Endorsing the President a Risky Business

November 8th, 2012 · No Comments · Uncategorized

By Denise Tessier

On Election Day, the Albuquerque Journal ran a column musing about newspapers that “remain defiantly out of step by persisting with their endorsements.”

Some might say that certainly describes the Sunday Journal’s endorsement (“Mitt Romney Is Best To Fix U.S. Direction”). But that is not what this column – or that phrase — meant.

Instead, the piece (by Edward Wasserman of the Miami Herald) questioned whether newspapers should still be engaged in the old-school practice of endorsing for president. He answered his own question affirmatively, giving two reasons why we need endorsements.

First, he said, “they remind people that elections aren’t just media spectacle” and that “at some point, as citizens, people also need to make up their minds.” And second: “The endorsements don’t seek agreement; they demand action.”

It’s an interesting position, made even more interesting in light of the fact that as of Monday night, circulation numbers for papers that chose NOT to endorse for president were greater than for all of those that endorsed Romney.

Looking at the top 100 of the nation’s newspapers, a list that includes the Albuquerque Journal, The American Presidency Project came up with these numbers as of Monday night: 23 papers representing 7,028,874 readers chose NOT to endorse; 35 papers representing 6,475,815 readers endorsed Romney; and 41 papers, representing 10,014,980 readers, endorsed the president for a second term.

The decision not to endorse was a break from tradition for more than half of the 23 that decided against endorsing this year, as 14 of those same papers in 2008 endorsed either Obama (11) or McCain (4). Among those no longer supporting the president was the Chicago Sun-Times – Obama’s home turf – which explained in its editorial Monday that it not only was refraining from endorsing for president, but for any office, even offices at the local level.

In “Why we will no longer endorse in elections,” the Sun-Times explained:

We have come to doubt the value of candidate endorsements by this newspaper or any newspaper, especially in a day when a multitude of information sources allow even a casual voter to be better informed than ever before.

Research on the matter suggests that editorial endorsements don’t change many votes, especially in higher-profile races. Another school of thought, however — often expressed by readers — is that candidate endorsements, more so than all other views on an editorial page, promote the perception of a hidden bias by a newspaper, from Page One to the sports pages. (Emphasis added.)

The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel’s editorial page editor, David D. Haynes, was even blunter in explaining why that paper was dispensing with endorsements:

It makes little sense to put our independence at risk during the election season. Though some of our peers across the country will disagree, the Editorial Board has decided that endorsements do put it at risk.

Believe me, nowhere in my job description does it say that I should help politicians get elected. Yet that’s what some readers believe. They remember that we recommended Gov. Scott Walker or former Sen. Russ Feingold. Or that we supported Milwaukee County Sheriff David A. Clarke Jr. or U.S. Sen. Herb Kohl.

In their minds, the endorsements color everything else we do, no matter how often we criticize the folks we recommend. To these readers, our mission is suspect; and some of them confuse our political news coverage with our editorial recommendations.

This “perception of a hidden bias” certainly plagues the Albuquerque Journal. Readers on both sides of the political aisle complain – both in Journal-published letters to the editor and comments on ABQJournalWatch – that the Journal is biased. And confusion between political news coverage and editorial recommendations is certainly not confined to the Chicago Sun-Times.

Consider, too, that the Journal’s consistent pattern of endorsing to the right of center – it endorsed George W. Bush in 2000 and 2004 and the McCain/Palin ticket in 2008 – is actually out of line with its own reader demographics, Journal-commissioned reader polls and, as Tuesday’s results have proven, New Mexico voters.

According to the Journal’s own advertising – both online and in Business Outlook – 90,526 registered Democrats read the weekday Journal, compared to 70,963 registered Republicans. The figures for Sunday, the ad says, are 128,477 Democrats and 91,237 Republicans.

A story covering its last pre-election poll, headlined “Obama Keeps N.M. Lead Over Romney,” reported polling at 50 percent for Obama, 41 percent for Romney, 5 percent for former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson and 5 percent undecided.

And, of course, “President Barack Obama quickly dispatched Republican Mitt Romney in New Mexico,” as Journal reporter James Monteleone put it in the news story posted on the Journal’s Web site Tuesday night, just two hours after the state’s polls closed.

So, in endorsing one candidate over another, as the Journal did in endorsing Romney, the paper not only risks alienating readers who support the other candidate, the Journal risks alienating the majority of its readership. Endorsing, then, is an economic risk for newspapers already struggling in these days of ubiquitous electronic news – and an economic risk for the Journal.

Granted, because the Journal is the only daily left in Albuquerque, readers on either side of the political aisle have little choice but to read it if they want to be informed in some depth about general local news. (Although it should be mentioned that the Weekly Alibi was a worthy foil for the Journal with its endorsements, taking the task seriously to the point that each position was carefully explained to the reader, including the endorsement board’s take on candidates who had no chance of winning and explaining why, in some races, it made no endorsement. In its thoroughness, the Alibi aptly filled the void left by the closure of the Albuquerque Tribune.)

And while the Journal is the only local daily newspaper, it should be mentioned that the stories written by Journal reporters are worth the price of subscription, and, from where this reader sits, their election stories were free of perceivable bias.

Unfortunately, however, endorsements do spill over onto news pages by creating a perception for many readers that the newspaper does have an agenda, tarnishing what the Sun-Times called its “independent” voice.

Endorsing is actually a throwback to the days when papers were Republican or Democrat – and even had those party names on their mastheads. So, it can be justifiably argued – as the Chicago and Milwaukee papers have done – that the paper should refrain from any endorsement in order to maintain journalistic integrity. And, it can be argued, as the Sun-Times did, that if reporters do their jobs – which the Albuquerque Journal’s reporters have done during this election cycle –readers should be able to make up their own minds.

Another paper that chose not to endorse a presidential candidate was the Knoxville News-Sentinel, but its decision only applies to that office. Its editor, former Albuquerque Tribune managing editor Jack McElroy, explained in that paper’s piece that the paper will continue to endorse in local races, but has decided it serves no value to do so in the presidential race. He wrote:

The News Sentinel Editorial Board invites candidates to meet and share their views before endorsements are made. This firsthand contact often reveals how well-informed, energetic and serious candidates really are, insights that cannot be gained simply by reading yard signs or fliers.

By screening candidates personally, the newspaper provides a service to readers who have little else to go on in making their selections.

When it comes to the presidential contest, however, none of these reasons for endorsing really apply anymore.

Among the papers that did issue an endorsement, an even dozen switched alliances and endorsed Romney, even though they had endorsed Obama in 2008. The papers that did this: The New York Daily News, Newsday, Houston Chronicle, the Ft. Worth Star-Telegram, Orlando Sentinel,  (Ft. Lauderdale) Sun Sentinel, (Nashville) Tennessean, Des Moines Register, (Arlington Heights) Daily Herald, Los Angeles Daily News, (Madison) Wisconsin State Journal and the (Los Angeles County) Press Telegram.

Only two switched to Obama – the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, which endorsed no one in 2008, and the San Antonio Express News, which in 2008 endorsed McCain.

The Honolulu Star Advertiser this time around endorsed its “island son,” saying:

Hawaii understandably burst with pride four years ago when its island son was elected to the nation’s top job. President Barack Obama has performed honorably while coping with the economic disaster he was handed upon entering the Oval Office, while exercising domestic and foreign policies that have been in the best interest of Hawaii and the rest of the nation. He fully deserves a second term in the White House.

That a paper in the heart of Texas would endorse Obama might come as a surprise, and the San Antonio Express-News editorial is worth reading in its entirety for purposes of comparison it to the Albuquerque Journal’s editorial, for the difference is striking – and not just because they chose different candidates.

In these divisive times, one might take the position that a newspaper’s refusal to endorse is a shortcoming – a copout. As Wasserman pointed out in his column, the fact that we even take note of newspaper endorsements shows they “merit serious attention in a way that . . .backing from movie actors or rock stars . . .does not.”

But Wasserman also noted that: “If there’s anything analysts agree on, it’s that newspaper recommendations don’t move many votes,” adding:

Why should they? For starters, voters don’t really view newspaper editorial boards as speaking with great authority, leastways not the authority that comes from having better information than the rest of us. By and large, if you’ve been paying attention you know about as much as the editorialists do.

Besides, by the time the boards finish stroking their chins it’s so late in the campaign season that the kind of person who might still be swayed by an endorsement probably doesn’t even read newspapers, and may not have the capacity to fill out a ballot anyway.

Yet, Wasserman concludes that newspaper endorsements are an important part of the process, and he even laments that Internet-based sites fail to carry on the tradition. Thus, Wasserman’s conclusion, which brings us back to lead sentence in this post:

So if newspapers remain defiantly out of step by persisting with their endorsements, I’d say they deserve our thanks. We’re all the better for it.

I don’t completely disagree. But when a newspaper already has a perceived bias – as the Journal does – the endorsement exposes it to further alienation of its readers – just as a business, advertising one candidate over another on a road-side sign, exposes itself to potential loss.


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