I walked past a coffee shop last week and through the window I saw a TV screen. Under “breaking news” was this: The New York Times had endorsed Hillary Clinton and John McCain in the presidential primaries.
Was this really “breaking news”?
Should it be news at all?
Once upon a time newspapers and endorsements were like baseball cards and bubble gum. Newspapers were bald-faced about their political views. In some cases, they were little more than the publishing arms of a political party. Those were the old days.
These are not those days.
These are days when information comes at you like blinding snow, where opinions never stop, and where, more than ever before, you wonder who is behind the data. Is it a newscast or an advertisement? Is it a blog by someone pretending to be someone else? Is the host of a show in favor of something because he’s paid to be so?
Is it reality – or reality TV? The sad state of politics
Newspapers have been fighting this ugly storm for years. In a time of confusing signals, newspapers try to balance on increasingly shaky ground – that of nonpartisan reporters of the world’s unfolding history.
That doesn’t mean newspapers lack opinion. Columnists are hired to express their views. Op-ed pieces argue a point. Even headline writers slant the news with their tone. (“We Win!” in a sports section is hardly what you’d call dispassionate.)
But when it comes to choosing a candidate – particularly for president – newspapers should get out of the endorsement business.
Here’s why: The average reader doesn’t lack for information anymore. With computers, DVRs and satellite TV, anything you seek about a candidate you can call up, replay or download. Newspapers are no longer informing readers with an endorsement.
What they are doing is making themselves targets. The U.S. political scene is so divisive that if you endorse a Democrat, you become a target of Republicans, and vice versa. If you vocally choose a candidate, you get vocally blasted by some radio or TV commentator.
And while that is no reason to cower from your views, newspapers often talk about perception. The perception of bias. The perception of undue influence.
If, through an endorsement, readers think you’ve surrendered your objectivity, you must pay attention. Even if you’re sure you haven’t. A sign of the Times
At this newspaper, endorsements are decided by the editorial board – four editorial page writers and the editorial page editor, according to Ron Dzwonkowski, who holds that latter job. On big races – such as president – the editor and publisher “will likely want to be heard,” Dzwonkowski says.
They don’t sit and argue: “I like this guy.” They lay out issues that matter to readers, and pick the candidate they feel will most effectively deal with those issues. “A newspaper can’t recommend policies,” Dzwonkowski says, “without also recommending the people who’ll implement the policies.”
But maybe it should. Here’s why: These are candidates. We have no idea if they’ll deliver on promises. (Which is why we sometimes lament an endorsement years later.) Besides, when five or seven people decide whom a newspaper endorses, it sends a confusing message: I may disagree with the choice, but readers lump me in with it because I’m an employee. My objectivity is questioned.
Meanwhile, the paper leaves a footprint in concrete. The New York Times, in praising McCain for “working across the aisle,” also trashed Rudy Giuliani as a “narrow, obsessively secretive, vindictive man” whose “arrogance and bad judgment are breathtaking.”
So how will the Times’ coverage of Giuliani be taken from here on in? Could you blame people if they say, “You can’t believe what the Times writes about Rudy – they hate him”?
This is too big a price to pay – especially for throwing one more hat on a pile. Everyone from Oprah Winfrey to Chuck Norris endorses candidates now. A newspaper may gain more by keeping that opinion to itself.
Besides, there’s an adage that says when the newspaper becomes the breaking news, it’s not good news. We should remember that.
Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or firstname.lastname@example.org.