Why newspapers endorse

Why newspapers endorse

December 30th, 2012 in Opinion Free Press

Oh, Mencken. Thou shouldst be living at this hour.

We'd love to hear what the Sage of Baltimore would have to say about the newest and saddest trend in this declining business. Which is to avoid saying what we think, especially about who's the best candidate in a political election. Mr. Mencken just said what he thought, no matter whom it might offend. But that was long ago, and before journalists stopped looking down on politicians and started imitating them, especially their be-all-things-to-all-people equivocations.

Another newspaper's editorial page gave it up this year. Add the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel to the list. Back in October - even before the presidential election - that once candid newspaper decided it would no longer make endorsements in its editorial column. An editor up there made a game try at claiming the editorial page would still analyze Key Races - it just wouldn't endorse in those races.

Some sentinel.

As has become the (deplorable) fashion at papers all over the country, the editorial policy of that newspaper is guided by an editorial board, which means it's barely guided at all. But just drifts, usually into innocuous platitudes. Lest it offend a single reader. Or, horrors, upset an advertiser. Which may be why editorial boards were created in the first place: to sift an idea through a half-dozen censors sitting around a table till any trace of an idea is safely removed.

This is called consensus, and it results in editorials that go down easy, mainly because they don't go anywhere much at all. Why risk offending? Better just to serve up verbal pablum, preferably at great length. After all, there's a lot of space to fill. So just take an opinion, drain the opinion out of it, and write, write, write! Or rather fill, fill, fill.

The editor in Milwaukee said endorsing candidates for office colors what readers think of the newspaper. That the paper's credibility is at stake. That somehow readers will see an endorsement on the editorial page, and assume the news side skews its coverage in that direction.

We had no idea the paper in Milwaukee thought so little of its readers. Or its news side. Most readers we deal with seem to understand the difference between news and opinion just fine, and even respect it.

Risk the paper's credibility? It seems to us that both clear news and strong opinion, and a clear line of demarcation between them, strengthen a newspaper's credibility, not weaken it.

Ah, but endorsements can be divisive! Yes, much like anything else stated clearly, forcefully, and in no uncertain terms-just as a matter of simple duty.

You'd think that editorial pages abandoning editorial positions - like endorsements in an election year - would be frowned upon by experienced practitioners at the trade. Not so. The socalled "experts" are leading this retreat from responsibility.

A column in Editor & Publisher last week praised all these decisions. Or lack thereof.

The columnist said newspapers should dump the endorsement because (a) the paper could be accused of biased coverage; (b) folks don't read endorsements anyway; and (c) the paper could drive away advertisers.

Where to start? How about at the start?

(a) The paper could be accused of biased coverage? So what else is new? That's almost tradition. Whenever a pol is caught doing something he shouldn't, the first thing he turns to is the cue card saying: Them Lyin' Newspapers! But we have to believe readers know better.

(b) Folks don't read endorsements? You'd never guess it from the candidates who didn't get our endorsement and don't hesitate to let us know how wrong our judgment was.

Even if readers did indeed ignore a newspaper's choice in an election, at least the paper would have done its best -- indeed, done its duty -- to take a stand. At least it would have participated in the grand tugof-war, debate of ideas, and general rasslin' match that is democracy. Whether the editorial is read is a secondary consideration compared to the duty to write it, to take a stand the way a newspaper should. Goodness, editors, you've got all that space. Use it!

(c) The paper could drive away advertisers? Sure, that's always the chance you take. It's the same chance every citizen takes when he expresses an opinion that might cost him something. Thank goodness Americans aren't that easily cowed. And neither should their newspapers be.

Editor & Publisher's expert noted the number of big newspapers in Ohio that had endorsed Mitt Romney in the presidential election. And still President Obama carried the state. In short, said Expert, the papers "didn't intend their endorsements to be a bellwether of existing political sentiment; they were trying to persuade readers to vote in line with their own views." She seemed to think that was a fault. It used to be considered a virtue. And it had a variety of names: independence, duty, courage.

Dear Expert, we don't want to alarm you, but expressing their own opinion - not just reflecting the what polls say - is what honest newspapers do and should do. Or maybe just used to do.

Said expert said the last thing voters want is "one more unsolicited opinion." She opined that newspapers should leave endorsements to bloggers. Which may be why bloggers, at least those who have something to say, and say it well, are worth reading. Even if we may not agree with what they say. His readers didn't have to agree with Mr. Mencken to respect, enjoy and be educated by what he said.

Another expert warned that political endorsements are now just relics of another age. And they just might be. But you could say the same thing about good manners. And hardback books. And handwritten thank-you notes. We're not about to abandon those, either.

A relic in time?

In that case, let us return to the past. It would be progress.

- Arkansas Democrat Gazette