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From AJR,   September 1992  issue

Endorsing: Another Wimp-Out This Year?   

This dulling down and dumbing out is sad to see.


By Reese Cleghorn
Reese Cleghorn is former president of AJR and former dean of the College of Journalism of the University of Maryland.     

Will the Great Editorial Wimp-Out of '88 be repeated in '92? About half of the country's newspapers abstained from endorsing a candidate for president last time. This year the pattern seems to be repeating.

For most of this century the Republicans could expect to sweep these endorsements. FDR was overwhelmingly rejected all four times he ran. The Democrats won more daily papers' endorsements only in 1964, when Lyndon Johnson looked safer than Barry Goldwater.

Until recent years newspapers felt the need to choose, as their readers must. Never mind that their choices usually reflected the impulses of their well-heeled publishers rather than those of their underpaid reporters. In 1932 only about 8 percent of the dailies were undecided or had a no-endorsement policy.

Now many papers are telling readers they will not endorse in the presidential race because their news coverage would be suspected of party partisanship. What nonsense.

The papers that say this usually proceed then to endorse in races at state and local levels, make recommendations on bond issues and other referendum questions and express opinions on other matters every day. Most readers suspect them of news-column biases that have nothing to do with any of these editorial positions.

A more likely motivation for failure to make this choice, despite four preceding years of commenting on the relevant issues, is to avoid bloodletting within the paper or the company. This scene, at its most intense, is becoming less frequent: Publisher hurls quadrennial thunderbolt, ordering unhappy editor (or editorial board) to endorse Republican candidate. Secondary scene, now even more infrequent: Editor resigns; or, editorial writer allowed to express dissenting opinion on op-ed page.

Despite all that, the better papers' endorsements usually have offered some cogent reasoning. That's what is most important. An endorsement simply finishes the thought.

Newspaper recommendations have more influence in state and local races. They are a staple of community and state leadership. Any newspaper that dodges this responsibility (except, of course, the strictly national press) ought to be used mainly to wrap fish.

The abstention trend in presidential races is furthered by the corporatization of the press and the generally pallid nature of many editorial pages. This dulling down and dumbing out is sad to see at a time of low voter turnout and press lamentations about the lack of public interest in the public's business.


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