Election day has arrived, and even those of us without an iota of American heritage (let alone suffrage) are slightly a-twitch in our chairs as we play with interactive graphics and wait to see whether Twitter is really going to break. Today, undecided voters— those fickle objects of the mass media’s fascination, and Bill Maher’s derision— will have to slide to one side or the other, or perch on white picket forever. And by now, those newspapers that wish to have picked a side.
This year, Barack Obama is leading Mitt Romney 41 to 35 in endorsements from the nation’s 100 highest-circulation newspapers, according to the American Presidency Project. The newspapers that are backing Obama have a circulation of over 10 million between them, while those that support Romney have a combined circulation of around 6.5 million.
These figures represent a significant decline in Obama’s number of newspaper endorsements since 2008, when he had 65 of the top 100 papers— with an aggregate circulation of 16 million— on his side, while only 25 newspapers totaling 5 million in circulation spoke out in support of his Republican rival John McCain.
[*Click here or on the image itself to interact with this stubbornly unembeddable infographic that I made on Infogr.am]
Looking beyond the 100 highest-circulation newspapers, at least three papers that supported McCain in 2008 have flipped toward Obama. However, the pendulum has mostly swung the other way, with Romney recouping at least 35 of the endorsements that went to Obama in 2008, according to Poynter. Besides, Romney is leading Obama 24 to 15 in endorsements from swing state newspapers.
Of course, none of this will have much influence on whether we are hula hooping for joy or weeping tears of ash tomorrow, if you trust the results of a 2008 study on the impact of political endorsements by the Pew Research Center. Researchers found that 14 percent of respondents would be influenced positively by a local newspaper’s endorsement of a candidate, and 14 percent would be influenced negatively, leaving the influence-o-meter's dial pointing at approximately zero. This is by no means the final word on the subject, which MinnPost’s David Brauer has labelled an “age-old tail-chase,” but it is enough to make one wonder: what’s the point of endorsing a presidential candidate? What motivates a newspaper to endorse a candidate— or not— in the first place?
This is a more interesting question to ask oneself on election night than whether swing state endorsements will help Romney win, particularly given the increase this year in the number of papers who have decided to abstain from voicing a position (visible in the infographic). In 2008, eight of the country’s 100 highest-circulation newspapers declined to endorse a candidate. This year, that number has jumped to 23.
I can find at least four strong arguments for abstaining from endorsement. One pertains to business: the fear of ticking off readers and, worse, advertisers, is stronger than ever, now that every penny counts. Another comes from a desire to keep the news pure: “Simply put, we don’t want to undermine the hard work of our reporters covering the races,” explained Jim Strauss, editor of Montana’s Great Falls Tribune.
A third reason not to endorse has to do with the very nature of democracy: "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," said NYU’s Jay Rosen to Tim Porter of the American Journalism Review some eight years ago. "But when a journalist says that, what is it he's telling us he has obtained? …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."
Finally, in a country where the mass media has become so polarised that each of two major television networks has aired an earnest suggestion that its rival’s preferred presidential or vice-presidential candidate suffers from mental illness (MSNBC’s Martin Bashir expressed concern about Romney’s “mental well-being,” while a member of Fox News’s “Medical A Team” intimated that Joseph Biden Jr.’s “bizarre laughter” was indicative of dementia), it might seem odd for anyone at all to be in favour of more partisanship.
When it comes to not picking a candidate to throw your weight behind, the country’s two highest-circulation dailies lead the way: The Wall Street Journal generally does not endorse a candidate, preferring to prioritize principles over politicians, and USA Today’s founder Allen H. Neuharth famously combined arguments two and three when he opined thirty years ago that endorsements not only taint the reputation of a newspaper’s political coverage, but are insulting to readers.
Among those that have followed suit are the Chicago Sun-Times (“We have come to doubt the value of candidate endorsements by this newspaper or any newspaper, especially in a day when a multitude of information sources allow even a casual voter to be better informed than ever before"), the Milwaukee-Wisconsin Journal Sentinel (“Endorsements are a relic of a time when every town had more than one newspaper, of a time long before the wide river of commentary now available to anyone with a smartphone”), and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (“We have heard from readers — and we agree — that you don’t need us to tell you how to vote”).
However, 76 of the country’s 100 leading newspapers continue to endorse presidential candidates— and not because it’s a picnic. As Edward Wasserman, a Knight professor of journalism ethics at Washington and Lee University recently wrote in a column for the Miami Herald: “Endorsements never made marketplace sense. They always irritated some portion of the readership. They routinely drove off advertisers. They fractured staffs that were otherwise chummy and collegial. They left some readers convinced of bias in news coverage. In short, they've always been a pain in the neck.”
What incentive, then, could prompt a newspaper to pronounce that it holds a view from somewhere on this most sensitive of subjects? As cleanly as Rosen’s geology analogy may have dismissed it, I have not let go of the argument that good newspaper editorialists are well-placed to make sound political judgments, given that their jobs consist of gathering all of the facts, and listening to every side. This does not mean that they are free from bias, nor does it equip them with the power to anoint Romney or Obama as the correct candidate with anywhere near the same level of credibility as a geologist pronouncing a certain specimen igneous or metamorphic. But it does mean that in an age of off-the-rails SuperPACs and emotionally-driven animosity between parties, there is something to be said for a cool stream of measured opinion now and then— particularly one from the opposite camp.
As Tom Rosenstiel, Founder and Director of Pew's Project for Excellence in Journalism, said back in 2004: “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...we don't do that. Dentists are busy being dentists and gardeners are busy being gardeners... 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.’”
The Economist’s room-temperature endorsement of Obama is an example of the kind of calculated vote of confidence that professional editorialists are well positioned to offer. It is clear from reading the Leader entitled “Which one?” in the November 3 issue (cover pictured above) that the London-based weekly wishes it had been able to choose the other: “Mr Obama’s shortcomings have left ample room for a pragmatic Republican, especially one who could balance the books and overhaul the government. Such a candidate briefly flickered across television screens in the first presidential debate. This newspaper would vote for that Mitt Romney, just as it would vote for the Romney who ran Democratic Massachusetts in a bipartisan way (even pioneering the blueprint for Obamacare). The problem is that there are a lot of Romneys and they have committed themselves to a lot of dangerous things.”
Though Wasserman might disagree with this point, arguing as he does that “if you've been paying attention you know about as much as the editorialists do," he might agree that reading a sound judgment by someone on the other side of the fence could jolt an indolent reader out of bed and into the voting booth, where the decision remains hers. If newspapers continue to endorse candidates, Wasserman asserts, it is “not to please [readers] as consumers, but to [help] them act as citizens;" to awaken civic duty and motivate citizen engagement. “The endorsements don’t seek agreement,” Wasserman writes; “they demand action.”
And for those of us incapable of action (for reasons of Canadianness, for example, or because publications can’t actually vote), newspaper endorsements remain one of the many fascinating facets of the high-stakes race that holds the media captive every four Novembers, exhibiting the best and worst of journalism and democracy. Here's hoping they don’t become old news.