Ethics Corner: Journalists Shouldn't Play Endorsement Game
Posted: 11/21/2013  |  By: Allan Wolper
Once upon an election in New York, voters would lock themselves in their polling booths, clutching the editorial page of their favorite newspaper. Then they would click away at the names suggested by those editorials. It was a heady time for editorial writers.

Those days were hard ones for political reporters. No matter how much they tried, the readers and politicians alike knew, wink, wink, wink, wink, that reporters were simply adjuncts of the editorial writers. Liberal papers had reporters who typed with their left hands and conservative papers had right-handed journalists.

No one could dissuade the readers otherwise. Those reader voters had selected clips to confirm their conspiracy theories. Reporters could argue all they wanted to do was present an honest portrait of political life, but few people actually believed them.  

Still, the editorial page remained influential. And their favorite politicians benefited from newspaper endorsements. It had the same kind of cachet as the chroniclers of Broadway and Hollywood.  Meaning the chosen few would immediately buy television and print ads trumpeting the endorsements.

These days, thanks to a “New Normal of Newspaper Marketeers,” anxious to brand their news pages, the editorial page endorsements are losing their luster.

For one thing, the on-line newspaper world is filled with tweeting reporters texting their guts out, bloggers banging madly on their keyboards, Facebooks filled with friends, Linked-in winners and losers, mass emailers, etc.

So there was only one thing a hard writing editorial writer, especially one from a tabloid could do: onto the front page in a call to political arms and legs–warning of dire consequences if voters dared to stray and vote for one of the non-endorsed.

It isn’t working any more in The Big Apple.

Suddenly, the reader began suspecting that a newspaper that pushes a particular candidate instead of reporting on his campaign is heading into an ethical swampland. And it is not to be trusted to trumpet the truth.

In the most recent New York City primary for mayor, the Democratic Party masses turned their backs on all mainline newspapers, and a couple of special interest publications as well. I think that readers are just tired of I Think Journalism. I think they want to know what we found out, not what we think about something.

The New York Times, The Daily News, The New York Post, Newsday, all supported New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn for mayor and the two special publications, El Diario La Prenza and The Amsterdam News, endorsed former New York comptroller Bill Thompson.

The News and the Post splashed their endorsement on their front pages. The Times was a bit more subtle, placing theirs on top of their online edition. But bolstered their editorial page support with a news story that questioned whether the eventual winner of the primary, Bill de Blasio, was someone who had a hard time making decisions.

The marriage of the news and editorial pages, pushed by newspaper marketers to promote their brand, actually hurts the reputation of the news products. Reporters won’t have a chance to even pretend that they are honest evaluators of the political world.

Even The Associated Press, the model of non-political decorum, was affected by the merger of the editorial and news pages. It prompted them to send out a memo that captured the essence of the issue:

“In at least two recent cases, we have seen a few postings on social networks by AP staffers expressing personal opinions on issues in the news. This has happened on The New York State Senate vote on gay marriage and on the Casey Anthony trial. These posts undermine the credibility of our colleagues who have been working so hard to assure balanced and unbiased coverage of these issues.”

The Newark Star Ledger foresaw the endorsement problem back in October, 1973 when it announced that it would no longer endorse political candidates because it left newspapers too open to criticism.

“It seems presumptuous simply to anoint a candidate with an endorsement,” said the then staid Star Ledger. It went on to say that any paper which indulges in editorial politics “becomes vulnerable to criticism that it is biased in its political coverage even though this criticism may be without foundation.”

The Star Ledger eventually succumbed to the lure of the editorial political game and went back to the political endorsement game–a game that shouldn’t be played when so many readers have so many places to get information. It is incumbent on newspapers–which still is the best place to get the news–to remember that their readers need the truth, not what some blogger thinks is the truth.

One more thing: Bill de Blasio won the Democratic primary with 40.8 per cent of the vote. Bill Thompson was second with 26 per cent of the vote. Far behind was Christine Quinn, the winner of the editorial page war, with just 15 per cent of the vote, in third place.
 
There will be those who say that newspaper endorsements are still important because editorial page writers can sniff out the truth with interviews of candidates and offer an important perspective to disinterested readers.

That was a last century truth. The Internet is polluted with mostly half truths. The role of a paper is to guide a reader to where there are dissenting views. The readers won’t get this kind of information from television which these days consists mostly of people practicing I think journalism, sitting at their computers guessing what is going on out there.

Allan Wolper is a professor of journalism at Rutgers-Newark University and host/producer of “Conversations with Allan Wolper,” a broadcast on WBGO 88.3, an NPR affiliate in the New York area.