Stengel’s Wrong About Endorsements

Editors in Ohio and Texas explain why

Every election cycle, it seems, someone emerges to criticize the fact that newspaper editorial boards endorse presidential candidates. This year’s critic is Richard Stengel, Time’s managing editor. In an editorial in this week’s issue, he laments the fact that in 2004, 418 newspapers ran endorsement (29 percent of all American papers) and that this year, with a contentious race, the endorsement process is bound to continue. He would be just the latest kvetcher in a long line of them, except he has an unusual take on the ills of endorsing. Usually, when people like Al Neuharth, the mastermind behind USA Today, complain about this seasonal ritual, it’s to rage against newspapers who think it’s their place to tell their readers what to think. In the last national election, Neuharth proposed abandoning endorsements and instead running editorials about the candidates that “debate, but not dictate” a choice.

Stengel agrees but he also attacks from a different direction. He argues that we are living through a period when “the credibility and viability of the press are at all-time lows,” partly because readers are questioning “the objectivity of newspapers in particular and the media in general.” It doesn’t make sense, then, to further erode readers’ trust in a newspaper’s objectivity by making a concrete choice of one candidate over another. It will cause readers to be “dubious,” about whether, for example, “the reporter who covers Hillary Clinton can be objective if his newspaper has endorsed Barack Obama.” What he’s saying, basically, is that when a newspaper tells readers who it thinks is best choice to lead the country, which, Stengel rightly notes is “the most personal decision we make as citizens,” it only ends up “undermining the very basis for their business, which is impartiality.”

Stengel never clarifies how exactly he thinks an endorsement is any different from the other issues on which editorial boards opine daily. He only says that the choice of president is a more personal and important one. But how much more personal or important is it, really, than issues of affordable health care or the Iraq war, issues of actual life or death for many Americans? Editorial boards express their opinions about these subjects every day, but Stengel apparently has no problem with this, though they may affect a person’s life much more than a difference in style, which, when it comes down to it, is really the argument for Clinton or Obama.

But let’s leave this question aside for a moment and instead focus on his central premise: does endorsing a candidate undermine the perception of objectivity?

I sent Stengel’s column to editorial page editors in Ohio and Texas, where critical primary contests are taking place next week, to see if they were worried about this. They were the ones, after all, who had to decide whether to endorse and whether it would affect their coverage.

Well, everyone I talked to immediately discounted the notion that the endorsement would actually alter in any way how they reported the race.

“I can’t control the level of ignorance of a few people in the community,” said James Howard Gibbons, editor of the opinion pages at the Houston Chronicle. “But most people actually get that the editorial board and the newsroom have absolutely no influence on one another.”

In slightly less harsh tones, all the editors I spoke to expressed a similar sentiment and a bit more hopefulness that the general public is actually fairly aware of the wall between editorial and news. The reporter covering Obama is not going to be affected by the fact that his newspaper endorsed Hillary, and most readers knows this.

But Stengel’s point was perception. Here, too, the editors I spoke with flipped the question around: What would it mean if they didn’t endorse? Said Michael Douglas, the editorial-page editor at the Akron Beacon-Journal:

We make choices everyday and offer advice everyday on issue that are important to the state and to the country, too. One of those choices is president. It’s only logical that we should express our choice then as well. We are not telling people who to chose. We’re simply giving our argument.

Douglas also said—and this was echoed by others—that endorsements usually present the deliberative process that the editorial board went through to reach its decision. This unfolding of a reasoned argument, rather than simple assertion, has disappeared from much of our culture. “We do sit down and try to sift through issues in a different way than people on television do and other people that are bloggers who speak as individuals and not as institutions.”

If anything, the argument I heard from editors was that Stengel underestimates readers’ intelligence. There is little doubt that endorsements should probably evolve to fit the needs of today’s readers, who are more sophisticated and educated than the early twentieth-century audience for whom endorsements were initially conceived, but the solution is not to abandon them.

Michael Curtin, the associate publisher emeritus at the Columbus Dispatch, predicted that endorsements will eventually take the form of consumer reports, grading the candidates on a range of issues. “This would be a more sophisticated way to do it,” he told me, “presenting candidates strengths or weaknesses, as opposed to simply saying who to choose.”

This would respond to a public that, Curtin says, is “more discerning, more intelligent” about how they interact with the newspaper’s editorial page.

It’s also a solution that rests on a premise that is completely opposite from Stengel’s. Whereas the Time chief thinks that the jaded attitude readers have about the press should be answered by abandoning a tradition because it might offend people’s superficial perceptions, Curtin suggests that readers are simply smarter and endorsements should evolve to meet their intelligence. Or, as he put it, talking about Stengel: “He overstates the case. I give our readers more credit.”

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Gal Beckerman is a former staff writer at CJR.