I walked past a coffee shop Thursday night, and through the window I saw a TV screen. Under the words "breaking news" came the following information:
The New York Times had endorsed Hillary Clinton and John McCain in the presidential primaries.
I wondered if this was "breaking news."
Or if it should be news at all.
Once upon a time newspapers' endorsing political candidates was as logical as baseball cards having players' photos. Newspapers were bald-faced about their political views. They argued them. They pushed them. In some cases, they were little more than the publishing arms of a political party. Those were the old days.
These are not those days.
These are days where information comes at you like blinding snow, where opinions never stop, and where, more than ever, you wonder who is behind your data. Is it a newscast or an advertisement? Is it a Web blog by someone pretending to be someone else? Is the host of a show in favor of something because he's paid to be so?
Is it reality or reality TV?
THE STATE OF POLITICS
Newspapers have been fighting this ugly storm for years. In a time of confusing signals, newspapers try to balance on increasingly shaky ground that of nonpartisan reporters of the world's unfolding history.
That doesn't mean newspapers lack opinion. Columnists are hired to express their views. Op-ed pieces argue a point. Even headline writers slant the news with their tone. ("We Win!" in a sports section is hardly what you'd call dispassionate.)
But when it comes to choosing a political candidate particularly for president newspapers should get out of the endorsement business.
Here's why: The average reader doesn't lack for information anymore. With computers, DVRs and satellite TV, anything you want to know about a candidate you can call up, replay or download. Newspapers are no longer informing readers with an endorsement.
What they are doing is making themselves targets. The U.S. political scene is so divisive that if you endorse a Democrat, you become a target of Republicans, and vice-versa. If you vocally chose a candidate, you get vocally lambasted by some contrary radio host or TV commentator.
And while that is no reason to cower from your views, newspapers often talk about perception. The perception of bias. The perception of undue influence.
If, through an endorsement, readers think you've surrendered your objectivity, you need to pay attention. Even if you're certain you haven't.
A SIGN OF THE TIMES
At my newspaper, the Detroit Free Press, endorsements are decided by the editorial board four editorial page writers and the editorial page editor, according to Ron Dzwonkowski, who holds that latter job. On big races such as president the editor and publisher "will likely want to be heard," Dzwonkowski says.
They don't sit in a room and argue "I like this guy." They admirably lay out issues that matter to our readers, and select which candidate they feel will most effectively deal with those issues.
"A newspaper can't recommend policies," Dzwonkowski says, "without also recommending the people who'll implement the policies."
But maybe it should. Here's why: First, these are candidates. The truth is, we have no idea who will deliver on campaign promises. (Which is why we sometimes lament an endorsement four years later.) Besides, five or seven people deciding whom an entire newspaper will endorse sends a confusing message: I may disagree with the choice, but as an employee, I am lumped in with it by readers. My objectivity is therefore questioned.
Meanwhile, with an endorsement, a newspaper leaves a concrete footprint. The New York Times, in praising McCain for "working across the aisle," also trashed Rudy Giuliani as a "narrow, obsessively secretive, vindictive man" whose "arrogance and bad judgment are breathtaking."
So how will the Times' coverage of Giuliani be taken from here on in? Could you blame people if they say, "You can't believe what the Times writes about Rudy they hate him"?
This is too big a price for a newspaper to pay especially for throwing one more hat on a candidate's pile. Everyone from Oprah to Chuck Norris endorses candidates now. A newspaper may gain more by keeping that opinion to itself.
Besides, there's an old adage in this business that when the newspaper becomes the breaking news, it's not good news. We should remember that.