With much fanfare, including an hour-long television special, the New York Times announced this week that they’d broken with tradition in two ways. First, they drew back the curtain on their famously behind-closed-doors process of endorsing political candidates, and second, they endorsed two candidates — Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar — for the Democratic presidential nominee. The second decision prompted outcry from many politicos and journalists, who argue that refusing to choose a single candidate, as voters will be forced to do in the primary election, negates the value of endorsements as a service to readers grappling with their own tough choices.
But stepping back, others wondered about the value of endorsements, a long-standing newspaper tradition, in 2020. Do they still matter?
The Inquirer tapped two journalists, including the managing editor of our own Opinion section, who oversees The Inquirer’s endorsement process, to debate: Should newspapers still endorse candidates?
Do endorsements from editorial boards matter? Shouldn’t newspapers simply offer the facts and get out of the opinion business? Are editorial boards an outdated elitist idea that should die as soon as possible?
It didn’t take a flashy-yet-ultimately-unsatisfying presidential endorsement from the New York Times to prompt the Inquirer Editorial Board to discuss these matters. We’ve been asking these questions of ourselves and others for some time now. As the news business has continued to contract, editorial boards have been characterized as a throwback to a time when chin-stroking elites believed it their job to hand down pronouncements and big thoughts from an ivory tower.
Naturally, since I preside over an editorial board, I beg to differ. Among the many reasons I would argue for our relevance is, in fact, the endorsement process. For local, state, and national elections, we invite candidates in, ask them questions, then deliberate among ourselves about who we should recommend to voters.
The important part of the process is the board’s deliberations after the candidates leave because it forces us to think about what our priorities are. What are our deal breakers? How do we weigh two good candidates against each other, and how do we ultimately come to a consensus when there are disagreements? The process of arriving at a decision is where the value is.
But the process alone isn’t the point. The point of the endorsement editorial — for us, anyway — is to provide a service to our readers, to engage in a thoughtful process, and come up with recommendations. Voters don’t need us to get information about candidates. Candidates know this and often prefer to communicate with voters more directly. Our endorsement meetings give us a chance to challenge candidates to get off their campaign scripts and social media filters and answer questions of substance, address contradictions, or clarify their positions.
Our endorsements are not mandates, nor are they predictions. They are simply another source of information to help people make their own decisions.
We may not always publish the transcripts of our deliberations (though in the past, we’ve shared audio files of the meetings), but in the written endorsement, we have to make clear arguments for why we support one candidate over another.
Staff across news organizations have shrunken dramatically in recent years, and ours is no exception. Almost annually, we review whether we have the capacity to do endorsements since they are time-consuming and logistically complicated. But every year, we believe the value outweighs the inconvenience.
The decisions aren’t always easy. Sometimes, we may be tempted to endorse more than one candidate — or to endorse none at all. But at the end of the day, we believe voters must make a choice, and so should we.
While endorsements may be the hardest part of my job, meeting candidates is an aspect of the job I truly love. And I don’t mean just the most qualified and impressive office-seekers. I love meeting the ill-qualified candidates, the ones who don’t have a chance, the ones who are naïve about the demands of political office. They are the embodiment of hope and optimism about our city, our country, our democracy. No matter how qualified, every candidate wants to make things better. We interview them about how they plan to do that, and then we let voters know which ones we believe have the best shot of delivering their promise. That’s both a privilege and a responsibility we take seriously. We hope voters do, too.
Sandra Shea is The Inquirer’s managing editor of opinion.
While the dual endorsement in the Democratic presidential primary from the New York Times is new, newspapers have been endorsing candidates for generations. It’s a tradition layered in perceived obligation and responsibility that has outlived its usefulness. Not only have newspaper endorsements lost the influence they may have once had, but they add to the corrosion of public trust in the media and hurt the cause of journalism.
It’s past time for newspapers to stop endorsing political candidates.
On a basic level, where’s the demand? There’s scant evidence that there is a large (or even small) group of voters waiting for the editorial board of a local or national newspaper to tell them how to vote.
If voters were influenced by newspaper endorsements, then endorsed candidates should have a better track record. For example, the Times and The Inquirer endorsed the presidential winner in just two of the last five elections.
Furthermore, if newspaper endorsements mattered, Ohio Gov. John Kasich would have been the 2016 GOP presidential nominee. He received dozens of endorsements, including a nod from The Inquirer and the Times. Donald Trump received just a handful of endorsements in the primary (and general election for that matter), including the National Enquirer and the New York Post.
That track record isn’t surprising considering just 41% of adults had a “great deal” or “fair amount” of trust in the media, according to polling by Gallup in September. For some perspective, nearly 70% of Americans had some trust in the media in 1972, when Gallup started tracking the sentiment.
Distrust in the media is most often fueled by inaccuracy and bias, according to a 2018 study by the nonpartisan Knight Foundation.
The average person probably doesn’t know or doesn’t believe there is a wall between the editorial board and reporters in newspaper organizations, despite what journalists say about the division. If a paper endorses a candidate, there is an assumption that the paper is friendly to that candidate, cause, or party.
Considering the New York Times has not endorsed a GOP presidential candidate since President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1956, and the last Republican presidential candidate endorsed by The Inquirer was Gerald Ford in 1976, it’s not hard to see why some readers might be skeptical of the newspaper’s impartiality when covering the race.
Perceived bias doesn’t just make it harder for reporters to cultivate sources on both sides of the aisle. It hurts newspapers’ bottom line as well. The decline in trust in the media tracks with the closure or merger of at least 1,800 local newspapers around the country since 2004, according to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
But all hope is not lost. The relationship between the media and the voters is repairable. Nearly 70% of U.S. adults who said they’ve lost trust in the news media over the last decade said their trust can be restored, according to the Knight study.
Newspapers have an opportunity to regain some trust (and readers) by renewing their commitment to political journalism. That includes interviewing candidates, exploring their backgrounds and resumes, and diving into the issues facing communities, along with not making endorsements.
Nathan L. Gonzales is the editor and publisher of Inside Elections, which provides nonpartisan analysis of races for the U.S. House, U.S. Senate, president, and governor. He is also an elections analyst for CQ Roll Call and a CNN political analyst.