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Editors' discussion list largely laments Sun-Times' decision

Ending endorsements? Why?

By Bill McGoun
The decision by the Chicago Sun-Times to stop endorsing candidates for political office found no takers among members of the Association of Opinion Journalists who replied to my on-line request. The idea that it was an abdication of responsibility occurred again and again.

In its Feb. 16 explanation, the Sun-Times questioned the value of newspaper endorsements, “especially in a day when a multitude of information sources allow even a casual voter to be better informed than ever before.” Also, it said that endorsements feed a perception the newspaper is biased and declared that “our goal …is to inform and influence your thinking, not tell you what to do.”

“Very lame” was the two-word assessment from Andie Dominick, editorial writer for the Des Moines Register. “As we remind readers in every major endorsement, we aren't telling you HOW TO VOTE, we are expressing the position of this newspaper after watching, spending time with and questioning candidates.”

The argument about the value of endorsements could apply to any editorial, Dominick noted, and the solution to concerns about perceived bias is to “Write a column reminding them that opinion and news are two separate operations, if, in fact, they are.”

In an article explaining why the Register endorsed in the Republican presidential primary, Dominick noted the lengths to which the editorial board went to be informed. “We read widely, their speeches, position papers and contrary views. And we had the opportunity to question the candidates in interviews with the editorial board.”  

Jay Jochnowitz of the Albany (N.Y.) Times Union concurred: “We do believe that readers recognize that we are a group of people who make it our job to follow the issues, who have met personally with each candidate, and who in many cases have covered or followed the careers of one or more of these politicians.”  

No self-serving agenda: “Unlike a trade union, an environmental group, a business organization or political club, we usually have no agenda or corporate stake in a race," Jochnowitz said, "and if we do, we say so.”  

Tricia Vance of the Wilmington (N.C.) Star-News seconded that view: “We don't look at
candidates from the standpoint of how they will line our pockets but on who can take the community/state/nation where we believe it should go.”  
Susan Parker of the Salisbury (Md.) Daily Times said endorsements are important in keeping the editorial writers informed. “Without the possibility of endorsements, candidates would have no reason to visit with opinion journalists at all," she wrote. "And giving up endorsements would make opinion journalists less relevant to readers, wouldn't it? It seems to me that more information, not less, is needed to help voters make solid decisions.”  

Retired Omaha editor Frank Partsch wrote: “To suggest that the public has ample opportunities elsewhere to glean needed information on candidates strikes me as forfeiting the whole game If that is true of elections, it is also true of other public policy questions.”  

Vance said there’s no reasoning with those who think the newspaper is biased, whether or not a newspaper endorses. She stresses, however, that this “is no reason to abandon what I consider to be a newspaper's duty. If we comment on issues of importance to the community we also should have the courage to suggest which candidates could best carry out the policies we believe will benefit the community.  

“You could use the same ‘bias’ perception to stop doing institutional editorials altogether but it would be abdicating our responsibility.”  

“We opine on hundreds of other issues every day of the year," said Chuck Frederick of the Duluth News. "Why would we suddenly fall silent, or neutral, on something as important as who our elected representatives are!?”  

To Jackman Wilson of the Register-Guard in Eugene, Ore., “An endorsement provides an opportunity to take a broad look at how the institutions of government, and the people entrusted with running them, are functioning … It would be an abdication of this responsibility … if, after making constructive or snarky comments on public bodies' performance for 364 days, on the 365th day we declined to say which people are best suited to continue or improve that performance.”  

There are difficulties in endorsing candidates, a couple of AOJ members conceded. “Many places, and especially here, it's hard to find a good candidate, risky to endorse someone who might be indicted next year, and nowadays more difficult to be sure of having better information than the uninvolved-uncommitted swing voter,” said John McClelland of Roosevelt University, Chicago. He also noted the danger of having endorsements distorted in campaign advertising.  

Partsch agreed with the Sun-Times that endorsements have little effect on major races. “Further down on the ticket is a different matter altogether," he said. "The fact is that voters do not have abundant sources of information about candidates for the school board, the natural resources board or the community college board."  

Karen Nolan of The Reporter in Vacaville, Calif., noted the problems of opinion writing in a small shop. She said her present publisher has a lot of other duties as well and participates little in editorial decisions aside from presidential endorsements.  

“Our five-person board is, in reality, a four-person board, two of whom are community members. Which leaves me questioning what in the heck we are doing," she said.. "We may or may not be speaking for the publisher. We are the official voice of the newspaper, but what does that mean?”  

Still, she did not want to give up endorsements: “I like the idea that we are at least an informed group that offers our informed opinion.”  

The day after the Sun-Times announcement, the Chicago Tribune said: “We respect the decision by the Sun-Times, but we intend to keep doing endorsements.  

“Do our endorsements matter? We're under no illusions about the extent of our influence. Plenty of candidates lose despite our seal of approval … Does the policy of making endorsements make it easier for hostile politicians to depict us as partisan flunkies? Not really, because they'd do it anyway ...  

“Our readers make up their own minds when they cast their ballots. They get from us an honest assessment of the options, and we will keep providing it.”  

That appears to be generally the view of AOJ members active on the organization's discussion list.

Partsch concluded his response with a warning that the stakes are high.  

“Finally, we know that endorsement editorials are under fire in some parts of the country," he said. "At least one state legislator has proposed to regulate them as campaign advertising. Some smaller newspapers, controlled by non-journalists, are abandoning the endorsement responsibility, and sometimes the entire responsibility to comment, because it upsets people, including advertisers.  

“I don't think it's an exaggeration to suggest that the legitimacy of our craft is under challenge, and we only aid and abet the challengers when we voluntarily surrender all or part of it.”  

  Bill McGoun is a retired editorial writer for The Palm Beach Post. His free-lance writing includes work as a contributing editor for the Asheville (N.C.) Citizen-Times. He is the author of seven published books and holds a Ph.D. in anthropology from the University of Florida.

(The Sun-Times has been publishing nearly full tabloid page candidate profiles that sometimes read like endorsement editorials without the endorsing; they and a lot of related material are on a separate link into one of its non-paywall websites, suntm.es/elect2012 -JM 2/22/12)

(The Sun-Times was not the first major metro to stop endorsing. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution did so in 2009 -JM 3/18/12)

Update 5/3/2012: Charlotte Observer takes back an endorsement

The Masthead, published since 1948-49 by the National Conference of Editorial Writers, now the Association of Opinion Journalists. Winter 2012 published February 23, 2012, at opinionjournalists.org (c) 2012 AOJ. Updated 2/22/12, 3/18/12)