Here I am hard at work -- taking notes, recording audio, and shooting video -- in an endorsement interview in January 2008. This is actually probably the only photo that exists of me doing this.
I’ve seen some mealy-mouthed excuses and lazy cowardice in my late lamented newspaper career, but I don’t recall when I’ve seen anything to match the Chicago Sun-Times’ decision to abandon political endorsements, which was announced in the paper today.
You can read the whole sorry mess at the paper’s website, but I’m going to copy some passages here in order to take issue with the painfully flawed logic in the tortured editorial.
But first, I want to place this within the context of the recent history of newspapers ceasing to be run by editors with both feet firmly planted in their communities, willing to engage those communities on every level, and being run instead by corporate bean-counters. Not to put too fine a point on it.
In the declining days of the Knight Ridder empire, after the emperor had capriciously moved the capital from Rome (Miami) to San Jose (Constantinople), I attended the last official meeting of KR editorial page editors. It was in San Jose.
EPE meetings were always odd affairs. When publishers met, they had common business to discuss, since money matters were run by corporate. Even the newsroom editors had things to discuss when they met, because of some shared resources, and the fact that they ran big, expensive departments that were intimately tied in with what was happening in the financial side. But since the KR value of not telling papers what to do editorially was absolute (one of the very good things about Knight Ridder, when it was good), there wasn’t much to talk about when we eccentrics from the editorial side were brought in. We got to meet, and talk shop, and hear about interesting things people with similar jobs to ours were doing, but there wasn’t really much point for KR to convene us, as there was nothing we did together, and that’s how we liked it — which was why we only had the meetings about every five year.
But at this last meeting, Tony Ridder had a suggestion. And I won’t call Tony “the emperor” in this context, because he in no way tried to make us do this. He was just making… a suggestion. And it was this: He didn’t think we should endorse in presidential elections. He had two reasons: One, we should be concerning ourselves with local issues, not getting distracted by Washington stuff. Second, from what he could tell, the only thing such endorsements did was make at least half of the readership mad at the paper, and newspapers could ill afford that.
A couple of more junior, less-secure editors made polite noises in response, but others among us explained in pretty strong terms why we had no interest in following that suggestion. I was one of the latter, partly because I never felt insecure in my job right up to the day I got canned, but mainly because we thought it was an awful idea. Especially from a South Carolina perspective. Yeah, maybe you should sit it out if you were in California, but in South Carolina, presidential politics — at least during the nominating process — is big local news. (Of course, I had no argument with the assertion that a newspaper’s main value is its local coverage, and its editorials on local subjects.)
Beyond that, I think there is nothing more lazy or cowardly for a newspaper to do than to fail to express its preference for a candidate — when it has a preference — for public office. If you don’t endorse, you might as well not express opinions about anything. We live in a republic, and our readers can’t act on most of the things we opine about. That power to act is delegated to elected representatives. So… we’re going to express opinions about why this should happen, and that shouldn’t happen, for four years, on subjects regarding which our readers are little more than spectators (sure, they can write letters and such, but it’s still an indirect involvement), but then, when readers actually have to make the critical decision of who will be making those decisions for the next four years (or two, or six), we’re going to clam up?
I say “cowardly,” because Tony was right about one thing: There is nothing a newspaper can do that will make people madder at it than to endorse a candidate. So the quickest way out for the timid is not to endorse. Not all editors have the gumption for it — not to mention the business-side types. (Why, back in MY day as an editor, we made people hate our guts, and we LIKED it, dagnabbit!)
Also, if you were to drop any sort of endorsement, it would be the presidential — because the paper’s franchise is local. But here’s the value of doing it anyway: Most of a newspaper’s endorsements — to state legislature, city council, clerk of court, etc. — involve people about whom the typical reader knows nothing. Not so with the presidential, the reader being bombarded with information about the candidates. Thus, the reader is more empowered to judge the quality of the board’s reasoning when it reads a presidential endorsement — and can use that perspective to judge the degree to which it trusts the paper’s reasoning on the more obscure offices. And that’s important.
But I’m getting ahead of myself in arguing the purposes of endorsements — indeed, of expressing opinions at all. I’ll make the rest of my argument in response to the specifics of the Sun-Times editorial itself.
I won’t attack each and every paragraph, just the ones that most betray a lack of understanding of what endorsements, or for that matter editorials in general, are all about. Let’s start with the fourth graf:
Those days are gone. Most good newspapers today attempt to appeal to the widest possible readership, including people of every political persuasion, by serving up the best and most unbiased news coverage possible. They want to inform you, not spin you.
“Not spin you.” Wow. A spin doctor is someone paid to present only information that favors his client, and to obscure information that does not. Is that really how you’ve been treating your readers during the 71 years you’ve been doing endorsements? Really? Well, shame on you. But that certainly isn’t my understanding of what an editorial board is for. You express opinions, as an institution, because you respect your readers. Your newsroom is dedicated to giving them all the objective information it is within the power of its resources to gather and present — pro, con, and every other point along the spectrum. The editorial page is where you acknowledge that “who, what, where, when” are not enough for the reader to have a full understanding of the issue. The editorial page is where you go into deeper dimensions; it’s where you treat the reader like an adult human being, not as some fainting violet that’s going to wilt in the face of an honest opinion. It’s where you provide your best take on the issue, as well as a variety of other opinions, giving particular precedence to the opinions that oppose your own. And by engaging with that, the reader is given grist for his own intellectual mill, so that when he makes up his own mind, whether he agrees with you or not, his opinion will be stronger and better-considered for having been tested against other carefully-considered ideas. If that’s what you call “spin,” I feel sorry for you, because whatever experience you’ve gained from running an editorial board in the past has been lost on you.
Oh, and finally, if you only want to inform in the narrowest sense, why not do away with the editorial pages? Entirely. Next graf:
With this in mind, the Chicago Sun-Times Editorial Board will approach election coverage in a new way. We will provide clear and accurate information about who the candidates are and where they stand on the issues most important to our city, our state and our country. We will post candidate questionnaires online. We will interview candidates in person and post the videos online. We will present side-by-side comparisons of the candidates’ views on the key issues. We will post assessments made by respected civic and professional groups, such as the Chicago Bar Association’s guide to judicial candidates.
So… let me see if you have this right — you’re going to provide only uncontestable facts, plus ratings and opinions from OTHER people, but you’re not going to dare offer any interpretation of your own? This is worse than I thought. It’s one thing not to say, “We pick THIS guy,” but to refrain from saying, when warranted, “this guy’s position on this particular issue is awful, and here’s why,” you are once again abdicating everything that an editorial page is for.
I mean, if the above is what the editorial board is going to be doing, what the hell is your newsroom doing? Because all of the things you listed are completely within the newsroom’s purview, and require no editorial license. Next graf:
What we will not do is endorse candidates. We have come to doubt the value of candidate endorsements by this newspaper or any newspaper, especially in a day when a multitude of information sources allow even a casual voter to be better informed than ever before.
Yep, that’s right. Readers are drinking information from a firehose. Which is why it is more critical than ever for a serious medium to say, here, to the best of our ability to discern after many years of observing these things professionally, are some ways to make sense out of all this stuff being thrown at you. In addition — and this may be both the strongest reason to do endorsements, and the point that is most at odds with your newfound, excessive humility — you have access to the candidates that your readers don’t have, in spite of all that repetitive, superficial information flowing past their ears. You can, on behalf of your readers, sit down with candidates and question them extensively. It may be unfashionable to acknowledge than an experienced editor has expertise to share, but at least you can admit that you have access that gives you a basis for decision that the reader doesn’t have. You should express what you think, with ample information to back it up, and let the reader make up his mind whether he would reach the same conclusions. Which is a thousand times better than the kind of fodder for thought that he’ll get from a 30-second ad paid for by a superPAC.
As a professional, non-partisan (and I think you ARE saying here that you’re not partisan; in which case I’m proud of you there) observer with rare access, you have an obligation to share with your readers the kind of insight they won’t get from any other source — especially from the self-serving politicians, whose endorsements might easily be based in the desire to get a job in the administration of the successful candidate, or on something even more unsavory. The thing is, you HAVE an opinion regarding the suitability of a candidate, 99 percent of the time — if your brain is fully functioning. Not to share that opinion with your readers is inexcusable.
Now, the worst paragraph so far, which is so awful, I’m going to consider it in two parts. First, the less bad part:
Research on the matter suggests that editorial endorsements don’t change many votes, especially in higher-profile races.
Is that what you really think an endorsement is about? Yes, of course, it’s gratifying if a majority of voters agrees with you. But you are not a political consultant. Your job isn’t to get anyone elected. Your job is to share with readers the best you’ve got on every level — simple facts, analysis, perspective and yes, your informed opinion. Don’t hold anything back. What happens after you share it is up to the reader/voter.
Another school of thought, however — often expressed by readers — is that candidate endorsements, more so than all other views on an editorial page, promote the perception of a hidden bias by a newspaper, from Page One to the sports pages.
This is the biggest canard of all. Read your own words again. The only way you have a “hidden bias” IS IF YOU’RE HIDING IT!!!!! Everybody has a “bias.” Everybody has opinions, if they are human. Everybody has somebody they’d rather see elected than someone else. The editorial page is the one place where you level with the readers and tell them what that “bias” is. Then you have empowered them to judge everything else in the paper, and whether you’re being fair or not, by your honestly stated opinion. This is basic, people! This is Editorial 101! Do you even have any idea why you get up and come in to work every morning? Apparently not, because what you just said is the sort of thing I would expect to hear from someone who not only has never spent a day working at a newspaper (much less on an editorial board), but has never spent any time seriously thinking about it.
Perhaps you’ve noticed by now that I have strong opinions on this subject. And notice that I’m sharing them with you. That’s because I don’t have, and have never had, a “hidden bias.” I give it all to you straight.
A bit further down:
We pride ourselves in offering a smart editorial page that is deeply engaged in vital civic issues, and we will continue on that course. We have in the last year singled out for special attention a handful of issues on which we believe great progress must be made for the sake of Chicago’s future, beginning with the quality of our public schools, the health of our local economy, the city’s and state’s shaky finances, the crying need for alternatives to prison for low-level nonviolent offenders, and the integrity of our political system. We want a cleaner lake and a cleaner river. We want safer parks and streets. We want an end to daily traffic gridlock.
We’ll keep pushing.
You will? Because I couldn’t tell for sure that you were going to express actual opinions on those subjects, much less offer opinions that “push.” I was worried that you were going to write some “he said, she said” on those subjects the way you’re planning to do on endorsements. Singling out “for special attention” issues “on which we believe great progress must be made” doesn’t tell me that you’re going to describe what progress looks like. But I will remain hopeful, even though you give me a thin basis. (You’re against traffic gridlock? Well, aren’t you stepping out on a limb…)
Can it get worse? Yep:
But our goal, when we’re not too much on our high horse, is to inform and influence your thinking, not tell you what to do.
Oh, you’re just so humble it’s a wonder you don’t sink right through the floor. “Not tell you what to do.” Really? Really? Is that what you think it’s all about? Then, once again, why do you have an editorial page?
Any newspaper editor who thinks what he’s doing in expressing opinions is telling readers “what to do,” and actually expects them to DO it, is a candidate for protective restraint. He can’t be trusted crossing the street alone.
The editorial page is, once again, the place where you treat readers like grown-ups. You have enough respect for them to know they’re going to make up their own minds. But it takes even greater respect to understand that when you tell them how you’ve made up your minds, they are big enough to take it, and study on it, and pass judgment for themselves on what you have to say. The more arguments you are exposed to, the harder you have to think to make up your own mind, and the better your conclusions are in the end. It’s the same with readers. They aren’t idiots. Engage them. Respect them. Tell them what you think; don’t hold back.
Because if you don’t, you are insulting them by expecting them to believe that you have no opinions. And if you treat them like that, I don’t see why they should read your newspaper at all.