in the Georgia, the US Senate fight between incumbent Democrat Raphael Warnock and his Republican challenger, former soccer star Herschel Walker, couldn’t be more consequential. Determining the majority party in the Senate when it meets in 2023 could well be in the balance.
Voters, particularly those inclined to Walker’s party positions but have reservations about him personally, will find no guidance in Georgia newspaper editorials.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution stopped publishing recommendations in 2009. The state’s next four largest newspapers — in Savannah, Augusta, Columbus and Macon — are also suspending recommendations this year.
“Our research has consistently shown that voters want full scrutiny of candidates, but voters don’t want to know how to vote. …” Andre Jackson, opinion editor of the Journal-Constitution, wrote to me in an email. “They want us to give them the information they need to make decisions.”
Looking at half a dozen states with the hottest contested Senate elections, I found a number of approaches. Some explained why they are no longer making recommendations and spoke directly to a raging industry debate. Are candidate recommendations an unwelcome exercise in lecturing readers, or are they still part of what a responsible newspaper does?
Among those taking the traditional approach is the Philadelphia Inquirer, who supported Democrat John Fetterman for the US Senate and Josh Shapiro for governor. (The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Patriot-News of Harrisburg and the Scranton Times-Tribune are also supported).
Opinions Editor-in-Chief Richard Jones stated in an email interview: “The provision of support guidance remains an integral part of The Inquirer’s Opinion Desk’s public service mission. It could be argued that given the current climate – where many people live in filter bubbles and rarely come across independent evaluations of candidates – endorsements have seldom been so important as a useful tool for open-minded voters.”
The Inquirer editorial ran ahead of Fetterman’s faltering performance as he recovers from a stroke in his debate with Republican Mehmet Oz. The Inquirer ran a second editorial the following day, saying Fetterman “deserves credit, not ridicule, for taking part in the debate given his ongoing recovery.”
Papers and their websites, which are no longer supported, offer a variety of alternatives. Of course, there is still heavy coverage of the races. Many run multiple commentaries from both their own columnists and outside contributors.
Gannett’s 16 Ohio newspapers took the approach of publishing an editorial interview with Senate candidates, but without endorsements (Democrat Tim Ryan attended; Republican JD Vance did not).
Amalie Nash, Gannett’s senior vice president of local news, pointed me to a prominent editorial in the largest of the chain’s 200-plus titles, The Arizona Republic in Phoenix.
Arizona has been the epicenter of right-wing allegations of voting irregularities, and the Republic has vigorously intervened an editorial with the headline “Democracy is under attack. This is how we know Arizona elections are safe and secure.” A caption continued, “Democracy dies when we believe our vote can be stolen. Don’t give in to those lies, especially given the election protection measures Arizona has put in place.”
In the body of the editorial, the Republic writes: “Arizona has elected bipartisan leaders who stand against the rogues and charlatans who have worked to reverse the Arizona 2020 results, precipitating a U.S. constitutional crisis in the process. Leaders like Maricopa County Recorder Stephen Richer and Secretary of State Katie Hobbs have fought back these allegations with no small price.” (Hobbs is the Democratic nominee for governor in a close race against Republican Kari Lake).
Earlier this year, Gannett urged its newspapers to ditch endorsements and reduce space for editorials and other opinion pieces. But that was a recommendation, not a dictate, Nash told me at the time.
The election season has provided an interesting example of this. At the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel a few years ago, Opinion Editor David Haynes departed from a traditional format in favor of what the Journal Sentinel calls an think tank — a solution-oriented dialogue with readers about city and state issues.
However, Haynes has returned to the endorsement format, calls for the defeat of incumbent Republican Senator Ron Johnsonon the grounds that Johnson was a virulent election denier.
In a signed editorial, Haynes explained why the Journal Sentinel made an exception to the anti-advocacy. “Johnson’s ruthless conspiracy,” he wrote, “to stretch the truth, his unwillingness to accept election results, and his obedience to the Trumpist right should disqualify him from public office.”
Typically, newspaper publishers that no longer do endorsements offer explanations to readers, citing factors such as polarization, the cost of hiring staff for interviews, and a disconnect with the digital format (effectively meaning that endorsements are a relic of the print age ).
Arizona Republic Editor-in-Chief Greg Burton and Editorial Editor Phil Boas wrote in 2020:
“In the coming months and years, The Republic Opinions pages will fight to preserve the public space for responsible people to voice their views. We will defend the right to speak as guaranteed by the First Amendment and challenge those individuals and political movements who would refuse it.
“Our sides will continue to engage with big political issues, including electoral initiatives, but will step back from recommending candidates in the more partisan arena of electoral politics. The selection of candidates has sometimes prevented us from moving the dialogue forward because many readers think our endorsement compromises our analysis.”
Lee Enterprises’ Arizona Daily Star of Tucson, the state’s second largest newspaper, followed in a July editorialwho said it would “continue to challenge politicians if they advance repugnant ideas or present worthy proposals” but would no longer support it.
The Constitution of the Atlanta Journal anticipated current thinking when it gave up the endorsements in 2009:
“Going forward, our board will leverage their unique position to work for readers and with candidates to pursue the issues critical to the future of our community. The Board will provide readers with clear, concise information about the positions and achievements of the candidates. The AJC no longer supports political candidates. …
“We’ve heard from readers – and we agree – that we don’t need to tell you how to vote. Readers tell us they need information about who the candidates are, what they have done and what they want to do in the new job.”
Those who continue to advertise at major races have faced a new problem in recent years – a lack of cooperation from contestants. It used to be national candidate territory to make the rounds of newsrooms. Now it’s very likely they won’t, especially if they’re Republicans who distrust the liberal bias in the press.
When Oz and other Republican Senate candidates turned down interview invitations, the Inquirer chose not to support the primary.
The trend is what it is and I’d be amazed if it reverses anytime soon. At the risk of appearing as a dinosaur, however, I have three concerns.
The movement away from editorials in general and endorsements in particular is being led by chains. Alden Global Capital joined Gannett with a formal policy change this cycle for the two chains it owns, announced a month ago. The Allentown Morning Call was not endorsed at the Pennsylvania races. Many local newspapers, on the other hand, still seem to think the effort is worthwhile.
The fear of offending entrenched partisans may seem reader-friendly, but seems like an excuse to me. What’s next – reluctance to provide critical, accountable reporting on a popular mayor? I don’t see a bright future for Bland.
Granted, good political reporting is more important, and confirmation doesn’t often make all the difference in a national race. However, without what the Inquirer’s Jones called “independent evaluation of candidates,” voters are even more at the mercy of endless and mostly negative television advertising.
(Caryn Baird contributed research to this article)