Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Newsosaur a dinosaur on editorial endorsements and the AJC

The usually astute Alan Mutter is way off base in his criticism of the Atlanta Journal Constitution's decision to quit endorsing candidates.

Mutter is stellar when it comes to media economics. But his comments on endorsements seem to reflect how long he's been out of a newsroom and seem kind of strange given how smart he is about how the Internet has changed the role of newspapers.

I've written extensively on this topic and below have pasted my own column from the Rocky Mountain News prior to last year's presidential election. Bottom line: Just because a paper gives up endorsements doesn't mean it will stop doing exactly what Mutter thinks a newspaper should be doing: "vigorously vetting candidates and forthrightly informing readers of the findings." It just means that it won't take the extra step in most cases and actually tell readers how to vote. I think that makes sense.

The following is my column published on Oct. 18, 2008, under the headline, "Input, not endorsements."

I'm asked quite often these days when we'll publish our endorsements for president and other federal offices.

There seems to remain a fascination among some about what a major newspaper like the Rocky Mountain News will do. Perhaps it's because they believe the opinion of our editorial page could make a difference. Or perhaps just that they look forward to us stirring up political debate.

I've struggled to respond this year because I've been wrestling with how to handle endorsements in a media landscape dramatically altered by the Internet.

At the start of this decade you would have found me making an impassioned argument about the importance of a newspaper taking a clear position as a leader in its community. But as I indicated in a column at the time of Colorado's presidential caucuses, I feel differently today. And so, it seems, do many of you, based on the reaction to that column.

Today I have come to believe that rather than recommending how you should vote on partisan races, we better serve you by providing perspective that may help you shape your own opinion. After all, our motto is, "Give light and the people will find their own way."

When E.W. Scripps, the founder of the company for which I work, created the first chain of newspapers more than 125 years ago, he encouraged Americans to vote the way he thought they should.

Newspapers were far more partisan then. What's more, he actually did have more access to candidates and information about them than almost anyone. There was no radio. TV. Or Internet.

Going back farther to the time of the Founding Fathers, we know, of course, that newspapers were political; there was no attempt to separate opinion from news. Readers understood that. They bought newspapers in part because they agreed with their point of view. Readers didn't need endorsements. The opinion of the paper was clear in its news coverage.

But we live in a different world today, a world where citizens have a wealth of information available to them. If anything, what they need is a trusted source to help them evaluate that information and come to their own conclusions. As a result, I think it's time to change how we operate on the editorial page.

That's why, from here on out, it will be the exception for you to read an editorial endorsing a candidate in the Rocky.

This decision is based in part on an exercise I often undertake when I try to determine the right direction for the paper. I ask myself what I would do if I were to start a news organization today, one unburdened by the history of my own company and industry.

It seems you have two basic choices: Establish a clearly opinionated publication or Web site, a la HuffingtonPost.com on the left or Free Republic.com on the right, or try to give readers something they can trust because of its clear commitment to fair-minded and incisive reporting.

I believe the latter is the best course for the Rocky. But what about the editorials and opinion columns, you are probably wondering. How do they fit into this vision of mine? Well, I don't think fair-minded readers resent opinion per se. In fact, it's clear that they value opinion writing a great deal. What they do resent is evidence that their newspaper is in the tank for one political party or the other. And too many readers tend to confuse endorsements - particularly if a majority happens to be for one party - as evidence that a newspaper is partisan as opposed to principled.

Endorsements are probably the decisive factor contributing to confusion about this distinction. I think the better way is to focus on critiquing issues and actions in real time.

You may have noticed that our editorial page has been more aggressive this year in running commentary on the major races. Since the start of the Democratic National Convention we've written nearly 20 editorials involving John McCain and Sarah Palin, Barack Obama and Joe Biden. We've tried to contribute to the discussion by probing issues or the candidates' conduct without ever urging you to vote a certain way in the polling booth.

Just last week, for example, we strongly criticized McCain's bailout plan for "failing" mortgages. I think knowing that we weren't likely to endorse either candidate may have made it easier for us to hit him hard for abandoning his fiscal conservatism when we thought he deserved it.

I suspect some of you were surprised by that editorial because you expected us to endorse McCain and refrain from criticizing him. That's not how we have ever operated, but that's how endorsements color some readers' perceptions. Our editorial board does lean center right and might be expected to be more sympathetic to McCain's views. But while some of the principles that our editorial page values might be more closely linked to the Republican Party, we pride ourselves on being nonpartisan. I don't just mean that we endorse candidates from both parties - Sens. Wayne Allard and Ken Salazar, for example. But also that we don't care where good ideas come from.

Now you may ask if I feel this way why did we take a formal position on all the Colorado ballot issues. I think ballot issues are different from candidates. Some of them are difficult to decipher without the aid of political observers - such as our editorial writers - who have followed closely their history and are familiar with the motives and goals of the proponents. But most important, they're more like bills in a legislature. They're specific and limited in scope. Ultimately the question is yes or no. If you're confused, you can always vote, "No," to preserve the status quo.

But when it comes to candidates, you don't really have that option. Nor do we when making an endorsement. Even though that might be our first choice.

That's not a commentary on this presidential election. Personally, I think there's much to admire about both candidates. And we'll give their advocates plenty of room to explain why you should support them.

In the end we'll leave it to you to come to your own conclusion, trusting that's what you want and believing this newspaper's editorial page can be most valuable to you if it helps you reach an informed decision, with an emphasis on informed. After all, ultimately that's our job. It's not to pick presidents, senators or representatives.


  1. As always, a thoughtful column. However, while newspapers are certainly not required to make endorsements, the case against the practice is based on fear, not reason.

    An endorsement is just like any other strong editorial -- a mix of opinion and facts that (a) are hopfully consistent, and (b) make a case for one side of an issue. Should newspapers not editorialize on issues, either? Endorsements don't "tell" people how to vote; they offer a (preferably) well-reasoned and fact-supported opinion. What's wrong with that?

    We're in an age when readers/viewers frequently cannot abide being presented with an opinion they do not currently hold, but should that aversion to debate be pandered to?

  2. We're in an age when readers/viewers frequently cannot abide being presented with an opinion they do not currently hold, but should that aversion to debate be pandered to?

    Two points: Opinions are fine, in the opinion section, with the names of the authors. It's the unsigned editorials that call the paper's fairness into question.

    Second: Left-wing journalists, who make up the great majority of newsrooms, are the ones clamoring for the unsigned editorials. They'd rather prostitute the paper's reputation to advance their agenda. That puts the entire paper's fairness into question.

    If the leftist journalists have the courage of their convictions, let them sign their editorials, so we know where they're coming from.

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