By Susan Q. Stranahan

As the election nears, hundreds of newspapers around the country continue a ritual as old as politics itself: the editorial endorsement. Although a study by the Pew Center for the People & the Press in January concluded that newspaper endorsements are “less influential than four years ago,” and often “dissuade as many Americans as they persuade,” others argue that endorsements — in local, state and national elections — are among the most important duties of a newspaper, to help inspire civic dialogue. To better understand how the process works, Campaign Desk recently sat in on the endorsement session of the San Francisco Chronicle’s editorial board.

It’s 10 a.m. on Monday, October 11, and the members of the Chronicle’s editorial board, notepads and coffee cups in hand, take seats around a worn, blond-wood table in a drab conference room for their weekly meeting. On the agenda: Endorsing a candidate for president.

“It’s not a question of whom we’ll endorse,” says John Diaz, editor of the editorial page, before the meeting begins. San Franciscans are among the most liberal in the nation, handing Al Gore 76 percent of their votes in 2000, compared with 16 percent for George Bush. What will be determined during this meeting are the “tone and emphasis” of that endorsement. Says Diaz: “One of the big questions is how much will this be a pro-Kerry editorial and how much of it will be an anti-Bush editorial.”

Diaz sees his role as building consensus among the board members. “Part of what I try to do is to avoid collisions — to avoid deadlock.” The board has been deeply divided on several of the 16 statewide initiatives appearing on the ballot next month. Yet it is on such questions that the board may wield its greatest influence. “The higher profile the race, the less influence we have,” explains Diaz. “We have the time and access to information [about the ballot questions] that the average voter doesn’t have. … That’s why it’s so important for us to spell out our positions on these issues.”

But today is devoted to Sen. John Kerry and President George W. Bush, and their qualifications to run the nation.

Taking seats around the table are deputy editorial page editor Lois Kazakoff; writers Louis Freedberg and Clarence Johnson; Jim Heavey, writer and letters editor; Ken Garcia, writer and columnist; and John Sullivan, editor of the Chronicle’s Open Forum op-ed page. Missing this morning is columnist Debra Saunders, who is the board’s outspoken conservative on many issues. And sitting in, as he does occasionally, is editor Phil Bronstein, who oversees both the newsroom and the editorial board. (Publisher Steve Falk, also an occasional participant, is absent.)

Diaz opens the discussion by reading an email he received from a reporter, urging that the newspaper endorse no presidential candidate this year. “It sways very few voters,” wrote the reporter, “and it gives critics more ammunition to accuse the paper of bias. … Every time our paper endorses a candidate, I think it makes my job as a reporter harder.” Diaz then read his response to the reporter: “I think if we’re going to have an editorial page and take strong views on issues … it only makes sense to offer our judgment on the candidates who can actually do something about them. And no one has more influence on these issues than the president.”

Diaz asks if anyone else shares the reporter’s view. After a moment of silence, Bronstein jumps in, saying it might be good to challenge the prevailing assumptions of Chronicle readers. No endorsement would do just that. “I have another reason for not endorsing either candidate,” he continues. “I still have no clue what Kerry wants to do in Iraq. When asked about that, all he says is ‘I have a plan in place.’ … Even now, this late in the election cycle, he doesn’t offer a vision that gives me a sense of confidence.”

Diaz, who has presided over two previous presidential endorsement sessions since taking this job in 1996, agrees Kerry has put forth no concrete plan. “But there is no magic solution.”

“I’m not looking for magic; I’m looking for a plan,” counters Bronstein.

From the opposite end of the long table, Freedberg joins in: “How realistic is it to demand a plan?”

Jim Heavey cites Kerry’s push to build international alliances as the right way to go, and Bronstein nods and responds: “But I see no evidence that any allies will suddenly materialize on November 3. And what role does he expect them to play? How will a coalition look? I think it’s a disaster now.”

Susan Q. Stranahan wrote for CJR.