Monday, October 18, 2004

In keeping with a long-standing election-year rite, the nation’s newspapers are proffering their editorial endorsements to President Bush or Sen. John Kerry as Election Day nears.

As of yesterday, the Massachusetts Democrat led Mr. Bush by 48 papers to 34. The practice gets mixed reviews, though.

“I have to believe that even in this day and age of intense communications that newspaper endorsements still have an effect in close elections,” said Greg Mitchell of Editor and Publisher (E&P) magazine, which maintains an ongoing tally of just who loves whom.

Historically, 175 to 250 papers nationwide make their endorsements in the pivotal weeks before the vote.

Four years ago, E&P surveyed 2,000 likely voters and revealed that 94 percent of them could not care less who their local newspaper endorsed, and 70 percent thought their paper should stop endorsing candidates altogether. Mr. Mitchell thinks such sentiments still prevail.

This year, E&P surveyed editors themselves on the endorsement process and will publish the results next week.

“We peeked behind the editorial curtain, from the New York Times on down,” the magazine’s editor said. “We found many papers don’t make endorsements anymore, with editors believing they only influence a small number of voters. Still, if they affect 5 percent, that constitutes a large chunk in a very close race with a politically polarized electorate.”

Indeed, some papers are ducking a political role. In the 1952 election, for example, 82 percent of the nation’s newspapers swore allegiance either to Dwight D. Eisenhower or Adlai Stevenson for president. Now the number of endorsing newspapers lingers at about 30 percent.

Regardless of their effect, endorsements present a cultural moment of their own, enabling analysts to divine the political significance of candidate support from a big metropolitan daily versus a modest paper in a swing state.

E&P found that five formerly pro-Bush papers are now in the Kerry camp, and that three papers that once backed the president said they were not motivated to endorse either of the candidates this year.

Endorsements can include lush patriotic prose, querulous partisan criticism and hybrid missives, such as the guarded rationale of Denver’s Rocky Mountain News, which endorsed Mr. Bush on Saturday.

“If it weren’t for 9/11, the 2004 presidential campaign would be a weary reprise of the one four years ago,” the paper stated, concluding, “Like many Americans, we have serious misgivings about some aspects of the president’s performance.”

Endorsements spell news content, though, and are routinely charted by the Associated Press, the National Journal, the foreign press and others.

Some say newspapers primarily hold sway in local races.

“People weigh out presidential endorsements; they pay attention. Whether the endorsement has influence is another matter,” said Scott Bosley, executive director of the Virginia-based American Society of Newspaper Editors.

“People tend to count on their papers to evaluate local candidates who don’t get much exposure ordinarily. What with print and broadcast media combined, the public already has more than enough information on a presidential hopeful,” Mr. Bosley said.

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