The Free Press, Mankato, MN

October 26, 2012

Santori: Endorsements don’t fit with fairness objective, new media landscape

By Jim Santori
Free Pres publisher

— Four years ago, we adopted the policy of no longer providing endorsements. Most readers I heard from applauded the move. This year, we have some contentious issues on the state ballot and an extremely tight presidential race. Everyone is looking for an edge to their side and we’re getting challenged to take a side. We respectfully decline.

Let me recount our 2008 explanation on why we changed that policy:

When newspapers first came upon the scene in America, they were backed and, indeed, funded by political parties. The papers were staffed by party functionaries. There was no expectation of fairness or objectivity in news coverage; it was all opinion and slant.

It was only late into the 20th century that news organizations began to seriously look at what was happening to their craft. We were determined to improve people’s perception of our reporting.

News councils began to crop up. Journalism reviews grew in number. Ethics courses were included in journalism curricula. One huge mistake made during this time was to profess that journalists are objective and unbiased. No, journalists are human and have to work at being balanced and fair. But we still held onto one vestige of the old newspapers — or, it should be said, publishers did — endorsements. If these publishers were honest about it, it was a way of trying to influence the outcome.

Other people were under the impression that endorsements were given to whichever candidate took out the most advertising. When candidates then used those endorsements in their own political advertising, it just fueled that impression even more.

Al Neuharth, founder of USA Today, blasted the practice of political endorsements in 2000, saying, “When newspapers endorse candidates editorially, their political coverage on the news pages becomes suspect in the eyes of readers, rightly or wrongly.” USA Today does not endorse candidates.

Even earlier than that, Neuharth pointed out that “Readers want to be fully informed about issues and candidates. They welcome debate. But they rebel when we dictate. They resent being told how to vote.”

The editorial page editor of the Wall Street Journal, which also does not endorse candidates, said the editorial page has a more fundamental purpose, which is to “stick up for those principles” it deems important. The St. Paul Pioneer Press also discontinued its endorsements this year.

Jay Rosen, chairman of the journalism department at New York University, was reported to have said that endorsements were “a tool of power” that newspapers paraded out as their civic authority in leadership. Editorial writers would proclaim that, because of their access, they were more knowledgeable and thoughtful and could be more credible in their opinion. Even if this were true at one time, it’s not the case anymore. Today, voters have access to a lot more information — just as much access in many cases as do editorial writers.

I can’t speak for all newspapers, but I don’t think newspapers should be in the business of making kings — or telling people how they should think. Regardless of who is sitting in the seats of power, each should be held accountable to whom they represent, and that’s the job of news organizations.

An endorsement appears to give a seal of approval and taints the perception of readers of our true intent, regardless of how hard we work at fairness. That puts our reporters in a difficult position. Ending endorsements doesn’t mean there will be no opinions about the candidates.

These will appear as signed columns from various authors. They could be opinions of a syndicated columnist or a particular Free Press writer, not the opinion of the Free Press editorial board. We will, however, recount what issues we feel are important to this region and this state and raise questions we feel need to be addressed.

Readers then can use that information as a barometer against their own thoughts about issues and candidates, as it should be.

And, in our reporting we will still present to our readers the differences between the candidates. We will still question every potential office holder and hold them accountable. And then armed with our reporting, publication of various sides of issue and individual columns, you can decide for yourself.

This year, you also will decide for yourself on constitutional amendments. Our job is to provide as much information — and opinions — from all sides that we can so you can make an intelligent choice.

In a democracy, it is the people who decide how they want to be governed — not one individual, not a party, not a movement and certainly not a newspaper.

Jim Santori is publisher of The Free Press. Contact him at jsantori@mankatofreepress.com or 344-6310.