In a commentary published in the Maine Sunday Telegram last month, a former campaign aide to President Barack Obama asserted that the Maine newspaper’s decision to stop endorsing candidates for political office is nothing less than an abdication of the newspaper’s responsibility and a threat to democracy.
Michael Cuzzi, manager of the Portland and Boston offices of communications and public affairs firm VOX Global, accused the newspaper, owned by S. Donald Sussman, hedge fund investor and husband of Democratic U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, of “catering to right-wing political pressure.” He contended that a newspaper somehow has an obligation to urge voters to support one candidate or another – that voters cannot make an informed decision on their own without receiving an assessment of a candidate’s knowledge and demeanor by an editorial board.
In their announcement, editors of the Telegram pointed out that “editorial endorsements are a tradition from the 19th century, when American newspapers were affiliated with political parties. Those newspapers existed to affect the outcome of elections, not just to report on them.”
Today’s newspapers, whether published daily or less frequently, offer opinions on all manner of subjects on their editorial pages. Each day or week, they choose an editorial topic from a nearly endless array of subjects and issues. Many still do endorse candidates. Others, including this newspaper, do not, with rare exceptions. Are we to assume, as Mr. Cuzzi asserted, that those newspapers which do not comment on political candidates are shirking their responsibility? We think not.
Mr. Cuzzi suggests that without newspaper endorsements, voters face “a critical shortage of credible, impartial and factual information” and will be “making decisions on a paucity of information, often from sound bites, TV ads or other anecdotes….” That is true only for voters who make no attempt to seek out the wealth of candidate-related information generated by responsible news organizations in a variety of media, including newspapers.
Most newspapers, large and small, make earnest attempts to report on political campaigns, interview major candidates, ask tough questions and report the results of their efforts to their readers in news columns. In the weeks leading up to local, state or national elections, regular readers of those publications have ample opportunity to assess that information – credible, impartial and factual information – as they choose for which candidates to vote. It’s silly to assume that those who aren’t regular readers will flock to the newsstands for that one issue containing candidate endorsements before they make up their minds.
In their editorial announcing the change in endorsement policy, the Telegram editors asserted, “We will still look hard at the candidates and probe their ideas. We will tell you when we think that they are right and when we think that they are wrong, and we will tell them what we think they should do. We’re just not going to tell you how to vote.”
That sounds just right to us.