Pressing Issues: One Major Newspaper Aims to Kerry that Weight

By: Greg Mitchell

With the fall election season rapidly approaching (if we survive the Clinton memoir, the Madonna/Esther tour, and the national political conventions), it’s time to address that perennial question: do newspaper endorsements of candidates do any damn good? Or can they be the kiss of death ? for the newspaper?

As our editorial this month asserts, fewer and fewer newspapers are picking candidates. Some editors and publishers no doubt fear that endorsements add to a perception of bias in coverage among readers perpetually befuddled by the radically different missions of news and opinion pages. E&P surveys have revealed that few newspapers believe their endorsements hold much sway anyway. But to those simply afraid to show their red or blue colors: I hate to tell you, folks, but your readers pretty much know where you stand already. You might as well try to make the best case for the candidate they sense you support.

By coincidence, the very week we locked in our editorial, one major newspaper decided to buck the trend we were denouncing, and do it in a big way. On the morning of June 16, Knight Ridder’s Philadelphia Daily News suddenly hit the streets with a hot tabloid cover story announcing its (very) early backing of Sen. John Kerry, along with a detailed strategy and tips on what everyone could do to elect him. And it promised to remind readers about all this every chance it got.

Given the growing polarization and partisanship in our society, this could be the start of a major trend: Endorse early, and often. Expect The Washington Times to come out for Bush any minute now.

With that in mind, it seemed worth finding out why and how the Daily News, in a key swing state, decided to Kerry on with such enthusiasm.

“We started talking around May 1 about doing a very early endorsement,” Frank Burgos, the editorial page editor, told me. “There wasn’t really a lot of debate among the seven board members about who to endorse. I think that’s indicative of what kind of a race it’s going to be: I honestly believe most people know right now who they are going to vote for. I haven’t met anyone who is really a ‘swing voter’ in this election.”

Although the paper has endorsed Republicans in the past ? Tom Ridge twice for governor, for example ? it has long leaned liberal. When, at the height of the Lewinsky scandal, its sister paper, The Philadelphia Inquirer, demanded Clinton’s resignation, the Daily News called for prosecutor Ken Starr’s head.

With a go-ahead from the paper’s publisher and editor, Burgos and Editorial Writer Carol Towarnicky went through countless drafts “to make the argument as strong as possible, since we suspected it would get a lot of attention.” But why endorse early? “Since everyone knew where we’d end up, we asked ourselves, what could we do that would make a difference in the race and have the effect we’d like?” Burgos explained. “We wanted to present a new way to do an endorsement, and not wait until two weeks before the election. If you’re going to endorse, do it to win!”

With that in mind, and believing there were few undecided voters in the region, the board settled on an unusual “activist” approach targeting traditional “non-voters,” even providing readers with numerous contacts (phone and Web). Al Gore had carried the state in 2000 solely because of a wide margin in Philly, but still about a million residents in the area didn’t bother to cast their ballot. “To get them to vote,” Burgos said, “we couldn’t get moving two weeks before the election.”

But isn’t their endorsement diluted by coming so soon? He replied that the June 16 package was only the “opening salvo” to “get non-voters to register and vote. Our preference is to get them to vote for John Kerry, but to get registered and engaged is obviously another goal.”

Although early feedback was split, and Burgos recognizes that putting an endorsement on Page One blurs the line between opinion and news, he still feels newspapers, right or left, should stand up for candidates. “We respect the difference between the editorial and news pages,” he affirmed. “If you are looking for fair, provocative political reporting, you can still find that in the Daily News.” Newspapers that do not endorse candidates, he added, “rob their communities of their expertise and their role of being an honest broker in helping determine what kind of future our elected officials will lead us to.”

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