SPRINGFIELD – A friend who is an old newspaperman contacted me the other day and wanted to know what I thought of the local newspaper no longer endorsing political candidates.
My response: it’s about time.
Back in 2016, 243 daily newspapers endorsed Hillary Clinton compared to 20 that endorsed Donald Trump.
Media journalist Jim Rutenberg wrote in October 2016 that endorsements in the presidential election were distinguished by “blunt condemnation” of Trump combined with a “save the republic” tone.
Despite that, we all know who won the presidency.
That says to me that most folks don’t care what their local newspaper has to say about who to vote for.
The other thing is most readers — and many politicians — don’t understand the role of endorsements. What appears on the editorial page shouldn’t influence day-to-day news coverage. And in ethical, well-run newsrooms, it doesn’t.
An endorsement is the institutional voice of the newspaper saying who it supports. It’s not a statement that they will bias their news coverage to help a particular candidate.
Unfortunately, not everyone understands or believes this.
I remember covering a U.S. Senate race when I worked for the Las Vegas Sun. Sen. John Ensign wouldn’t talk to me because the newspaper had endorsed his opponent.
Try as I might, I couldn’t convince him that I had no agenda other than to be fair. I knew he wasn’t offended by something I wrote because I had just moved to Nevada from the Midwest.
Still, he wanted nothing to do with anyone from the Sun.
It’s time for candidate endorsements to go by the wayside.
This isn’t an original thought. Decades ago, Al Neuharth, the founder of USA Today, prohibited candidate endorsements because he believed it tainted news coverage and was elitist for a newspaper to tell readers how to vote.
Elitist journalists? Surely, he jested.
It’s much better for newspapers to find out where candidates for various offices stand on the issues and let readers decide for themselves.
That said there was entertainment value in candidates marching into newsrooms vying for endorsements.
I remember a Davenport, Iowa, City Council candidate saying he would reduce the city workforce through “nutrition.” I guess he planned to starve them to death.
Or there was the time a certain state senator was asked about his riverboat gambling stock holdings and his companion stood up and challenged the editorial board: “You want to settle this down in the parking lot, right now?”
Charles Wheeler III, a longtime statehouse reporter and retired journalism professor at the University of Illinois-Springfield, says he is hard pressed to think of any statewide race in the last 50 years where a newspaper endorsement made the difference.
“In 1964, there wasn’t agreement on legislative districts so the entire Illinois House ran at-large,” he said. “Of course, that was the year (Barry) Goldwater led the Republican ticket. The only House Republicans who won that year were the ones endorsed by the Chicago newspapers.”
Wheeler said that is the last race he can remember endorsements playing such a significant role.
And he too struggled to get politicians to believe there isn’t a connection between endorsements and news coverage.
“I’d just tell them if you own a newspaper, you can endorse anyone you want on the editorial page. But reporters don’t have anything to do with that. We’re just here to report the news.”
Scott Reeder is a veteran statehouse journalist and a freelance reporter. ScottReeder1965@gmail.com.