The newspaper endorsement, like the appendix, is a relic of a simpler time that is not particularly useful today. However, like the appendix, the endorsement persists. Before looking at the history of the endorsement, it’s worth considering its efficacy in recent years. In 2016, The Michigan Daily endorsed former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and then Ohio Gov. John Kasich in their respective primaries. The Daily then endorsed Clinton in the general election. Impressively enough, all three of these endorsees lost their race — Clinton lost Michigan in both the primary and the general and Kasich barely managed to come in third place in his primary. In 2020, The Daily endorsed Sen. Bernie Sander, I-Vt., in the primary and from looking at the results, it appears the Midas touch continues apace. For the sake of Vice President Joe Biden’s campaign, I would suggest he avoid the endorsement if he hopes for success in this year’s general election.
The ostensible point of an endorsement is to swing voters by successfully making a case for a candidate. However, voters are not always willing to listen to these outlets, especially when trust in the media is low. As a result of this, it might make sense to stop endorsing candidates until public trust is reestablished.
The history of the newspaper endorsement, unlike an actual endorsement, is fascinating. While there may be other papers that did it sooner, The New York Times has been endorsing candidates for President since 1860. The Times is one of the bigger newspapers that still endorses candidates today — the Wall Street Journal formally stopped the practice after 1928. USA Today has done it only once in its 30-odd year history (and even that was more of an anti-endorsement than an affirmative one).
Though the process for the Times’ endorsement has changed throughout the years, its most significant alterations came this year. For one, the discussions were no longer off the record — instead, they were on HBO. And when the Times actually decided on endorsing, rather than picking one candidate, they sensibly picked two because, as we all know, everyone gets two ballots. Of course, the endorsement was about as helpful as a white crayon and both of their endorsees saw respectable third- and sixth-place finishes in the primaries prior to dropping out of the race.
So why do these endorsements persist? It is because newspapers and similar types of institutions have been unable to reckon with their recent loss of power. However, continuing to endorse candidates is unlikely to address this and will instead exacerbate the problem. The lack of trust discussed earlier is partially because people believe the media has its thumb on the scale for some candidate or cause. Though people can scream until they’re blue in the face that there’s a line between editorial and hard news, there appears to be bias on both of those angles to many readers. Thus, an endorsement is both unlikely to sway voters and also likely to continue to burn trust, neither of which are admirable goals.
However, some might say that the point of an endorsement is more than getting a candidate elected. John McCormick, editorial page editor for the Chicago Tribune, has said that the electoral side is one part of the reason for the endorsement but it is not the whole point. In his view, the point of an endorsement is to “explain to the world what that publication is, what it advocates, how it thinks, what principles it holds dear.”
However, McCormick and those who think like him might reflect on the 2016 election a little bit more carefully before continuing on with these proclamations. If it is true that the endorsement represents what publications think, what they advocate and what they hold dear, the fact that the American public decided to vote against all of that might be a cause for concern. Beyond this, 2016 should have been the death knell for the idea that endorsements matter. Trump stacked up a total of only 19 newspaper endorsements and was still elected president.
If endorsements are about values and not politics, that’s fine. It’s not good, however, for our democracy, as we need a press that the populace believes in. Since endorsements can’t get votes, it is worth considering whether or not they should amble on — the appendix in black in white.
Anik Joshi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.