Critical Thinking: Should Newspapers Make Political Endorsements?
Posted: 8/16/2012 | By: Nu Yang
Q: Should newspapers make political endorsements even though many people believe they should be objective news sources?
Michael McGuire, 20, senior at Washington and Lee University (Lexington, Va.)
McGuire will be a senior this coming fall, studying journalism, Spanish, and creative writing. His journalistic work, essays, and commentary have appeared in The Baltimore Sun, Richmond Times-Dispatch, The Miami Herald, and El Nuevo Herald.
A: The second Saturday of my internship with El Nuevo Herald, I was sent to a restaurant in Little Havana for a story. There, a Cuban man, angry with the Herald for not covering his event that morning, called me to his table to begin what was more of a lecture than an interview. Taking shots at President Obama and Fidel Castro, he looked for my accord, face red, hoping I was as livid as he was about “el presidente liberal” and “los comunistas.” I could only muster the understanding nod I had learned from Oprah Winfrey and Morley Safer.
I’m not afraid of political opinions or apathetic about government, elections, or even Cuba. I vote, and sans press badge, I debate. But opening my mouth in that restaurant, freeing any sound of affirmation or disapproval, would have forever changed the way the man read my stories and the newspaper as a whole. So I stayed quiet.
Why shouldn’t newspapers do the same regarding political endorsements? They already have power to shape the political process, bringing scandals to light and sending reporters to the state house, the White House, and the courthouse. Newspapers vet candidates and report their stances on the issues, however temporary.
The American newspaper is a one-of-a-kind forum for fact and opinion. In Spain, readers expect ABC to champion Rajoy. Le Monde’s French readers want stories to lean slightly center-left. But in the United States, we crave papers stripped to the facts, giving space, when appropriate, to all on the editorial page. That objectivity was born of a sell-as-many-papers-as-possible mindset, but we’ve held onto it for much nobler reasons.
Editors don’t want my stories to have a political leaning. And if they think endorsing a politician on the opinion page won’t taint my stories just the same, they’re wrong.
Elizabeth Sullivan, 59, editorial page editor, The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer
As The Plain Dealer’s European correspondent in the 1990s, Sullivan covered the Balkan wars and breakup of Yugoslavia. In 1994, at the height of the Bosnian war, she was held for 72 hours by the Bosnian Serb army. Sullivan joined the paper’s editorial board in 2003 and has been editorial page editor since 2009.
A: The answer is “yes” and “yes.”
Yes, newspapers should make political endorsements and, yes, newspapers should remain scrupulously objective in their news coverage. How to reconcile these two? Keep the editorial page operations separate from the news operations, as has been done for years at most newspapers.
Bailing out of political endorsements is not being “objective.” It’s simply running up another white flag in the fight to keep newspapers relevant and engaged in their communities. Newspaper editorial boards should take tough stances on tough issues to remain positive change agents in society. Politics is about as rough-and-tumble as it gets.
Political endorsements — done right — give voters insight and inside knowledge they might not otherwise have, particularly in judicial races, which in Ohio are a notorious “name game.”
Endorsements don’t tell voters what to do. They help voters make their own assessments by hearing what some reasonably smart people with decades of experience as journalists think after weighing candidates’ political histories, issue positions, and campaign tactics, and after observing their behavior and interactions in a group interview.
This process can be tremendously revealing, which is why The Plain Dealer still endorses in scores of races from local issues, mayors, and county offices in a seven-county area right up to state and national offices.
Doing political endorsements is also tremendously time-consuming; our editorial board starts in July to complete all endorsement assessments before the November elections. (Our first endorsement interview for Nov. 6 was July 3, in a state appellate court race.) But that investment of time is worth it — in the insights we get about what’s afoot in all corners of our community, and in the extra information and context we can offer voters and readers.