By Bill McGoun
The trickle of announcements earlier this year that newspapers were no longer endorsing candidates for public office has become a torrent. Halifax Media Group, a two-year-old company which now controls newspapers in six states, recently announced that its publications will no longer endorse.
“In an effort to prevent a perception of bias in political races, the Editorial Board has decided to end the series of editorials by which it has recommended candidates for election,” The Ledger of Lakeland, Florida, said in its editions of Sept. 2. “Making the distinction between news coverage and editorials as clear as possible is … a priority for Michael Redding, chief executive officer for the Halifax Media Group. Halifax owns The Ledger. He called for the 34 Halifax newspapers to end candidate recommendations or endorsements in an Aug. 16 memo.”
The reaction from AOJ members who posted items on the members' discussion list was uniformly negative.
Both columnist John Young and I made the point that the bias argument is really an argument against all editorials, not just endorsements.
Even the novel pairing of conservative and liberal editorial pages in Chattanooga, Tenn., does not insulate against claims of bias, said Harry Austin, editorial page editor of the Times Free Press.
“We¹ve had dual, free-standing editorial pages since the two former papers were bought and merged in 1999. The arrangement would seem to allow our paper to be free of charges of partisan bias, but we still get them,” Austin said.
“My sense has always been that the approach of Election Day is the most important time for editorial boards to state where they stand regarding who should lead,” Young added. “To editorialize 364 days a year and then go fishing when the community makes its most significant statement of opinion at the polls makes zero sense.”
“Didn't we just see a poll that found local newspapers are among the most trusted media sources? You know, the ones that traditionally have endorsed local candidates?” asked Karen Nolan, editorial page editor of The Reporter in Vacaville, Calif., “In fact, I would argue that on the local level, readers appreciate the endorsement process because how else would they know who … these people are?”
Redding said in his announcement that endorsements feed the impression that the newspaper’s coverage is biased. “Right or wrong, it is the perception,” he wrote. That led columnist-commentator-writing coach Rick Horowitz to say, “I've been under the impression that one central role of editorial pages was to make reasoned arguments that might occasionally encourage readers to re-examine their ‘perceptions’ -- instead of, say, simply caving in to them.”
Gary Crooks, associate editor of the Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Wash., pointed out that the endorsement process benefits the journalists as well as the readers. “While I see the downside of endorsements, I can’t honestly say I’d meet all of these candidates if we didn’t have this process. From there, I learn a lot about them … and our community. The benefits of that should be considered.” He said the preparation for endorsements might not make it into all the endorsement editorials, “but it helps inform our opinions year-round.”
Does this mean a newspaper should always endorse, even if neither of the candidates measures up? Some editors would insist on it. “As a former publisher (who himself was the former opinion page editor) used to say: ‘When people go to the polls, they don't really have the option of sitting out a decision, so neither do we. But we can certainly acknowledge in our editorial that we are holding our nose and voting ...,’” Nolan said.
Tom Kelly, a former editor of The Palm Beach Post, said much the same: “The voters have to make a choice. So do we.” The only deviation from that I remember during Kelly’s tenure was when a corrupt incumbent was running against an unqualified challenger. I believe in that case we 'recommended' rather than 'endorsed.' I can’t remember who we recommended."
As one who believes fervently in the importance of newspaper editorials, including endorsements, especially in an era where a flood of campaign money threatens to undermine the democratic process, I am not optimistic. Regardless of the reasons, I fear we have not seen the last of newspapers abdicating their responsibilities.
Bill McGoun is a retired editorial writer for The Palm Beach Post. He does free-lance writing, including 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.
(posted 9/12/2012 11a cdt, minor updates 12:10, 12:32, 9/13 10:45, 9/23 4:23 cdt)