Leading newspaper wimps out on editorial endorsements

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel has announced it will no longer endorse political candidates, except in some rare undefined instances.  What a travesty!  Let’s face it.  A newspaper or television station’s endorsement of a candidate probably has little impact on how most people cast their ballots on the highest visibility races. But that newspaper or television station spends time and effort every other day of the year researching and evaluating public policies and other social issues.  The editorial endorsement is the culmination of that ongoing work.  Which is the candidate who will best effect the values that the media outlet has promoted day in and day out?  That’s what the endorsement process is about.

As one of my colleagues in the Association of Opinion Journalists has wondered, how can a newspaper, in a world of rampant (and, I would add, often uninformed) opinion making, abdicate its community responsibility to take an informed stand? In explaining the paper’s decision, David Haynes, the editorial page editor, and a member of AOJ, wrote, “Our positions have long been infused with thought from across the political spectrum.”  And, “No party or ideology has a monopoly on good ideas – or bad ones.” Yesss, but an endorsement is not of a party but of a candidate.  Sometimes a paper will endorse a Democrat, sometimes a Republican, sometimes even an independent or third party candidate.  It’s the presumed wisdom of an informed editorial board that assists the public in the sorting out, especially in the lower level offices to which little attention has been paid. 

The Boston Globe tilts significantly toward Democrats but sometimes endorses a Republican. The Boston Herald tilts significantly toward Republicans but every once in a while endorses a Democrat.  For readers who pay regular attention to the newspaper’s editorial positions, such a shift can be illuminating and instructive. That endorsement poses the question: despite a candidate’s agreement with the paper on policy issues, what experiential differences or character flaws warrant a tilt in the opposite direction? (Admittedly,unfortunately, sometimes publishers override editorial board choices and internal politics color the process.)

The suspicion lurks that the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel lost subscribers when they endorsed Republican Governor Scott Walker in last spring’s recall vote and that the decision not to endorse is a financial one.  So they’re taking the coward’s way out.  Better not to offend. Shame on them.  I might not agree with a particular endorsement, but, like Voltaire, would defend not just the right but the responsibility to take that position.

When WCVB-TV Channel 5 made political endorsements back in the day, many readers and even some of our own reporters, got upset.  They thought it compromised the credibility of the news reporting, rendering it suspect.  But when people  called the station to complain, it was usually about our choice, not the process. Those who did complain about our endorsing I would remind about the firewall that exists between news and editorial.  And we encouraged debate. Critics and opponents got plenty of opportunity to air their replies.  The Journal Sentinel says it’s opting in favor of vigorous commentary and input from many voices.  That’s wonderful.  That dialogue should happen. But that doesn’t negate the value of an institutional voice.

An editorial is marked “opinion.”  It already has the consumer warning label. Where a newspaper or television station should be concerned is when its news side camouflages editorializing by the selection and non-coverage of stories, the  tilt of its reporters, the tone of its headlines, the deliberately unflattering photos used, the message sent even in where stories are placed. Sorry, readers in Milwaukee, you lose in this misguided call to jettison candidate endorsements.

I welcome your comments in the section below.

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