media seek power as opinion makers -- to sway people a certain way, not trusting them to reach the "right" way in light of information received.

    It's high time that candidates for office made a major issue of media behavior.

    PETER BEARSE, Ph.D., Independent Candidate for Congress, NH CD 1.