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From AJR,   October/November 2004  issue

What's the Point?   

Few voters are swayed by newspaper endorsements of presidential candidates. So why do editorial pages keep publishing them?


By Tim Porter
Tim Porter, former assistant managing editor of the San Francisco Examiner, is associate director of Tomorrow's Workforce, a newsroom development project, and a freelance writer. He wrote about major newspaper companies' investment in Spanish-language papers in AJR's October/November 2003 issue. He can be reached at www.timporter.com/firstdraft.     

Twenty-eight days after Sen. John Edwards snagged second place in the Iowa caucuses--propelled, many say, by an unexpected endorsement from the Des Moines Register--CNN anchor Lou Dobbs interviewed Linda Honold, head of the Democratic Party in Wisconsin, where a primary would be held the following day.

Dobbs asked Honold four questions, one about polls, another about issues, a third about jobs and this final one:

Dobbs: The biggest newspaper in your state, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, endorsing John Edwards, will that have a significant effect on the outcome tomorrow?

Honold: I'm suspect it will have some effect. I'm not sure how much. Sometimes, an endorsement by a newspaper has exactly the opposite effect here in our state. So I don't know. It will have some effect. It's a question of which way.

Honold, in her crab-stepping nonresponse to Dobbs, encapsulates the entire dialectic about the worth of newspaper editorial endorsements: They have some value to some people some of the time in some circumstances, but no one can say how much to whom and when--for sure.

Unperturbed by--or perhaps accustomed to--such equivocation, editorial writers make nuanced arguments in favor of endorsements (especially for local candidates) and an ardent defense of newspapers as a haven of credibility among the froth of unfettered opinion; critics give an (almost) sneering rebuttal of same.

First some numbers.

Research on the electoral influence of newspaper endorsements is scarcer than a liberal at a Wall Street Journal editorial board meeting. Most of the data was compiled before the burgeoning Internet and the cacophony of cable TV further dulled whatever edge a newspaper endorsement gave one candidate over another.

Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, wrote about newspaper endorsements in her 2000 book, "Everything You Think You Know About Politics and Why You're Wrong."

"The direct effect of editorials does not appear to be significant enough to find," Jamieson said in an interview. "The effect of newspaper endorsements is largely created through advertising about them that is sponsored by the candidate."

Even then, Jamieson and others interviewed for this article agree, the impact of endorsements on national or even regional elections contests in which candidates are well-known among voters is negligible.

"Many Americans in 1996 had no idea which presidential candidate their newspaper supported; many more had the wrong idea," Jamieson writes of an Annenberg study of that year's election. "To judge from the responses, many people were guessing." The findings included:

Among readers of papers that had endorsed President Clinton, "three-quarters reported that fact; 11 percent reported their paper had endorsed Bob Dole; and 14 percent reported their paper had endorsed no one."

Among readers of papers that had endorsed Dole, "less than one-half" knew that, while one-third thought their paper had endorsed Clinton.

Of those who knew their newspaper's endorsement, 1 percent said it played a "great deal" and 10 percent said it played "somewhat" of a role in their voting decision. "Of that 11 percent, about a quarter had the endorsement wrong."

More recently, a Pew Center for the People & the Press study released in January, which measured media influences on voters during the 2004 presidential campaign, concluded that "newspaper endorsements are also less influential than four years ago, and dissuade as many Americans as they persuade."

This drip, drip, drip of voter disinterest in the counsel of our nation's newspapers might cause editorial writers discomfort were it not for the near-universal belief among them that presidential endorsements are, for all practical purposes, meaningless.

"I don't think anybody who has a job like mine," says Gail Collins, editorial page editor of the New York Times, "is deluded that many people change their opinion about who they're going to vote for for president when they see the Times editorial."

Richard Doak, editorial page editor of the Des Moines Register and author of the celebrated Edwards endorsement, doubts "we influenced many decisions" with the newspaper's presidential endorsements. But, he adds, persuasion is not the objective.

Why, then, beyond engaging in intellectual exercise, write such strong arguments knowing they fall mostly on deaf ears?

Editorial writers explain endorsements with words like "conversation," "values" and "credible."

Doak: "The primary purpose of editorials is to stimulate discussion in the community [and it's]..a vehicle through which the newspaper expresses its values."

Collins: "The point of doing an endorsement of a president, or even a senator, is to continue that conversation... When you weigh in, what you're really doing is juicing up the conversation, and that's critical before an election."

Lynell Burkett, editorial page editor at the San Antonio Express-News and president of the 600-member National Conference of Editorial Writers: "We're here to present a credible opinion and to stir conversation and debate."

Fred Hiatt, editorial page editor of the Washington Post, adds one more: The newspaper as citizen.

"An editorial board spends four years pontificating and telling public officials what to do," says Hiatt. "We come to an election, and it's the one time it's either A or B. Of course, a lot of times we're not satisfied with the choice. We wish it was C..but we're subjecting ourselves to the same binary choice that the voters are subjecting themselves to... It's a humbling process.

"For once," he says, "we can't get away with endorsing pie in the sky. We're dealing with what the choices are, and if the person you endorsed wins, you have to live with that over the next years, just as all the voters."

The editorial pages of the local newspaper, says Collins--who is quick to remind that the Times is "also very much a local paper" with zoned opinion pages--provide local politicians a rare forum. "If you talk to people who are running for..local office, they really don't have many places to go to even give their pitch," she says.

Collins tells the story of a candidate seeking a state office in Connecticut: "He had all these people coming to him saying they wanted to know if he needed any help writing speeches, and he kept saying, 'No, I need help finding some place to give a speech.' There aren't really that many venues, so the newspaper endorsement looms very large."

When the hometown newspaper is the primary source of preelection information for a particular race, its endorsement can and does sway voters positively and negatively.

"Newspaper endorsements tend to count for lower offices and offices people don't know much about," says Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a senior scholar at the School of Policy, Planning and Development at the University of Southern California.

"Superior Court judge?" she says. "I use the L.A. Times because I don't know anything about the judges who are up for election and reelection... You're talking about a city as large as Los Angeles. The only coverage a low office like a judgeship, for example, might get is the endorsement."

And, says Jeffe, today's endorsement often becomes tomorrow's political ad. "What endorsements, as well as newspaper coverage, are really, really good for," she says, "is to turn them into 30-second spots... [The candidates] can sell themselves a little bit more credibly with rolling lists of endorsements."

In 2000, Editor & Publisher magazine found that 70 percent of papers (and 96 percent with circulations of 200,000 or more) that responded to a survey were likely to make a presidential endorsement.

Not among this group are the nation's two largest newspapers--USA Today and the Wall Street Journal. Neither endorses candidates of any kind. The founder of the first thinks endorsements are demeaning to readers, and the second views principles as more important than politicians.

Most stories about newspaper endorsements eventually find their way to Allen H. Neuharth, who created USA Today 22 years ago and is widely quoted for his view that newspapers have no business making political recommendations. Endorsements are not only "an insult to you," Neuharth has written in his USA Today column, but the political coverage of newspapers that do them "becomes suspect in the eyes of readers, rightly or wrongly."

Brian Gallagher, editorial page editor of USA Today, says his view is much the same as Neuharth's: In a diverse nation, which the editorial board reflects, there isn't one right choice that suits everyone. "The USA Today editorial board is ideologically and demographically diverse to a degree that even if we wanted to endorse," says Gallagher, "it's very doubtful we could get a consensus on the editorial board about which candidate to endorse."

Paul Gigot, editorial page editor of the Wall Street Journal, says endorsements are secondary to the fundamental purpose of the paper's opinion pages, which is to "stick up for those principles" that fall under the philosophical rubric of "free markets, free people." This collection of ideas includes "lower taxes, free trade, assertive American foreign policy and the promotion of democratic values around the world."

Politicians of all partisan stripes face editorial-page applause or criticism depending on their affinity with those principles, says Gigot. "When [President] Bush imposed the steel tariffs, we hit him probably with a dozen editorials over about an 18-month period," he says. "And, if [Democratic presidential candidate John] Kerry were to come out for a capital gains tax cut, I can tell you I'd write a lead editorial tomorrow praising him."

In the end, says Gigot, "we're just more interested in ideas, and..the degree to which a candidate associates himself with those, our enthusiasm for that candidate will come through in the editorials. So, in that sense I don't think anybody has much doubt about, at least at a presidential level, who would agree with us more often than not."

Regardless of Gigot's assertion of political agnosticism--"we've never viewed ourselves as a partisan paper"--it seems fair to designate the Journal, as Annenberg's Jamieson puts it, the nation's "most reputable conservative paper."

Similarly, Collins of the New York Times, when asked to describe the politics of her editorial section, says first, "I will leave that to others to characterize," then goes on to list a set of "core beliefs" (pro-choice, pro-environmental law, pro-campaign finance "reform") antithetical enough to the "principles" enumerated by Gigot that one might call the Times the nation's "most reputable liberal paper."

That both the Journal and the Times are equally idolized and vilified as secular scriptures by their respective tribes of readers seemingly retires as a faux issue the perennial endorsement debate: Do they contribute to perceptions of bias?

Of course they do--Richard Doak calls accusations of unfairness an "occupational hazard" of writing any type of editorial, not just an endorsement--so the question is how, or even if, newspapers should address this concern.

"Certainly," says Hiatt of the Post, endorsements "don't make life easier for the news side." But both he and Collins say presenting an array of opposing opinions on the op-ed pages and in the letters to the editor can not only counter charges of favoritism, but also, as Hiatt says, "be a net enhancer of credibility."

Concerns about a perception of bias are relatively recent in the history of journalism. When the Bill of Rights took effect in 1791, it opened the umbrella of constitutional protection over a yelping, factional swarm of newspapers whose "main purpose, their reason for being, was to purvey political news," says Andie Tucher, an assistant professor of journalism at Columbia University.

"They were funded mainly by political parties," says Tucher. "They were staffed by partisan party functionaries... The idea that an objective press was going to present neutral news was just completely foreign in the very early years of the American nation."

Endorsements are, in their way, the vestigial remains of those tendentious days of journalism, an era typified even in its waning years by outrageous displays of partisanship that unabashedly sluiced from the editorial pages into all parts of the paper.

The Chicago Tribune, says Tucher, was "so famously anti-FDR" in 1936 that the switchboard operators answered the telephone 10 days before the election with, 'Hello, Chicago Tribune, only 10 days left to save the American way of life.'"

One of the most famous editorial hammers ever dropped on a candidate was wielded in 1958 by Dorothy Schiff, owner of the then-liberal New York Post.

The Post had endorsed New York Gov. Averell Harriman for reelection, but Schiff changed her mind and on Election Day eve published this front page "Notice to Readers":

"Gov. Harriman's recent snide insinuation that Nelson Rockefeller is pro-Arab and anti-Israel should not be condoned by any fair-minded person... He should be punished by the voters. If you agree with me, do not vote for Averell Harriman tomorrow. Dorothy Schiff, Publisher."

Rockefeller won the election.

Schiff's editorial bludgeoning was an example, albeit in the extreme, of what Jay Rosen, chair of the journalism department at New York University, calls using "the endorsement as a tool of power," a display of institutional chest-thumping that proclaims the civic authority of the newspaper.

Endorsement writers affirm, knowingly or unknowingly, this stance by contending that because they have more knowledge of issues, more access to candidates and more time for consideration than the public, they can arrive at a more judicious, credible opinion.

"I don't buy it," says Rosen. "I don't buy a single syllable of it."

A newspaper cannot deem itself credible or authoritative simply by its existence or by comparing itself with other types of media, says Rosen. "Because if the newspaper is presenting itself as an authoritative voice and a great many people in the community see it as an outside voice, this is a potent combination for misunderstanding and resentment."

Burkett of San Antonio argues there is value--and opportunity--for editorial pages in being the Aristotelian "reasonable man."

We can use the endorsement process, she says, "to position ourselves in terms of credibility, because anybody can say anything, frankly, on the Internet and..on television and talk radio.... If we present ourselves as the source of opinion with no ax to grind, as those who spend our time researching and writing about issues, it seems we can use this as a strategic advantage."

This may be true, says Mary Nesbitt, director of the Readership Institute at Northwestern University, but the payoff for newspapers may be in the subtle form of better branding and a clearer identity. "What it sounds like a lot of people are saying," says Nesbitt, "is that they feel it's part of their responsibility or somehow contributes to--well, they wouldn't put it this way--their authoritativeness of knowledge. So, that would support their brand or they would feel it would support their brand. You might not see the results in terms of the consumer, in terms of readership or of paying attention to that particular act, but it could burnish their image."

Rosen still isn't buying. "When a professor of geology says, 'I'm an authority,' what he means is he has a Ph.D. and he spends all his time studying geology," he says. "But when a journalist says that, what is it he's telling us he has obtained? It's very hard for journalists to answer that question precisely because the kinds of issues and problems and judgment that are involved in choosing a candidate are not something you can monopolize the knowledge of. It's not something you are expert in. You're not an expert in picking a candidate. That's an antidemocratic idea."

Is it semantical hair-splitting to avow, as editorial writers do, that an endorsement is only a recommendation, simply a friendly suggestion from your caring institutional neighbor? Can the members of editorial boards be so ingenuous? Are they so self-effacing that they merely shrug when voters reject their suggestions--as Californians did, for example, in 2003 when they defied every major newspaper in the state, yanked the sitting governor from office and installed the celebrated husband of Maria Shriver in his place? Don't editorial writers want voters to listen to them?

Apparently not. "We're not trying to tell you how to vote," says Burkett, "but we're giving you our opinion based on the research we've been able to do."

On a national scale, says Hiatt of the Post, the goal of the endorsement is "less about influencing the election than of saying, 'Here's what we think the important issues are; here's what we think should define a presidential race.'"

That raises the question: Why is it important at all for a newspaper to tell anyone what it thinks about anything?

"I'm not sure I want to say this publicly," says Burkett, "but I'll be honest with you. I'm not sure on presidential endorsements that it is. But, then, the question is, where do we start and stop? Is it important for us to do the governor? And, frankly, we're not going to change a whole lot of opinions, I think, on governor. So, if you cut off the head, where do you go from there?"

The answer to Burkett's question may be geographic. Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, says it is "part of a newspaper's role to provide leadership" on the political races "that have the least amount of coverage."

"Most of us, most citizens, don't sit down and say, 'You know what, I'm trying to figure out who to vote for for judge, let me sit down and write about my thoughts in an argument to decide,'" he says. "We don't do that. Dentists are busy being dentists and gardeners are busy being gardeners. It's not your job to sit down at 11 in the morning and hash it out around a table and write that argument out. Well, that's what editorial writers have the luxury of doing for the rest of us. And we can then look at those arguments and say, 'Those guys are idiots' or 'That's a pretty good argument.'"

Unlike presidential endorsements, which most editorial boards can and typically do write without ever meeting the candidates, local endorsements are labor-intensive.

"We spend an enormous amount of time interviewing candidates for local offices down to the judgeships and doing those endorsements," says Collins of the New York Times. "They're just extremely time-consuming. We know how important those are as we spend a ton of time doing them."

If doing local endorsements strains Collins and the Times, which staffs its editorial pages with 50 people, imagine the challenge smaller editorial page staffs face in a campaign season crammed with races ranging from the water commission to the presidency.

Nick Jimenez, editorial page editor of the 60,500-circulation Corpus Christi Caller-Times in Texas, knows well the effort required. "It is a lot of work," Jimenez says, noting the dozens of candidate interviews that dominate his days during election season. "We will do what I call 'two-a-days' in the primaries where you have so many people running.. sometimes [for] as long as three weeks."

This year, says Jimenez, E.W. Scripps, owner of the Caller-Times, will discontinue its practice of telling its newspapers whom to endorse for president, so he will write his first presidential endorsement for a Scripps paper. The prospect excites Jimenez, but he knows the endorsement's impact will be muted. "By November," he says, "I don't think there's a citizen in the nation who won't have some opinion about which way they want to vote."

Although endorsements help "people crystallize their own thoughts," Jimenez says they also carry a valuable message that is larger than the support for any single candidate. "It can never hurt to do a little cheerleading for the democratic process," he says. "When you issue an endorsement, what you're saying is you're involved, that we're serious about this thing called democracy, we're part of it..that people should take this seriously."

These are good intentions, says Rosenstiel, as are the other oft-proclaimed desires to use endorsements to stir community conversation and communicate values, but the results are uneven. "Done well," he says, "editorial endorsements get us very close to what journalism is all about, which is citizen debate. Done poorly, of course, it's just a big institution muscling, pushing its weight around."