A Few Choice Words

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By: Joe Strupp

The editorial board of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution gathered in the paper’s fifth-floor conference room on Sept. 28 like they do every morning. Only this time, their task would likely get more attention than most. That’s because the six-person group had come together to decide who the paper would support for president. Between sips of coffee around a long meeting table and glances outside the corner office window overlooking Marietta Street, the group spent 45 minutes debating the merits, and demerits, of John Kerry and George W. Bush.

Assembled inside the room, which is decorated with award-winning editorial pages and maps of the world and Georgia, were Editorial Page Editor Cynthia Tucker, her deputy, Jay Bookman, and editorial writers Lyle V. Harris, Maureen Downey, Jim Wooten, and David McNaughton. Although Editor Julia Wallace confers with the board ? and, technically, has the final approval on endorsements ? she was not there. Publisher John Mellott also did not attend. In an unusual tradition, the Journal-Constitution’s publisher plays no part in political endorsements, editors say.

First order of business: an informal count. The result, which board members would not reveal, was a split decision favoring Kerry. Then the back-and-forth began. “You have the record of the incumbent,” Bookman recalls, describing the discussion. “He became the issue.” Each attendee then made a pitch, with more backing Kerry, but nearly all finding some fault with him.

To understand the Journal-Constitution editorial board, it’s important to trace its recent history. Prior to the merger of the Atlanta Journal and Atlanta Constitution on Nov. 5, 2001, the city had two strong, opposing editorial voices. The evening Journal provided a stark conservative viewpoint, while the morning Constitution often championed liberal causes. Even when the papers merged, reader demand for two rival viewpoints caused the paper to keep three Journal editorial board members on at the new Journal-Constitution.

Today, only one of those three, Wooten, a former Journal editorial page editor, remains. As expected, he sounded a loud pro-Bush opinion during the endorsement meeting. “I made an incredibly compelling argument about why we should endorse Bush, then someone turned on the steamroller,” Wooten says. A follow-up vote confirmed the board’s first tally: Kerry would get the endorsement.

“If you have followed our editorials over four years, you wouldn’t be surprised,” Tucker explains. “We disagreed with the president on tax cuts, on affirmative action, stem cells, [school] vouchers, and same-sex marriage. And we vehemently disagreed with him on Iraq.”

Then came the decision about what the paper would say, and who would write it. “We try to come to a consensus and reflect the misgivings of those who oppose it in the writing of the editorial,” explains Bookman, who authored the endorsement. “If it is 4-3, that is different than 7-0.” The endorsement appeared on Oct. 10 and offered a sharp attack on the president’s record.

Looking back at the entire process, Tucker comments: “It is useful because it forces us to restate our values. We want to help voters think and make thoughtful decisions.”

The protocol and process in Atlanta mix typical and uncommon elements. After all, the different ways newspapers come up with endorsements ? or choose not to ? are as varied as the newspapers themselves, E&P found in several weeks of interviews early this fall.

From The Hawk Eye of Burlington, Iowa, where editor and publisher Steve Delaney decides on his own, to The Philadelphia Inquirer, where a 19-person editorial board batted around the issue before voting 18-1 for Kerry, approaches to reaching this quadrennial decision run the gamut.

For some papers, such as the Journal-Constitution, the process comes down to a strict editorial-board vote with no interference from the publisher. At many others, like Newsday of Melville, N.Y., editorial board members discuss the candidates informally without a vote and make a consensus choice which the publisher can overrule.

But long discussions are not necessarily required. At the New Haven (Conn.) Register, two editors and the publisher decided who to endorse after “a brief discussion lasting about five minutes.” And at least one daily, the Chattanooga (Tenn.) Times Free Press, which has two separate editorial pages left over from its 1999 merger, is endorsing both Bush and Kerry.

Pulling back the curtain

At most newspapers, the editorial board reviews and recommends, but the publisher has final say. However, most of those who spoke with E&P stressed that few publishers had overturned a board consensus. In a few cases, editors follow the directive of distant corporate parents.

Then there are papers that endorse only in certain races, while others don’t endorse at all. “It would be much easier to just say ‘never mind’,” admits Tucker, whose Journal-Constitution is offering endorsements in more than 75 races across five counties in addition to the presidential contest. “But that is the easy way out.”

But do endorsements carry much weight anymore? Nearly all of the editors interviewed by E&P agree that their opinions on who should be in the White House have a relatively low impact on voters. Most say, however, that their choices in lower-level campaigns mean more to readers, who have little time or interest to dig up information on candidates for county commission or school board.

“They mean very little in the presidential election,” says John Temple, editor and publisher of the Denver Rocky Mountain News, which endorsed Bush. “We know we can be very influential in other races.” The paper requires local candidates seeking endorsements to meet with the five-person editorial board.

An E&P poll of more than 2,200 newspaper readers in 2000 found that only 4% claimed they were strongly affected by a newspaper’s presidential endorsement, while two to three times as many admitted being influenced by endorsements in state and local races.

A different poll that same year of nearly 200 newspaper editors and publishers indicated four out of five considered endorsing candidates to be “an important responsibility,” while 40% believed endorsements lead to “superior candidates being elected.”

This year’s election produced significant changes in endorsement trends on a local and national scale, both in when picks are made and the impact they may have.

Because a number of states now allow voters to start casting ballots well before election day, many newspapers got endorsements out much earlier. Oregon, for example, has gone to an all-mail ballot, which some people received on Oct. 12. Other papers moved up their choices for president because their state was in the “battleground” category, and they wanted to have a little more impact on the electoral outcome.

“Washington State was considered an in-play state,” recalls James F. Vesely, editorial page editor of The Seattle Times, which endorsed Kerry on Aug. 27. “Once we decided, we did not want to wait.” The Philadelphia Daily News endorsed Kerry back in June.

But there’s a risk in seeming too proactive. Those who allege bias in political reporting are now more apt to use an endorsement as proof of unfair coverage, even though editorial and news departments stand apart. “We put the credibility of this paper on the line” with all endorsements, says Brent Larkin, editorial page editor of The Plain Dealer in Cleveland.

Most big guns don’t endorse

Oddly, only two of the five largest papers in the country offer presidential endorsements. Of those big guns ? USA Today, The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post ?only the Post and the New York Times normally make presidential picks.

“The original feeling was that people could make up their own minds,” says USA Today editorial page editor Brian Gallagher, adding that the no-endorsement policy dates back to founder Al Neuharth’s doctrine when the paper launched in 1982. “As soon as you endorse, you are identifying yourself as a Democratic newspaper or Republican newspaper.” The policy goes along with USA Today’s steady practice of offering opposing viewpoints from guest editorialists.

At the Los Angeles Times, which considered bringing back presidential endorsements this year after a 32-year hiatus following its 1972 backing of Richard M. Nixon, the paper ultimately chose to continue offering a “no comment” on that choice. The practice began as a way of steering the paper away from predictably picking conservatives. Michael Kinsley, who has served as editorial and opinion editor since June, says the paper decided to keep its tradition going because it has worked well and he does not believe “someone is going to let the L.A. Times decide for them who they are going to vote for.”

Then there’s the Wall Street Journal, whose high circulation and passionately conservative editorial views give it enough weight to influence an election with or without an endorsement. “We prefer to comment on issues and policies and events,” says Paul Gigot, the Journal’s editorial page editor. “Anybody who reads our page is going to know that we prefer Bush’s foreign policy over Kerry’s. I don’t know if our endorsement would make much difference.”

That leaves the New York Times and the Washington Post. Neither paper’s editorial page editor would reveal too much about their paper’s process for backing a candidate, but each appears to put serious effort into the decision.

At the Times, which has endorsed 24 Democrats and 12 Republicans for president since 1852 ? and backed Kerry this year ? a GOP presidential candidate has not gotten its support since Dwight Eisenhower in 1956. Still, the paper seeks to interview both candidates for the top office and takes into consideration the views of all 16 editorial board members. Editorial Page Editor Gail Collins would not say if a formal vote is taken, but describes the process as reaching a consensus.

“When it comes to president, I think our readers know who they are going to vote for, but the endorsement adds to the national conversation,” says Collins. Publisher Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr., who does not sit in on the discussion, has the final say on endorsements. However, “he is not the kind of guy who tends to interfere,” Collins observes. “He is very respectful of the opinions of the board.”

As for the Post, Editorial Page Editor Fred Hiatt is reluctant to reveal much about the paper’s endorsement process, which includes a recommendation from the eight-person editorial board and final approval from Post Chairman/CEO Donald E. Graham. “A formal vote is not our style, we talk and come to a consensus,” Hiatt tells E&P. “We try to make the best judgment as to who is best for the job, and we try best to explain that to readers.”

The Post has withheld an endorsement for president at least once, in 1988, when it chose to support neither George H.W. Bush nor Michael Dukakis. “We are often tempted not to endorse anyone, but we realize that we want voters to vote,” he says.

Corporate control?

MediaNews Group Vice Chairman and CEO William Dean Singleton makes no secret that George W. Bush is a friend. Having met the younger Bush when Singleton oversaw the Journal Tribune in Biddeford, Maine, he remains an obvious supporter of his re-election. But if you think that means each of Singleton’s 40 daily papers have orders to endorse Bush, think again. According to the Denver-based media mogul, he issues no directives to his newspapers on endorsements, following a firm rule that his local publishers have the final word. Except for The Denver Post and The Salt Lake Tribune, where Singleton is publisher, each publication can endorse as it wishes.

“The local publisher knows more about what’s best for the local community than we do,” Singleton affirms. “They have a much better handle on the community.” Even in the case of the Post and Tribune, Singleton will listen to their editorial boards’ choices before offering his final opinion.

In 2000, before Singleton became publisher of the Post, the paper endorsed Al Gore. In the same election, his two Vermont papers ? the Brattleboro Reformer and Bennington Banner ?backed Ralph Nader, while his Fairbanks (Alaska) Daily News-Miner never endorses for any office.

“Only about 80% of the [MediaNews Group] papers endorsed Bush in 2000,” Singleton says. “It is a local issue. One presidential candidate’s policies might be good for Vermont but lousy for Utah.” He adds that endorsements are a way to help readers make up their own minds, not tell them what to do.

Most of the major newspaper chains follow a similar approach, letting local papers make their own selections. The E.W. Scripps Co., however, has had a long history of issuing a chainwide presidential endorsement for its papers, based on the collective vote of editors from each daily. Since the tradition began 92 years ago, the Scripps editors have endorsed mostly Republicans, with only four Democrats: Woodrow Wilson in 1912, James M. Cox in 1920, Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932, and Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964, according to company historians. They also managed to go for a third-party candidate, Robert M. LaFollette, in 1924.

“The idea was that you had a better chance of getting who was best for the whole country, and you would have more impact, if everyone went the same way,” says Alan M. Horton, Scripps senior vice president/newspapers. But the editors voted this year to end the tradition. Some editors cited awkward situations for papers that would editorialize mostly liberal or progressive views all year, then endorse a Republican for president. “We realized it is good for readers to know their editors are responsible for what goes in the newspaper,” Horton explains.

Sure enough, on Oct. 12, Scripps’ Albuquerque Tribune, which had backed Bush in 2000, announced for Kerry.

But at least one newspaper chain still dictates presidential endorsements for its papers. Copley Press, which runs The San Diego Union-Tribune and eight other dailies, usually orders each paper to follow the endorsement of the conservative-leaning U-T editorial board, according to Hal Fuson, Copley vice president and chief legal officer. “We have more horsepower at the Union-Tribune and they are probably in the best position to make the most spirited argument,” Fuson said. “It has been our practice since the company began [in 1928]. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” The paper endorsed Bush on Oct. 17.

An Oregon conclusion

Still, for a majority of newspapers, the preferred approach for endorsements seems to be getting a broad view from a small group, but in a variety of ways depending on the race. At The Oregonian in Portland, for example, Editorial Page Editor Bob Caldwell meets with Publisher Fred Stickel, Editor Sandra Mims Rowe, and six editorial writers. All nine confer on the major endorsements for president, senator, and governor, but smaller races and ballot measures are reviewed by a single editorial writer who interviews the candidates alone and then reports back with a recommendation.

“Then a discussion is held on the recommendation of that writer, with other editorial board members expressing their views and their reasoning,” Michael Arrieta-Walden, public editor at the paper, wrote in a Sept. 12 column. “No official vote by the board is tallied, although it’s clear where people stand.” If a final decision is required, Caldwell, not publisher Stickel, makes it. Caldwell, in fact, broke a tie in 2000 that led to the endorsement of Bush.

This year, Caldwell and Stickel were at odds over the endorsement, Arrieta-Walden wrote in another column. The paper eventually went with Kerry despite Stickel’s preference for Bush. “Caldwell says the decision was difficult for him, especially because the board so respects Stickel’s opinion,” Arrieta-Walden wrote. “But Caldwell ultimately agreed with most other board members to endorse Kerry.”

For many newspapers, the preferred approach is a consensus that avoids one person’s decision as law. “It’s not exactly clear-cut,” says John Diaz, editorial page editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, which endorsed Kerry and where a nine-person board makes the endorsements, but Publisher Steven B. Falk can intervene. “In the [four years] that Hearst has owned this newspaper, an editorial-board judgment has never been overruled by the publisher.”

Then there’s the Chicago Tribune, where the paper’s 150 years of endorsing Republicans for president continued with this year’s nod to Bush. “We’ve only endorsed one Democrat, Horace Greeley [in 1872],” said editorial writer and board member Cornelia Grumman. “And he lost.”

But in reality, editors say, it is endorsements for city council, school board, and civil court judge elections that readers often turn to newspapers for most. Brent Larkin of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland says, “The further down you go in the ballot, the more influence we have.” In most of those cases, one or two members of the editorial board are assigned to a smaller race, interview candidates, then recommend to the full board. Depending on the paper, a publisher or editor can overrule or make the final decision.

Slim pickings

In Melville, N.Y., Newsday has had a few interesting endorsement incidents, beginning with 1960 when then-Editor Alicia Patterson gave the paper’s official support to John F. Kennedy, while her husband, Harry F. Guggenheim, the president and publisher at the time, made clear his preference for Richard M. Nixon in an unusual Op-Ed column. Newsday historians have said the disagreement nearly led to divorce.

Years later, Newsday raised some eyebrows when it endorsed former Sen. Paul Tsongas for president in the 1992 New York primary, even though he had effectively pulled out of the Democratic race. The Long Island daily protested the poor performance of some New York state legislators in 2000, offering no endorsement that year in a number of races, a practice it plans to continue this year and one the Rochester (N.Y.) Democrat and Chronicle is following. “I think we are proud that we are not predictable,” Jim Klurfeld, Newsday’s editorial page editor, affirms. “I am comfortable with the fact that we make up our minds on a case-by-case basis.”

While most editorial boards consist of editors and editorial writers, with a publisher or columnist thrown in, a few have expanded to include some surprising voices. The Idaho Statesman in Boise has a community representative who doesn’t work at the paper on its board, while the Arizona Daily Star in Tucson gives editorial cartoonist Dave Fitzsimmons a seat at the table. “He gives us a shot from left field,” explains Dennis Joyce, the Daily Star’s editorial page editor. “He brings a perspective that is a little different.”

Some editorial boards have taken to adding other elements to their endorsement review, such as: questionnaires, interviewing local candidates simultaneously in a debate-like atmosphere, and even having readers come in to query the wanna-be politicians. “It is good when the opponent is there to challenge,” Asbury Park (N.J.) Press Editor William “Skip” Hidlay says about the joint interviews. “You get a better view of who is telling the truth, and then you pin them down.”

Grumman of the Chicago Tribune, which uses questionnaires on all political races, said they stop candidates from “weaseling out” of tough questions. “We also call a lot of them for follow-up interviews,” she says. “We found someone running for Congress in 2000 who was in a mental institute. We had another one running for the statehouse, an incumbent, who couldn’t spell. There were gross misspellings all through her questionnaire.”

Pam Platt, public editor of The Courier-Journal in Louisville, Ky., remembers the candidate who lost the endorsement of one of her previous employers and flew over the paper with a banner declaring it unfair.

John Kerr, editorial page editor of the Las Vegas Review-Journal, recalls state Assemblywoman Genie Ohrenschall, an incumbent who sought an endorsement in 2000 under questions concerning her stability after she lost custody of her daughter. “She brought her psychiatrist with her to vouch for her sanity,” Kerr recalls. “We didn’t endorse her, but she won re-election.”

The Journal-Constitution’s Maureen Downey says a state Senate candidate last year arrived for an endorsement sit-down with a parrot on his shoulder. “He didn’t get an endorsement or a win,” she recalls.

Another strange scene, Downey says, was the endorsement interview for former De Kalb County Sheriff Sidney Dorsey ? running for re-election in the 2000 Democratic primary ? who brought his wife, daughter, son, and aunt to the meeting. The family support did not help Dorsey, who lost the endorsement and primary to the man who eventually won the general election that November, Derwin Brown.

Dorsey made national news when he was later convicted of conspiring in a plot to hire two men to kill Brown, who was murdered outside his home.

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