My Northeastern colleague Meg Heckman has written an important thread about political endorsements by news organizations. Her starting point is the Concord Monitor's unusual decision not to endorse in the New Hampshire primary. (Heckman is a former editor at the Monitor.) Please read it and come back.
1/n Mixed feelings about the @ConMonitorNews's decision not to endorse in the #FITN primary. I'll let the political scientists discuss the impact endorsements do/don't have on election outcomes and focus instead on what this tells us about local news. https://t.co/8rpHjPlBqx— Meg Heckman (@meg_heckman) February 9, 2020
The Monitor's non-endorsement is not the only break with the past that we’ve seen in recent weeks. The New York Times chose to endorse not one but two candidates in the Democratic primaries — Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar. And that came after an unprecedented public process, with long interviews with the candidates being published online and the highlights packaged in an hour-long episode of the Times’ television show, “The Weekly.”
Last week The Boston Globe editorialized that it would not endorse anyone in the Democratic primaries until after New Hampshire, despite the paper's historical influence in the southern part of the state. Why? Because the editorial board has decided that Iowa and New Hampshire, two small states with overwhelmingly white populations, should no longer go first.
Recently my graduate ethics students — there are 10, and nine of them are international — were complaining about the superficial nature of the endless cable debates. Then I showed them "The Weekly." They were fascinated, and though they didn't think it was perfect (several expressed disdain for the what-broke-your-heart question), they thought it was a vast improvement over the debates.
More to the point, every single one of them said they thought the process would have had more value if it hadn't ended in an endorsement(s). Do the interviews. Post the transcripts. Show us the video. But don't tell us whom to vote for. Anecdotally, this tracks with what I've heard from other students in recent years.
My own view, having written many endorsements over the course of my career, is that they are of no value in high-profile contests such as president, governor or U.S. senator. Those are the races that voters follow most closely, and it's not likely that the anonymous, institutional voice of the newspaper is going to change their mind. On the other hand, endorsements can have real impact in more obscure local races such as city council or school committee. Yet such endorsements seem to have all but disappeared, probably because cash-strapped news organizations fear alienating any of their readers. (The Globe, to its credit, still does them.)
When I was reporting on the New Haven Independent for my 2013 book "The Wired City," I learned that the website couldn't endorse candidates because of its status as a nonprofit organization. The editor and founder, Paul Bass, told me that he didn't miss not being able to endorse because he trusted his audience. “It’s a fun way to make a statement, what your paper stands for,” he said. “But the way journalism is evolving, who cares?” Yet New Haven has 30 district members on its Board of Alders — 30! The Independent somehow managed to cover every contested race. Surely, though, voters would have liked a little guidance on Election Day.
As I wrote in “The Wired City” and, more recently, for WGBH News, the rule that nonprofit news organizations can’t endorse was not handed down in tablets from the Founders. Rather, it was rooted in a corrupt act by Lyndon Johnson when he was Senate majority leader in the 1950s.
The notion that news organizations should lose part of their First Amendment freedoms in order to qualify for a tax break is offensive. And, as Meg notes, it's going to become more of an issue with an increasing number of news organizations seeking nonprofit status. The Salt Lake Tribune, for instance, has received approval from the IRS to go nonprofit — and now, as a major regional newspaper, it will have to refrain from endorsing candidates.
It may be that support for endorsements is generational. I don't think younger people trust the idea of an institution weighing in on whom we should support at the polls. And there's no reason why they should. Soliciting op-eds on behalf of the various candidates — as the Globe has been doing — may represent a better approach. There are other steps that could be taken, such as publishing issues grids and summaries about each candidate and keeping them in a prominent place online. In her thread, Meg suggests a “citizens’ editorial board” to handle endorsements.
And tradition may not be as deep-rooted as we like to think. As the authors J. Anthony Lukas ("Common Ground") and Louis Lyons ("Newspaper Story") have both written, in 1896 the Globe's owner, Gen. Charles Taylor, refused to endorse in the presidential race because he loathed the populist William Jennings Bryan but didn't want to alienate his mostly Democratic readers. The Globe did not endorse again until 1967, when it supported Kevin White in the Boston mayoral race over his opponent, Louise Day Hicks, a throwback who was fighting against school desegregation.
Somehow the Globe managed to survive all those years without endorsing anyone. So perhaps we should consider that, like so many traditions, newspaper endorsements have outlived their usefulness.
Finally: Meg has written a wonderful biography of Nackey Scripps Loeb, who followed her notorious husband Bill as publisher of the Manchester Union Leader. Here's an excerpt, published Friday in Politico Magazine.
WGBH News contributor Dan Kennedy’s blog, Media Nation, is online at dankennedy.net.