Opinion writers throw everything they have against Trump

September 8, 2016
Donald Trump appears at Pinkerton Academy in Derry

What does it mean to be a Republican? Variations of the question have been posed ad nauseum over the past year as reality TV star and Twitter personality Donald Trump insulted his way to the party’s presidential nomination.

For The Dallas Morning News, a newspaper that has backed the GOP candidate in every election since 1964, it was a fitting start to its anti-endorsement of Trump published Tuesday. “Trump doesn’t reflect Republican ideals of the past,” the conservative editorial board wrote. “We are certain he shouldn’t reflect the GOP of the future.” On Wednesday, the Morning-News went a step further by recommending Hillary Clinton for the White House. It is the first time the paper has supported a Democratic candidate since Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1936.

“With respect to our institution’s history and our vision for the future, we felt the need to explain to our constituency why this particular Republican candidate doesn’t measure up,” Editorial Page Editor Keven Ann Willey tells CJR of the two-day package. “Hillary Clinton is not our favorite, and we’ve been very critical [of her]. But the bottom line is Donald Trump’s mistakes and errors are just in a different universe than Hillary Clinton’s.”

Willey might as well be speaking for all journalists this year. This seemingly never-ending presidential campaign has forced media outlets to rip up their traditional playbooks for election-year news coverage, and many publications have responded with institutional political statements they wouldn’t make in any typical election year.

The vast majority of newspapers have yet to publish presidential endorsements, which typically come the week or two before the November election. Still, editorial boards across the country have denounced Trump early and often, portraying the GOP as a threat to national security and American values such as free speech and political pluralism. While many opinion writers likewise have dim views of Clinton—a few have instead gravitated toward Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson—the GOP nominee remains the driving force behind the unusual outpouring of editorials.

Trump’s disregard for truth and any semblance of intellectual honesty sting journalists’ nostrils unlike any nominee in recent memory. And opinion writers, unbridled by journalistic norms that are arguably unsuitable for this asymmetrical political matchup, say so in plain language as news reporters cannot.

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In June, The San Diego Union-Tribune suggested former President Ronald Reagan, who died in 2004, as a write-in candidate for the California GOP primary. The Tulsa World more recently bucked its tradition of backing Republican candidates in the general election, which it has done since 1940, in favor of backing no one. Wired, a magazine that admits it “has never made a practice of endorsing candidates,” felt so strongly about Trump that it proclaimed full-throated support of Clinton in an unexpected column by its editor. A few other major newspapers, including The Washington Post, published endorsements or anti-endorsements weeks or even months earlier than usual during election season.

“We prefer waiting for the campaign to play out and for issues to emerge and be addressed,” reads a July endorsement of Clinton by The Houston Chronicle, which has backed just two other Democrats since 1960. “We make an exception in the 2016 presidential race, because the choice between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump is not merely political….He is, we believe, a danger to the Republic.”

Adds Willey, whose Dallas Morning News moved its pro-Clinton piece to the front end of a lineup of recommendations to run between Labor Day and the start of early voting in late October: “We’ve just grown increasingly concerned about the tenor of the presidential campaign and decided there was no sense in delaying a couple of weeks.”

That’s also the case in Virginia, where the Richmond Times-Dispatch published its endorsement of Johnson, the leading third-party candidate, last weekend. It’s the first time the paper didn’t endorse a Republican since at least 1980.

“There’s massive dissatisfaction with the major party candidates,” says Editorial Page Editor Todd Culbertson. “And by going early, we hope to legitimize [Johnson] as a person who deserves to be in the debates….We wanted to get in front on this and just let people know that there’s an alternative—and to let other newspapers know that there’s an alternative.”

The Times-Dispatch’s editorial board took a similarly unusual step in February, when it endorsed Florida Senator Marco Rubio in the state’s GOP primary. The newspaper typically holds its opinion till the general election.

“It seems odd to endorse [in the primary] because the candidate you choose might not end up as one of the options in the general,” Culbertson says. “But this year, we just couldn’t do Trump. We thought it was necessary to defeat him in the primary season….He’s not a president.” 

Of course, Trump defeated Rubio in the Virginia primary, and it likewise seems dubious that print publications’ endorsements could move the needle during the general election. Republican also-rans Rubio and John Kasich drew the vast majority of newspaper endorsements during the GOP primary season.

Trump’s media endorsers will likely continue their apologia for his racism, sexism, conspiracy theories, and general incompetence as the general election looms.

Trump’s media endorsers during the nominating contests included the tabloid New York Post, the tabloid-ier National Enquirer, and the New York Observer, which is published by his son-in-law. He’s drawn additional support—both implicit and explicit—from the likes of Breitbart News, right-wing talk radio, and some Fox News hosts, particularly frequent water-carrier Sean Hannity. Those actors will likely continue their apologia for Trump’s racism, sexism, conspiracy theories, and general incompetence as the general election looms.

Anti-Trump publications will meanwhile attempt to influence their own audiences on the opinion pages. Perhaps more importantly, there’s a feeling among many news organizations that they must plant an institutional flag in the ground to show where they stand in an election that holds particular danger for the American idea. “There was a feeling around the room [during an editor’s meeting] that we needed to weigh in on this,” says Fred Guterl, executive editor of Scientific American. “We needed to do this for the record.”

Guterl can’t recall Scientific American officially backing a presidential candidate at any point during its 171-year history. Yet it essentially endorsed science, reason, and logic in an editorial for its September issue, rebuking Trump without mentioning Clinton by name. “We encourage the nation’s political leaders to demonstrate a respect for scientific truths in word and deed,” the piece reads. “And we urge the people who vote to hold them to that standard.”

“We weren’t sitting around thinking, Who should we endorse?” Guterl adds in an interview. “The thing that we really stand up for is this idea that public discourse should consider evidence and should be done in the spirit of science….We put our brand behind this—this is our reputation. And we feel it makes a stronger statement coming from all of us, rather than just one of us.”

David Uberti is a writer in New York. He was previously a media reporter for Gizmodo Media Group and a staff writer for CJR. Follow him on Twitter @DavidUberti.