Newspaper endorsements are imperiled for the same reasons they’re now urgently needed

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Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, center right, meets with the editorial board of Colorado Springs Gazette, Friday, July 29, 2016, in downtown Colorado Springs, Colo., before a rally at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. (Christian Murdock/The Gazette via AP)
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, center right, meets with the editorial board of Colorado Springs Gazette, Friday, July 29, 2016, in downtown Colorado Springs, Colo., before a rally at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. (Christian Murdock/The Gazette via AP)

Editors worldwide face unique dilemma

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, center right, meets with the editorial board of Colorado Springs Gazette, Friday, July 29, 2016, in downtown Colorado Springs, Colo., before a rally at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. (Christian Murdock/The Gazette via AP)
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, center right, meets with the editorial board of Colorado Springs Gazette, Friday, July 29, 2016, in downtown Colorado Springs, Colo., before a rally at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. (Christian Murdock/The Gazette via AP)

By Danny Funt, CJR

After agonizing over the editorial for months, The Arizona Republic chose a Wednesday night in late September, with Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump essentially tied in statewide polls, to back a Democrat for president for the first time in the paper’s 126-year history. The endorsement exceeded a million views online, making it the Republic’s most-read post in two years, and drew coverage from The New Yorker, The New York Times, and dozens of other national media, plus outlets in England, Ireland, Canada, Norway, Sweden, Germany, and Japan, some of which sent camera crews. If reach suggests relevance, then the Republic’s pick for president in 2016 was, in at least one sense, spectacularly more important than ever before.

Phil Boas, who chairs the paper’s nine-person editorial board, had trouble using his office phone the day after publication because the lines were so jammed with incoming calls. Some readers thanked him, but many more said the endorsement felt like “a betrayal.” A powerful op-ed by the newspaper’s president, Mi-Ai Parrish, detailed the death threats and vitriol directed at her staff (as in residents spitting on teens selling subscriptions door to door). Hundreds of print subscriptions were cancelled, setting to rest any suspicion that the endorsement was simply a bid for attention.

For an editor facing such phenomenal animosity, Boas, 57, a longtime Arizonan and lifelong Republican, was strikingly unfazed when we met at the Republic building in downtown Phoenix this fall. He admitted to writing off Trump’s chances prematurely after the billionaire’s moral bankruptcy became unmistakable. I asked if it was demoralizing to have, by underestimating Trump’s appeal, overestimated how much voters prioritize decency. “Trump is not our problem,” he said. “The problem is that there are millions of people who either cannot discern or don’t give a damn that he is a demonstrably bad human being. He doesn’t belong near the White House, and it’s so obvious.”

“It may be 10 years before we’re vindicated,” Boas said of the paper’s endorsement decision, “but I’m so proud of what we did.” 

Clinton’s landslide victory on editorial pages—56 of the largest 60 newspapers making presidential endorsements, according to the American Presidency Project, compared to just eight of any size for Trump—inspired endless takes on how the polls would be affected.

Politico media reporter Hadas Gold was one of many writing nationally about the Republic’s endorsement. As Trump’s stunning victory became clear on election night (Clinton lost Arizona, improving just half a point on Obama’s share of the vote in 2012), Gold tweeted what many were surely thinking: “… newspaper endorsements DO NOT MATTER.”

Throughout the 2016 campaign, many media critics argued that endorsements upset a lot of readers, fail to influence elections, and, as a result, are likely “going the way of the dodo,” as Margaret Sullivan put it in The Washington Post. With the glut of election commentary available online, some say dailies have nothing new to offer and would be better off butting out. That’s become the basis of a popular, cruel contradiction: scolding news outlets for their elitist detachment from Trump America, while at the same time questioning what veteran editorial writers in Trump America could possibly add that hasn’t already been said by journalists in New York or Washington.

CJR spoke with opinion editors at more than 20 newspapers across the country, from The New York Times, The Boston Globe, and USA Today to the Idaho Statesman, San Antonio Express-News, and Ft. Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel. Newspapers that have permanently stopped endorsing presidential candidates offer declining influence or growing complaints of bias as justification. When an editorial challenges prevailing local opinion, some readers take it as proof that the paper has lost touch with its community. For example, a small-town newspaper in Oklahoma, where Trump won every county, is still widely despised for endorsing Clinton, the Times reported recently. Those readers and others like them reject the notion that opinion journalists can share their values while opposing their views.

But many editors who spoke with CJR see cutting endorsements as, above all, abandoning an essential community service because blowback might hurt business, or because papers have slashed the staffs needed for the imposing work that goes into endorsing. As a candidate, Trump bullied newspapers that editorialized against him. Despite the continuing threat of intimidation and the staggering hostility toward media that Trump inspires in his supporters, all the editors we interviewed at papers that currently endorse said they have no plans to stop.

“I’m often perplexed by news articles and columns about endorsements because they assume that organizations like ours endorse candidates for one reason: to sway votes,” Chicago Tribune Editorial Page Editor John McCormick explains. “If that’s the metric, then your verdict will be easy to reach: ‘But people don’t pay any attention, it’s irrelevant, half of the people you endorse don’t win.’ Those clichés are the hardiest of perennials. Swaying votes is only one reason for endorsing, and arguably not the most important. Every few years, endorsements bring a publication to full stop. They explain to the world what that publication is, what it advocates, how it thinks, what principles it holds dear.”

Endorsements, he and others argue, are part of a paper’s duty to facilitate dialogue in its community and promote participation. Moreover, national debate about the need for endorsements usually ignores all but the presidential race; editors point out that much more labor goes into providing guidance on the rest of the ballot, where local and regional papers almost certainly have greater impact.

That Trump could lose their support so badly and win the Electoral College so, well, bigly makes it easier to join him in dismissing newspaper endorsements as impotent antiques. If “matter” means influence, then clearly the victory of someone The Atlantic called “an enemy of fact-based discourse” reflects poorly on the clout of editorialists, among others. But to matter is also to be needed—to say otherwise is like witnessing a flu outbreak and concluding that flu shots no longer matter. As more newspapers are pressured to soften or silence their institutional voices during elections, we should be specific about why it matters that they continue speaking out.

FIVE WEEKS AFTER DONALD TRUMP DESCENDED the escalator of his eponymous Manhattan tower, warned of Mexican criminals and rapists, and announced his candidacy, the editorial board of the Des Moines Register called on him to end “this ill-conceived campaign.”

“As one of the most liberal newspapers in the United States, the poll results were just too much for them to bear,” Trump responded in a statement. “The Des Moines Register has lost much circulation, advertising, and power over the last number of years. They will do anything for a headline.”

Trump denied credentials to Register reporters for subsequent campaign events, spurned an endorsement interview with the editorial board, and still finished a close second in the Iowa caucus. Ted Cruz, the winner, was the other of 11 Republican candidates who shunned the board. The paper’s caucus endorsement is traditionally coveted, though since 1988, Register picks have won only four out of 11 times. Its choice this time, Marco Rubio, placed third.

Next came New Hampshire, where the most sought-after endorsement is that of the conservative Union-Leader. FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver found that in six GOP primaries before 2012, three endorsed candidates won the race, but all six did better in the election than their polling position at the time of the endorsement, improving their standing on average by 11 percent. Impressive, Silver noted, though hardly proof that the Union-Leader changes the mind of one in 10 voters.

The paper came out early this time for Chris Christie, who had pinned his fate to New Hampshire but was polling at just 5 percent there. Union-Leader editorials are a throwback—the signed opinion of the publisher, Joseph W McQuaid, who early on wrote that Trump “insults New Hampshire voters’ intelligence.” When the Union-Leader backed Christie, Trump ranted about it at a rally for 10 minutes. “Do you know about this newspaper?” he asked the crowd. “This guy’s a bad guy. His name is Joe McQuaid. He’s a bad person, and he uses his weight, pushes his weight around, thinks he’s hot stuff.” Bowing to pressure from Trump, ABC dropped the Union-Leader as a debate co-sponsor. Trump won the primary while Christie finished sixth, with 7 percent. He dropped out of the race the next day.

Most newspapers gave their support in the GOP primaries to John Kasich, or “one-for-38 Kasich,” as Trump mocked the governor who, by late April, had won only his home state of Ohio. With so many endorsed candidates failing to win, outlets like the Christian Science Monitor deduced that the primaries “exposed the waning effectiveness of newspapers on public opinions.” By that logic, everything that seemed to benefit Clinton or Kasich is now exposed as ineffective. But the influence of any single factor, including endorsements, can’t be measured by whether a candidate wins or loses.

In 2012, 12 percent of likely GOP voters surveyed nationwide by The Washington Post and Pew said they’d be more likely to back a presidential candidate endorsed by their local newspaper, while 75 percent said it would make no difference. Not only is self-reported influence dubious, but in this case it’s far too decontextualized. What does it mean for cities with two papers, one conservative and one liberal? Does “more likely” refer to changing one’s opinion or merely reinforcing it? If people have been influenced by a year’s worth of editorials, wouldn’t most of their stances be set by the time of the endorsement?

Two studies are repeatedly cited in the “Do newspaper endorsements matter?” debate. In 2008, Brown University researchers found that a small percentage of readers might be influenced by an endorsement if the paper backs a candidate from a party it ordinarily does not to support. A study this past year at Northwestern observed shifts in online betting markets in response to some presidential endorsements. The latter analysis suffers from all the flaws Silver identified in examining the effect of Union-Leader endorsements on opinion surveys, but replaces tracking polls with gamblers’ hunches.

Endorsements are not yard signs; one would hope their influence depends, to some degree, on the arguments they make. Some papers backing Clinton were ebullient, like the Akron Beacon Journal, but many were emphatically unenthusiastic. Some, like the San Antonio Express-News, detailed the consequences for their region, but many hardly mentioned local issues. Some, like The New York Times, explicitly spoke to undecided voters, but most avoided that sort of tactical approach. Some, like the New York Daily News’ 7,900-word Trump takedown, were titanic efforts, but many made no mention of policy differences on issues like climate change, guns, trade, police brutality, college affordability, healthcare, and defense. Some offered lively prose, but many were dry.

Attempts to quantify the clout of endorsements treat political discourse as tantamount to advertising. The ripples of a compelling argument don’t appear reducible to a stat.

 

MANY PEOPLE RESENT NEWSPAPER ENDORSEMENTS because they don’t understand the standards to which endorsements are held or what they represent. Editors told me they’ve spent their careers explaining to readers the very simple difference between news and opinion sections. That confusion alone is enough reason for USA Today not to endorse, says Editorial Page Editor Bill Sternberg. This type of media illiteracy, however, has as much to do with reader ignorance as with newspapers’ profound inconsistencies.

On its own, the statement “Our newspaper supports…” is remarkably ambiguous. Some readers might imagine an office meeting where everyone on staff casts a vote. In reality, “we endorse” may reflect the view of the publisher alone, the opinion editor alone, a board of a few people, or a board of 16, as at The New York Times. Only some boards require consensus—the Nashville Tennessean did not endorse a presidential candidate for the first time since 1836 because all five board members could not agree to support Clinton. Newspapers like the Times observe a strict wall of separation between the editorial board and the newsroom, so much so that Executive Editor Dean Baquet was grilled on CBS This Morning just for having sat in on the board’s January meeting with Trump. (“I couldn’t resist,” Baquet finally confessed.) The Tennessean’s board, meanwhile, includes the executive editor and news director, while the Idaho Statesman’s board consists of an editor, publisher, and five unpaid community volunteers. Some editorial boards take their stance from corporate ownership, even if those bosses are hundreds of miles away, while some say their owners have no voice in the matter.

In other words, “the paper’s views” are really those of whoever is authorized to speak for it. In May, for instance, James Bennet left the editorship of The Atlantic to become editorial page editor of the Times, where he answers to the publisher and family patriarch, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr. How did Bennet’s arrival mid-campaign alter the editorial posture of the Times? “I guess I’m uncomfortable talking about that publicly,” says Bennet, who also serves on CJR’s Board of Overseers. He did say that during his brief tenure, Sulzberger has never changed the thrust of an editorial.

This election highlighted how many editorial boards remain devoted to a political legacy. When the Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville endorsed Trump, it explained, “While this is anything but a comfortable call, it is in keeping with the Times-Union’s center-right tradition and with the conservative Republican philosophy of our family ownership.” Some might expect a newspaper’s politics to mirror its readership’s, but at the Tribune, which backed Libertarian Gary Johnson, McCormick says the paper has been loyal for 170 years to conservative values on issues like free trade, not to shifting public opinion. “It’s very common in our endorsement meetings for someone to say, well, she’s not my kind of candidate but this is our kind of platform and person,” he explains. “We’ve endorsed candidates that I hope will lose but are right for the Tribune.” 

The Arizona Republic—the “Republican” until 1930—promised readers that despite backing Clinton, its conservative bent is unchanged. Whether editorial boards should be so frank about their politics brings to mind similar questions facing the Supreme Court. We can view the justices simply as neutral umpires calling balls and strikes, or as people whose decisions reflect personal convictions. In law and journalism, it’s becoming more obvious that bias is, to some degree, only human.

PART OF THE VIRTUE OF LOCAL AND REGIONAL NEWSPAPERS is that they connect readers with divergent beliefs, though that ideal may be losing broad support. In 2013, the conservative Supreme Court icon Antonin Scalia discussed his news diet with New York magazine, explaining that he stopped getting The New York Times and Washington Post when they grew “so shrilly, shrilly liberal.”

To the interviewer’s suggestion that retreating to agreeable media, in Scalia’s case mostly talk radio, could be “isolating,” the justice replied that choosing between “those intellectual outlets I respect and those that I don’t respect” was different from socializing entirely with like-minded people. When pressed, however, he acknowledged that the days of bipartisan dinner parties in Washington were also long gone. “Geez, I can’t even remember” the last such gathering, Scalia said. “It’s been a long time.”

The San Diego Union-Tribune endorsed the first Democrat in its 148-year history and, by the end of October, had lost 209 subscribers. At the Cincinnati Enquirer, supporting Clinton initially cost several hundred subscribers. Phil Boas suggested the Republic’s losses are about double the Enquirer’s, and says they “will hurt a lot.” “I read newspapers that I think are good newspapers, or if they’re not good, at least they don’t make me angry, okay?” Scalia told New York. As more people abandon community or regional publications that make them angry, arguing that social intercourse doesn’t suffer looks increasingly naive.

In the battleground state of Colorado, Hillary Clinton nabbed a mid-October endorsement from The Bear Truth, the student newspaper at Palmer Ridge High School in Colorado Springs (home of the Bears). Parents in this staunchly conservative town were outraged. Wrote one mother of two on the school’s website: “I am in complete and utter disgust at this blatant attempt to sway the minds of impressionable young voters.” What’s jarring is not that some parents are overprotective of their children, but that nationwide, many adults feel so intellectually vulnerable.

The most common objection to endorsements is that newspapers shouldn’t tell people how to vote, as if offering a perspective amounts to coercion. Some newspapers actually now avoid using the words “vote for” in their endorsements. When USA Today deviated from a policy of not endorsing to editorialize against Trump, a former White House correspondent at the paper wrote to complain that its founding publisher, Al Neuharth, “felt it was elitist to assume we know better than everyone else when it comes to voting.” But if a newspaper can’t claim above-average knowledge of politics, it probably has no business publishing.

After the Dallas Morning News endorsed Clinton, the first Democrat it had recommended for president since before World War II, “the level of vulgarity that came across my desk did knock even me off my chair,” Editorial Page Editor Keven Ann Willey told CJR. “I’ve never received so many emails with the c-word in it, and allegations that the only reason I supported Clinton was because she and I have that in common.”

Many Americans have been sold on the malice of journalists. In an endorsement for Clinton, the conservative editorial board of the Daily Herald, which serves suburban Chicago, addressed them:

Please, we’re your neighbors. We travel the same streets, send our kids to the same schools, worship at the same churches, feel the same community pride, worry about the same things. We’re not a sinister dark force conniving to move pieces on a mythical global chessboard. The explanation for our opposition, and for that of almost every newspaper editorial board in the country, is much simpler—rooted not in conspiracy but in our sense of obligation. For the first time in decades of elections, we arrive at 2016 to witness the candidacy of a narcissistic demagogue whose election could imperil the country. If we fail to express that heartfelt fear, we fail in our obligation to you.

DOROTHY JACKS, Palm Beach County’s newest property appraiser, described her intense, hour-and-a-half interview with the Sun-Sentinel before earning its endorsement. “I know that having [the endorsement] in this day and age is more important than ever,” she wrote in an email to CJR. “We were able to share it with many more people than just the Sun-Sentinel readers.”

Fewer Americans may clip out endorsements from the paper to bring to the polls, but for down-ballot races, there simply are no other media willing to interrogate potential property appraisers for 90 minutes.

Along with drafting a presidential endorsement for readers in their pivotal Florida region, Rosemary O’Hara, the Sun-Sentinel’s editorial page editor, and her five-member board crafted, sent, and collected questionnaires from 181 candidates. They conducted 89 interview sessions and spent at least 130 hours in meetings over four weeks and weekends. They made videos for their six most important endorsements. They moderated three debates, helped with another, and appeared on radio and TV shows about the election. They produced an 18-page voter guide.

“And we are tired,” O’Hara noted two weeks before Election Day.

She says that in the weeks before the election, she got three or four phone calls a day from voters, mostly older folks, asking about the ballot. At the Houston Chronicle, which screened candidates for about 75 races, opinion editor Jeff Cohen says, “Calls from readers wanting a comprehensive list of our endorsements outnumber those who are complaining about the process five-to-one.”

After their nominations, Clinton and Trump blew off most editorial board interview requests, even in battleground states. Gary Johnson met with about 20 editorial boards, according to an aide, yet several papers I spoke with said Johnson squandered an opportunity by not doing more. His decision to not even speak by phone with the Denver Post “was one of the reasons we decided he wasn’t ready for prime time,” said Editorial Page Editor Chuck Plunkett, whose board had been open to endorsing the Libertarian. “I can’t imagine why the campaign didn’t take me up.”

Media fragmentation diminishes newspapers’ influence; it also makes it easier to appreciate the value of experienced journalists with varying views collaborating to provide guidance for their communities. “When we write about issues but not the candidates who could make policies we favor come to life,” the Tribune’s John McCormick says, “we look feckless, disingenuous, timid.”

The challenge is to command respect without condescending (or worse, boring). As Bennet of the Times told CJR, “An institutional voice in this day and age maybe shouldn’t be quite as pompous—that’s the pejorative term—as Olympian as it may have been in years past.”

Sitting back in his office chair the afternoon we met, Phil Boas made it clear that when it came to The Arizona Republic’s decision to endorse Clinton, his conscience was never contingent on the election’s outcome.

When people look back on endorsements warning voters against Trump, they won’t be moved by how many readers were persuaded or offended, but by the fact that some newspapers took a stand, regardless.

(Republished with permission from Columbia Journalism Review. To become a member of CJR, visit http://www.cjr.org/join/membership.php?ad=700-1-join)