In defense of the newspaper endorsement

Over the weekend, the Union Leader, a newspaper in Manchester, New Hampshire, endorsed Joe Biden for president. “We have found Mr. Biden to be a caring, compassionate and professional public servant,” an editorial in the paper read; President Trump, by contrast, “is not always 100 percent wrong, but he is 100 percent wrong for America.” There’s nothing remarkable in these words, but there was something remarkable about the source: the editorial line of the Union Leader has long skewed highly conservative. (Hunter S. Thompson once called it “America’s worst newspaper.”) National outlets covered the endorsement as a story in its own right, and it drove stunned chatter on Twitter. CNN’s Jake Tapper posted a gif of hell freezing over. USA Today’s Susan Page asked when the Union Leader last endorsed a Democrat for president. Joe McQuaid, its former publisher, said it may have happened in 1912.

The endorsement seemed to be taken as a sign of the times—one more unprecedented rebuke of Trump and his flailing campaign. In late September, the editorial board of the Chicago Tribune—which, like the Union Leader, supported the Libertarian candidate, Gary Johnson, in 2016—endorsed Biden; over the weekend, so did the Topeka Capital-Journal, in Kansas, which plumped for Trump in 2016. (It has changed owners since then.) Last week, USA Today, which has never before endorsed a presidential candidate, broke that tradition to support Biden; in another first, El Nuevo Día, a leading newspaper in Puerto Rico, endorsed Biden’s plan for the territory. With the pandemic looming over the election, Scientific American said that it “felt compelled” to endorse Biden, having never before backed a presidential candidate, and the New England Journal of Medicine, a world-leading medical publication, effectively did likewise, urging its readers to kick out America’s “current political leaders.” The Lancet, a British medical journal that I profiled recently for CJR, made a similar call back in May. And liberal-leaning publications that you’d expect to back Biden have done so with added urgency. Trump, the editors of The Atlantic wrote last week, “is a clear and continuing danger” and “it does not seem likely that our country would be able to emerge whole from four more years of his misrule.”

New from CJR: At Voters’ Service

Look more closely at the endorsement picture, though, and a messier narrative starts to emerge. The Spokane Spokesman-Review, in Washington state, just endorsed Trump, having supported Hillary Clinton in 2016. (Confusingly, it also just endorsed Jay Inslee, a liberal Democrat, for another term as governor of Washington.) Other papers that backed Trump in 2016the Las Vegas Review-Journal; the Santa Barbara News-Press—are backing him again, and he also scored the support of the Colorado Springs Gazette and, yesterday, the New York Post. The latter endorsement is hardly a surprise, but it does, technically, mark a Trump gain on 2016, when the Post backed Trump in the Republican primary but didn’t endorse anyone in the fall. (Its cover then: a photo of a woman holding her nose headlined, “Vote for the one you dislike least”; its cover now: a photo of Trump headlined, “Make America great again, again.”) Many papers that endorsed a candidate in 2016 have declined to do so this year; last month, McClatchy barred its titles, including the Miami Herald and the Charlotte Observer, from endorsing unless they first conducted interviews with both Biden and Trump. Sure, among publications that have endorsed, Biden holds a massive lead—according to The Hill, he has at least 119 endorsements, to Trump’s six—but that doesn’t represent much of a change from 2016, when Clinton hammered Trump in endorsements. We all know how that turned out.

Rather than a divining rod for the national mood, assessing the state of the endorsement race feels more like a case of swings and roundabouts. In the same vein, we’ve seen a retreading of the quadrennial debate as to whether newspapers weighing in on candidates is A Good Thing or Not. Critics of the practice continue to argue that endorsements don’t tend to sway voters—as Josh Sternberg wrote yesterday in his newsletter, The Media Nut, they are “a vestige” of a bygone age when newspapers “controlled what information was considered worthy of discussion”—and risk undermining readers’ trust in impartial news reporting by making papers as a whole, and not just their editorial boards, look biased. Sometimes, endorsements are palpably silly. In January, the New York Times editorial board was (not unfairly) ridiculed for holding a glossy, multimedia endorsement process during the Democratic primary, then picking two candidates—Amy Klobuchar and Elizabeth Warren—at the end of it; over the weekend, the Spokane Spokesman-Review’s endorsement advised readers to vote Trump even though he is “a bully and a bigot.” Nor are endorsements necessarily representative of anything useful. Given the overbearing whiteness of the media industry, BIPOC perspectives often get marginalized. Sometimes, a newspaper’s endorsement merely reflects the views of a single person or family; as Nieman Lab’s Joshua Benton noted yesterday and the Inlander has previously reported, the Spokesman-Review’s editorial board has one member: the paper’s publisher, Stacey Cowles.

These are weighty objections. But to my mind, at least, they aren’t sufficient to damn the concept of the newspaper endorsement—because they all speak to much bigger problems with the media industry. Mistaking the opinion of the editorial board—or an individual columnist or contributor, for that matter—for the opinion of a paper’s news staff is a media-literacy issue exacerbated by the internet’s disaggregation of the printed news product. So is the broader problem of media mistrust. There aren’t easy fixes here. But mistrust has many causes—not least press-bashing politicians—and papers defensively changing their habits in response isn’t always warranted. Besides, editors can make design choices that emphasize the difference between news and opinion. Even if such choices don’t work, the conclusion that papers should scrap endorsements is an overreaction. Concerns about endorsements and representation are more valid. But again, the answer, here, is to improve media diversity and ownership structures. Canceling endorsements is to remove a symptom, and not a cause. They are an easy target; the structural problems they channel, much less so.

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Establishing that endorsements might not be a bad thing (or not the bad thing, at least) is not the same as making a positive case for them, of course. But they do seem to me to have some value. Some studies have shown that endorsements can influence voters, particularly when they’re unexpected. (The Union Leader’s Biden endorsement would seem to fit in that category.) Local papers’ endorsements in down-ballot races—where readers might have less knowledge of the candidates than in ticket-topping races—can be particularly consequential, too.

Ultimately, the value of endorsements is independent of whether they change votes: they continue a tradition of civic engagement and debate that, quite simply, is a newspaper’s job, whether readers are swayed or not. In January 2017, Danny Funt compellingly outlined a similar case for CJR. In reporting his piece, Funt spoke with opinion editors at more than twenty papers nationwide; one of them, John McCormick, who was then the editorial page editor at the Chicago Tribune, said that “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.” You don’t have to agree with the Tribune’s judgments—and many people certainly did not agree with its 2016 endorsement of Gary Johnson—to see the wisdom in those words.

Below, more on endorsements and the election:

  • A notable endorsement: Yesterday, The State, a newspaper in Columbia, South Carolina, endorsed Jaime Harrison, a Democrat who is running against the incumbent Republican Senator Lindsey Graham. Harrison is running Graham remarkably close, helped in no small part by a huge recent fundraising haul. “We started as a 17-point underdog. Today, I’m honored to accept the endorsement of the oldest newspaper in South Carolina,” Harrison wrote, of The State’s endorsement. “Change is coming, folks.”
  • A crucial function: CJR’s new fellows Shinhee Kang, Ian Karbal, and Feven Merid explore the crucial role that local news outlets are playing in serving their residents information about the voting process, with a particular focus on Ohio, where thousands of voters recently received incorrect mail-in ballots. “For local reporters in Ohio,” Kang, Karbal, and Merid write, “the ballot-distribution error was an opportunity to provide valuable guidance—especially considering, on the national level, the rampant disinformation about election interference and voter fraud.”
  • Hit the road, frack: At last week’s presidential debate, Biden said that he would transition away from the oil industry, and the Trump campaign smelled a gotcha moment. As Emily Atkin writes in her newsletter, HEATED, the media has abetted Trump’s subsequent climate talking points: she assessed thirty articles about the debate exchange and “found that while they all discussed the economic consequences of climate policy, only five discussed the cost of doing nothing.” Trump has also sought to weaponize Biden’s stance on fracking. Several national outlets have hyped fracking as a potentially decisive issue in Pennsylvania—but Oliver Morrison of PublicSource, a nonprofit newsroom in the Pittsburgh area, writes that local voters are probably more concerned about the pandemic, the economy, and America’s “racial reckoning.” (The Philadelphia Inquirer’s Will Bunch also objected to the media’s fracking coverage.)
  • Lessons learned?: TV networks handed Trump oodles of free airtime in 2016. Ariana Pekary, CJR’s public editor for CNN, argues that they haven’t learned from that mistake: Trump was on CNN 1,332 times in September, compared to 829 appearances for Biden, and, as of October 18, Trump led 593 to 179 for this month. Even this close to the election, media decision-makers remain hooked on “chaos and outrage.”


Other notable stories:

  • Last night, the Republican-held Senate voted to confirm Justice Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court. Afterward, she was sworn in by Justice Clarence Thomas in a ceremony on the South Lawn of the White House—one month to the day since a Rose Garden gathering in honor of Barrett’s nomination that turned out to be a COVID-19 superspreader event. In his media newsletter, CNN’s Brian Stelter wrote that Barrett’s confirmation, despite its huge significance, concluded quietly. It was “a fait accompli from the moment it was a possibility, which stripped the proceedings of most of their news value,” he wrote—and besides, we’re distracted by COVID and suffering political fatigue.
  • Yesterday, the New Yorker published an excerpt from A Promised Land, Barack Obama’s forthcoming presidential memoir, that focuses on Obama’s “toughest fight”: healthcare reform. David Remnick, the New Yorker’s editor, praises Obama as “a particularly writerly President,” but notes that the writing of the new book “did not come easily”; when Remnick met with him last year, Obama “made it plain that the book was proving far more stubborn than he had hoped.”
  • Olivia Nuzzi, of New York, profiled one of her anonymous Republican sources and reflected on her complicity, as a reporter, in allowing him to trash Trump on background while publicly praising him. If forced to choose between on-the-record lies or anonymous truth, “I will choose the truth every time,” Nuzzi writes. She concedes, though, that in making that choice, she is “part of a system that enables political leaders to have it both ways.” The press, Nuzzi adds, “provides the alibi as it prosecutes the case.”
  • Jay Wallace, the president of Fox News, and on-air stars Bret Baier, Martha MacCallum, Dana Perino, and Juan Williams have been told to quarantine after taking a charter flight with a staffer who later tested positive for COVID-19. The Daily Beast reports concerns that the incident will complicate the network’s election-night coverage. The Beast also reports that Rob Brown, a Fox video producer, died last week after contracting COVID.
  • The Wall Street Journal’s Lukas I. Alpert writes that BuzzFeed is on track to break even for the first year since 2014—but only because it offset sliding revenue by implementing furloughs, layoffs, and other sharp cuts. BuzzFeed’s news division, in particular, has been heavily pared back in recent years. Some investors have questioned its value to BuzzFeed’s business, though executives see it as a source of prestige, Alpert reports.
  • At the end of the year, the Salt Lake Tribune and the Deseret News, in Utah, will end a longstanding joint operating agreement that saw the papers coordinate on printing, production, and distribution—a move that will lead to the loss of 161 jobs. Following the end of the agreement, the Tribunewhich made a pioneering switch to a nonprofit model last year—will end its daily print paper and start publishing a weekly instead.
  • In the UK, lawyers for Prince Harry issued a warning to the Mail on Sunday, claiming that its recent report alleging that Harry has turned his back on the British Marines was “false and defamatory.” Meghan Markle, Harry’s wife, is currently suing the same paper’s owner for breach of copyright; in April, CJR’s Amanda Darrach outlined that case.
  • And CJR’s Savannah Jacobson profiles the magazine of AARP, a nonprofit representing people over the age of fifty. The magazine is, by default, the most widely-circulated in the US, and its output is “a sort of hybrid combining the glossiness of People, the tips of Cook’s Illustrated, and the policy-deciphering bent of Vox,” Jacobson writes.

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.