The newspaper editorial is emblematic of press freedom and the right of free expression that are at the heart of our democracy. However, especially in light of the recent election, is the newspaper editorial another victim of the disruption that is upending journalism?
There has been much hand-wringing about the media’s performance, including feelings that newspapers and cable television gave too much or too little coverage to particular candidates, did not have the pulse of the country and were too reliant on polls that turned out to be wrong. Largely lost in the debate is that an unprecedented editorial assault on Donald Trump seemed to have little effect on the outcome. What does it mean for the editorial voice if the people are not listening?
Overall, more than 240 newspapers endorsed Hillary Clinton, compared to only 19 for Mr. Trump. President Barack Obama received only 99 endorsements before his 2012 re-election, while his opponent, Mitt Romney, had 105. It was hardly a surprise that traditionally liberal newspapers such as The New York Times sided with Mrs. Clinton, but the Times’s vehement opposition to Mr. Trump — “the worst nominee put forward by a major party in modern American history” — was notable.
However, the endorsement of Mrs. Clinton went way beyond traditional lines. The Arizona Republic endorsed the Democratic presidential nominee for the first time in its 126-year history, saying, “The 2016 Republican candidate is not conservative and he is not qualified.” The newspaper remained adamant, despite a number of death threats to senior editors.
USA Today made its first editorial comment on a presidential candidate in its history — Mr. Trump is “unfit for the presidency” — although the paper did not formally endorse Mrs. Clinton.
The Atlantic endorsed Mrs. Clinton; only the third time that the magazine had sided with a presidential candidate in its 159-year history, saying Mr. Trump “might be the most ostentatiously unqualified major-party candidate in the 227-year history of the American presidency.”
The endorsement wave was powerful enough that it might have been thought to affect some critical states. For instance, The Columbus Dispatch, considered by many to be the most coveted editorial endorsement in the nation, given Ohio’s history as a swing state, broke with a century of Republican allegiance to side with Mrs. Clinton, declaring, “Donald Trump is unfit to be president of the United States.” The Cincinnati Enquirer, with a similar history of Republican support, also went for Mrs. Clinton, describing Mr. Trump as “a clear and present danger.”
Mr. Trump defeated Mrs. Clinton in Ohio by 8 percentage points after Mr. Obama had won the state in 2012 by 3 percentage points.
Just for symmetry, it is useful to note that the most important newspaper that endorsed Mr. Trump was probably the Las Vegas Review-Journal, which said Mr. Trump “promises to be a source of disruption and discomfort to the privileged, back-scratching political elites.”
Mrs. Clinton won Nevada by 2.4 percentage points.
We will be disentangling the dynamics of this campaign for years to come. Certainly, some editorialists are suffering from popular sentiments against elites and skepticism of national institutions, topics that have trended for some time and accelerated during the campaign. Education levels were also a very powerful predictor, and it is reasonable to assume that less-educated citizens also were less likely to have read the many editorials that excoriated the man they eventually elected to the White House.
These newspapers also may not have persuaded many Trump supporters. Many publications went out of their way to say that those siding with the Republican candidate had legitimate grievances given rising inequality, the disappearance of traditional manufacturing jobs and foreign policy setbacks. The newspapers and magazines then argued that Mr. Trump was not going to address those problems. But the publications fell into the very trap that Mr. Trump exploited during the presidential debates when he repeatedly asked Mrs. Clinton why she had not addressed his supporters’ concerns during her many years at or near the center of power. That may not have been fair, but it was a powerful debating point that probably had resonance when many read about their legitimate grievances but were not told when or how those issues would be addressed.
Finally, the editorial voice may have been muffled because of the way news is being distributed. Increasingly, a large number of readers get their newspaper stories via social media, especially Facebook. This may be a useful strategy on the part of newspapers to attract more readers and capture digital ad revenue. However, the commodification of news stories means that readers see articles in a feed that may seem increasingly disassociated with a particular paper. It also may seem that the newspapers themselves have lost their grounding in the communities, if people read their stories in a stream that includes news from other sources, omnipresent cat videos and greetings from relatives.
Whether the editorial voice, especially in the age of social media, can ever be recovered is unclear. It is certain, especially after an election with nearly unanimous editorial skepticism about the eventual winner, that it can no longer simply be assumed that a newspaper or magazine endorsement means much of anything. These publications will now have to work very hard to justify their sentiments being taken seriously, another challenge when just about every other journalistic certainty is being overturned. Newspapers and magazines will, in short, have to reinvent the editorial voice for the age of social media, just as they are changing almost every other aspect of their publications.
• Jeffrey Herbst, Ph.D., is president and CEO of the Newseum and the Newseum Institute. He has served as president of Colgate University, was provost at Miami University and taught at Princeton University for 18 years. He is the author of the award-winning “States and Power in Africa” (2000) and co-author, with Greg Mills, of “Africa’s Third Liberation” (2012) and “How South Africa Works and Must Do Better” (2016).