Sad News Day: The Tuscaloosa News No Longer Endorsing Candidates

UPDATE: This post now readable in condensed letter-to-the-editor format.

The paper’s argument is this:

Giving our stamp of approval to individual candidates does little to engender trust in the public. In fact, it can undermine that trust.

The public is better served if it trusts The News to report fairly and freely on the candidates seeking office. It is better served if the opinion section identifies the important issues that affect the community and makes cogent arguments supporting the opinions expressed about those issues.

First: “cogent arguments” have never in the two years I’ve lived here been too heavy a concern for The News’s opinion page, at least not in the letters it allows to get printed.

But second, this is terrible news. The News “question[s] whether endorsements really function as a persuasive tool,” and thinks “it is hard for many people to believe that an organization can … urge people to cast their votes for an individual and at the same time present information critical about that individual.” In other words, The News is afraid of being called out for biased reporting, treating too favorably the candidates it eventually endorses.

I don’t think candidate endorsements have ever functioned as a persuasive tool, and no way are they functioning like this now. Given cable news, can the daily newspaper[1] really sway public opinion with one endorsement editorial printed just days before elections? What’s more worrisome, though, is that The News sees endorsement not as unpersuasive, but as a way of undermining the public’s trust.

This is a fairly new idea—that subjectivity and reporting to inform public opinion make for bad journalism—and if it weren’t Sunday morning I’d be able to better point out how it’s a radically conservative idea. It’s what’s made Fox News so successful that my father-in-law points to how carefully that network brings in voices from both sides of an issue as evidence for its fair and balanced approach. Which is madness. To believe in a “balanced approach” is to assert that every issue has not one or three or twenty stances worth exploring, but always precisely two. Pro- and Anti-. This is not just wrong, it’s often harmful to progress. After all, it’s been the belief in a “balanced approach” that has put Creationism in certain states’ biology classrooms.

Look, a newspaper is not the voice of the people, it’s a voice for the people. It’s the voice of the reporters it pays to do one job: find the stories and deliver the facts without the manic pace and need for caught eyeballs that is cable news’s bread and butter. It’s a voice the public has always had the option to ignore. An endorsement in a newspaper, then, is not the kingmaking move The News thinks it is, so much as a place to weigh the facts months of reporting have unearthed (because most of us don’t have the time to do this tough but vital job). It’s a place for a newspaper to be an informed authority. This isn’t arrogant or presumptive, it’s called being responsible.

Here’s the problem: we no longer live in a time when authorities are given due respect. A woman spends her entire career studying the changes in the climate, say, and the public responds to her warnings about global warming by asking for a second opinion. It need never be an informed opinion, just a second one that argues the opposite point. But if you believe, as I do, in the power of expertise, the solution to this problem is to find ways to rebuild trust in authorities. That’s the opportunity The News has now lost. In refusing to play its part as election experts, the paper claims to be honoring the power of public opinion, but really it’s throwing up its hands in the face of it.


Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. I’d like to have written “daily newspapers” here but very few publics in America are able to pluralize this anymore. Rather than making candidate-endorsement more dangerous (because there’s no daily newspaper to present counteropinions), I say this makes them more important. Who else but our print media has the time and resources to make claims unmarred by partisan claptrap?

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