The Circuitous Road to an Endorsement

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.”

Freedberg: “Kerry is part of the problem. He and Edwards were for the war, and they’ve been wishy-washy on this issue ever since. There are no specifics. …I think they don’t see a need to put out any specifics. They can just rely on slogans.”

Into the fray wades Diaz, noting that on the Iraq question there isn’t much difference between the two candidates. “But shouldn’t we say that, regardless of the similarities, Kerry is better than Bush?”

“It’s better to have someone who is going to change gears,” concedes Bronstein. Even so, he says he’s not without reservations. “Kerry is a very political animal … I realize he’s not going to come up with a 3,000-point plan. But I need more than, ‘here’s the general direction we want to go.’” Referring to a lengthy profile of Kerry, published the day before in The New York Times Magazine, Bronstein observes: “I would have loved for Kerry to say in that piece, ‘We need a decades-long approach to terrorism, not just the “barrel of the gun” approach. To change the hearts and minds in the Middle East it will take a generation.’ I would have liked to hear Kerry say that.”

Ken Garcia leans forward. “Is a candidate fighting for his political life able to say that? We have a sitting president who has us in two wars. How is his plan any better?” Garcia wants the editorial to sound less pro-Kerry and more anti-Bush.

Bronstein raises another criticism of Kerry, the “extent of his pandering,” referring to the Democrat’s pledge during the second debate not to raise taxes. That prompts a question from Diaz: “What makes you more uncomfortable, Phil, excessive pandering or excessive stubbornness?”

“It’s the unknown that worries me,” replies Bronstein.

Clarence Johnson says there are important issues beyond the war. What concerns him is “the judiciary and another four years of the Bush administration.” That is his deciding issue, and he too wants the theme of the editorial be “a vote against Bush rather than a vote for Kerry.”

Diaz, who has been busy taking notes on the conversation, goes back to the question of tone. “Bush has governed as if he had a giant mandate, when all it was, was a single Supreme Court vote.” (The group laughs.) “We need to implore Kerry not to make the same mistake, to reach out to others.”

Johnson notes that although “Iraq is sucking up all the oxygen” in this campaign, there are other issues at stake, and his colleagues shake their heads in agreement, reciting them rapidly: the environment, including the Clean Air Act and forest policies, the economy, tax cuts, health care.

Kazakoff weighs in: “Bush’s policy of tax cuts sends the wrong message. It convinces people they can have everything they want and not pay for it. And, really, what will a $3,000 health savings account do in terms of today’s health care costs?”

“Maybe we should write an editorial that says we’d like Kerry to act as a one-term president and we’re afraid of what Bush would do as a lame duck,” says Bronstein, generating some laughter.

“Bush is pointing the country in the wrong direction,” continues Kazakoff, citing his policies on stem-cell research, abortion, gay rights and global warming — all issues of concern to Californians. She also raises the issue of privacy. “Personal actions should be private, government actions should be public. He’s flipped it.”

Diaz reverses course and notes that post-9/11, Bush demonstrated leadership. “If you’re looking for things to give him credit for — that’s his job,” responds Freedberg, unconvinced.

“Maybe we need a special section for all this,” quips Freedberg, and his colleagues smile. He then asks: “What will convince people who might be thinking of voting for Bush?”

“This editorial is not so much to persuade people how to vote,” answers Diaz. “It’s a statement of values of this newspaper. We are as much presenting ourselves as making a case for the candidate.”

Because California is regarded as a solidly pro-Kerry state, the candidates have visited mainly to raise money. (Both Kerry and Edwards met with the Chronicle’s editorial board before the California primary; they have not been back. Bush has not met with the board.) But, despite being out of the daily maelstrom of campaign visits and advertising, many Californians are totally engaged, says Freedberg. “In my 30 years of watching politics, I’ve never had friends flying out of state to help candidates in swing states. This country is at a huge crisis point. … Do we cast this [editorial] in an apocalyptic tone, as many of our readers do?”

“I’m more concerned that because we’re so divided as a nation, our message should be that Kerry must reach out,” says Kazakoff.

“I see that as the closing of the editorial,” says Diaz, who will write it and circulate it among the board members over the course of the week. “That would set the stage and allow us to say that if Kerry is elected we will hold him accountable for bridging the differences.” Heads nod around the table. Chairs are pushed away, and the meeting is over. By late Thursday, the board has signed off on the endorsement.

Yesterday, the 557,000 readers of the Sunday Chronicle saw this:

This nation is not only polarized, it is caught in a disturbing cycle of political assault and payback. We need a leader who can reach across that divide to form common alliances on difficult issues that matter, such as addressing the health-care crisis or reforming Social Security and Medicare entitlements to avoid the coming collision when Baby Boomers retire — an issue that has received scant attention in this campaign. Bush, with his good- versus-evil certitude on everything from foreign policy to same-sex marriage, has failed that test of leadership for these troubled times.

This government needs a change in direction: in how it preserves liberty and opportunity for its people, in how it manages its rich resources, in how it applies its military superiority to protect us, in how it relates to the world. One candidate for president sees those challenges.

We recommend a vote for John Kerry on Nov. 2.

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Susan Q. Stranahan wrote for CJR.