Bitter politics, news industry troubles, endorsement spells

by Peter Weinberger

I’ll start by saying that the KURIER no longer makes political recommendations. As a non-profit organization, we cannot publish employee endorsements per the requirements set forth by the IRS. I’m sure some readers will clap their hands, but we continue to believe that recommendations are an important part of a news outlet’s responsibility to inform the public. We also get to know the candidates very well.

The sad part now is that many news outlets just drop endorsements because it’s bad for business. And if revenue continues to fall each year, it can have a powerful impact.

The more important issue is our country’s polarizing politics. Although most of the feedback the KURIER receives is positive, there is no question that the public’s negative comments are more intense and contain more blame. And politics is the number one reason readers unsubscribe. A perfect example is our coverage of Larkin Place. If we don’t write a story that clearly denounces the plan, some reporting will accuse us of being biased.

This dilemma has also affected us locally since Alden Global Capital, the hedge fund that owns several daily newspapers in the Southern California region, including the Daily Bulletin, said it no longer has candidates for president, governor or the US Senate would support. Not even a reason was given.

Do you remember when a newspaper endorsement or editorial was used in a campaign ad to promote a cause? We just don’t see that anymore, even though the Los Angeles Times continues to support most of the statewide causes and candidates.

Carole Hunter, Editor-in-Chief of Des Moines Register, attempted to justify the reduction in endorsements. “I think you can argue in many cases that they have outlived their usefulness due to increasing polarization and skepticism from the media in general,” Hunter said. “I don’t think that’s a healthy trend. But I think that’s the reality.”

I don’t share her assessment, but I can understand why she thinks that way. A key question is whether endorsements still have much impact. It may not appear so on the surface because the parties on both sides are so rigid in their beliefs. But in every election, there’s always a quiet group of voters who don’t get involved in political activity, maybe don’t have signs in their yard, or lend their name to an election ad, but vote every time. This will make some elections difficult to predict.

Just look at how Donald Trump won the presidency in 2016. The large percentage of endorsements went to Hillary Clinton, but Trump surprised almost everyone with his victory. Sometimes the silent voters are numerous, but it’s just hard to hear them. While endorsements seem to have less of an impact today, there aren’t exact numbers on exactly how much, which is why they’re still an important part of every election.

According to the American Presidency Project at the University of Santa Barbara, in 2008 92 of the nation’s largest newspapers endorsed a political candidate. By 2020, that number had dropped to 54. With so many newspapers going out of business (more than 2,000 since 2008), that number would be lower.

With the unpopularity of the press and the fact that more and more people are finding it difficult to distinguish news from opinion, objective news from fakes, there is an urge not to rock the boat. Gannett was not shy in advising his 220 newspapers to limit endorsements, as this was the main reason for canceling subscriptions. That being said, there is a way to write a respectful affirmation. But will the public see it that way?

One thing the COURIER always did was interview candidates before writing a recommendation. We would also publish an objective interview story in the weeks leading up to Election Day (as we did this year). Many news companies write a recommendation without conducting an interview. Apart from some important national offices like the President, I think that’s a mistake. Especially at the local level. Face-to-face interviews with a candidate are critical to publishing an objective endorsement.

Like so many other issues in the changing news industry, the loss of referrals is just a sign of the times, with no single reason why they’re going away. Hopefully, over time, the public can reverse course and focus more on the issues and less on the person. At the moment it seems like we still have a long way to go.

In Claremont, residents are fortunate to have such an active community, which impacts the quality of candidates who wish to serve. Now let’s go out and vote!


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