The death of endorsements

27 Jul

Newspaper endorsements are interesting – and controversial.

On one side you have those who say the media is in a good position to judge a political candidate because it covers the person.

On the other side, some say a newspaper that is supposed to provide unbiased reporting should not be picking sides.

Since the media is now rolling out its preferences, it’s a good time to look at endorsements.

Politics 101 in now in session.

Newspaper editorial pages have been endorsing presidential candidates for well over a century.

In October 1860, the New York Times threw its support behind a “Mr. Lincoln, of Illinois, familiarly known as ‘Old Abe,’ age 51, height six feet seven, by profession Rail-Splitter.”

Lincoln would, of course, go on to become a fairly decent president.

But did The Times’s endorsement help him gain the White House?

More generally, do editorial page endorsements have any effect on any election outcome?

Ask any politician and they’ll say everything helps.

Getting a major newspaper endorsement will make any political candidate giddy with delight.

A copy or a mention of that endorsement will show up in the politician’s ads and emails quickly.

But there’s a fact to keep in mind:

Newspaper endorsements do not translate into votes.

The winner of the most newspaper presidential endorsements has lost their election three times since 1972 — in 1976, 1996 and 2004.

The endorsement leader became the election winner in the seven other elections, but that may be because before 1992 it always favored the GOP and those years happened to see a string of Republican presidents.

Political candidates spend a lot of time and energy trying to get a newspaper’s endorsement.

They fill out questionnaires, lobby people and attend hours-long editorial board meetings to answer questions on their political positions.

The argument can be made it doesn’t do much because most people see newspapers as liberal, left-leaning and Republican owned.

No amount of protest by the paper will convince some people that the editorial and reporting sides of a newspaper are different and neither influences the other.

Because too often it’s not been true.

There have been too many times that the newspaper’s publisher or owner has been caught (or at least accused) of shaping the news coverage.

Politicians complaining about newspapers has gone on since the first one was printed.

Ignoring them is something new in politics.

People smarter than us make the argument that newspaper endorsement no longer have the weight they used to – in these days of 24/7 news cycles, cable television and the Internet.

In fact, last January the Chicago Sun-Times announced it would no longer do endorsements, for many of these reasons:

Voters are now getting their information from a variety of sources and to a much lesser degree from the traditional news media, especially newspapers.

Some candidates are thinking that meeting with the folks who decide newspaper endorsements isn’t worth their time or trouble.

They may be right.

In an era when trust of the news media is close to all-time lows and readership has fallen like a rock, most of the newspapers that have survived are shells of their former selves when it comes to clout in their communities and their financial health.

The economics of a newspaper are important because papers that are worried about their existence are more likely to be careful of alienating any potential readers.

Not too many years ago, newspaper endorsements were a big deal to candidates because it was believed the news media were a good mirror for the public’s views and values.

But today, that’s no longer the case.

Still, while some newspapers have dropped endorsing candidates, most continue it.

Most candidates, at least for statewide and local office, go through the formality of sitting for an interview even if they suspect it is a waste of time.

The flood of money from PACs mean a major candidate can go over the news media’s heads directly to the public.

There’s also the political assumption that coverage from the press could be expected to be mainly negative, or at least unfavorable.

We do note television stations do not endorse candidates.

If they did, it would be a very brave candidate who chose to ignore them.

But newspapers seem to be another story.

The print media is dying in more ways than one.

One Response to “The death of endorsements”

  1. Anonymous July 27, 2012 at 6:52 pm #

    It’s really hard to dredge up much sympathy for the newspaper industry when they gouged us for so long. I didn’t like Frank Fasi too much but he did object mightily to the JOA which allowed a monopoly for so long. I’ll never forget the Honolulu magazine article of the 80s called “Splitting the $100 million pie” between the Advertiser and Bulletin. It wasn’t until Midweek came along that there was ANY competition.

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