A Brief History of Newspaper Endorsements

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As the presidential election inches closer, both candidates are looking for any little edge they might be able to find. To some undecided voters, a ringing endorsement might be just the thing they need to jump firmly into one candidate's camp. Although personal endorsements like the resounding one Colin Powell gave Barack Obama on Meet the Press last weekend are commonplace, what about newspaper endorsements? A thumbs-up from the editorial board of a major newspaper was once a serious boon to a campaign.

Do people actually vote according to their newspaper's endorsement? Hard to say. In most elections since 1940, the candidate with the strongest newspaper support has won, but there are notable exceptions. FDR won over less than a quarter of papers in his last two bids for reelection, while Harry Truman only mustered support from 15% of papers in 1948. In 2004, John Kerry held a slight edge over George W. Bush in endorsements, but it didn't help him win the White House. (According to Editor & Publisher, Obama's received 127 endorsements to 49 for John McCain.)

While such plugs were once ubiquitous, they've faded in recent decades; a survey by Editor & Publisher showed that by 1996, almost 70% of newspapers weren't endorsing presidential candidates as opposed to just 13.4% during the 1940 election cycle. Part of this is probably a reluctance to engage in partisan politics, but it also probably speaks to the decline of the newspaper as a central aspect of Americans' lives. With so many avenues available for voters to get to know the candidates, it seems rather quaint to think of anyone voting how an editor tells them to. Nevertheless, endorsement of candidates persists, so here's what you might want to know about the practice:

The biggest dogs don't take sides.

WSJ-USAToday.jpgThe two most-circulated papers in the country, USA Today and The Wall Street Journal, don't endorse candidates. The last time the WSJ endorsed a candidate was 1928, and perhaps the ensuing embarrassment was enough to scare the paper away from endorsements permanently. When handicapping the race between Herbert Hoover and Al Smith, the Journal's editors wrote, "That a financial newspaper should be independent goes without saying"¦Nevertheless it advises its readers to vote for Hoover, as the soundest proposition for those with a financial stake in the country." You may remember hearing about an epic financial crash less than a year later.

Over time, the Journal's no-endorsements policy became so strict that it necessitated an explanation every election cycle. In 1972, the editors clarified the issue: "Indeed, the short reason is simplicity itself: We don't think our business is telling people how to vote"¦We do not see any meaningful way in which that would either add to the reader's understanding of his times or raise the level of the public debate."

And sometimes other papers follow suit.

washingtonpostlogo.jpgThe Washington Post is the country's 7th-biggest paper in terms of circulation and obviously a key publication for those in and around the D.C. area. It generally endorses the Democratic candidate "“ the paper's already thrown its hat in with Obama this year "“ but some years, it just can't pick a candidate it likes. The paper notably declined to endorse anyone in the 1988 race between George H.W. Bush and Michael Dukakis. That didn't keep the editors from weighing in on the election, though; instead, they took the opportunity to excoriate both candidates and their campaigns. "This year's campaign is not just a domestic disappointment, it is an international embarrassment"¦" That zinger must have hurt almost as much as a certain ride in a tank.

Tempers can flare.

miami-herald.jpgOf course, when a paper endorses a candidate, it can't possibly speak for everyone on its staff, and a few members are bound to voice their dissent. The Miami Herald found this out the hard way in successive elections. During the 1980 race, editorial page editor Jim Hampton loathed Reagan, but his executive editor, John McMullan, was no warmer on Jimmy Carter. As a sort of truce that would please no one, they endorsed a candidate neither of them liked, Independent John B. Anderson.

When Reagan came up for reelection in 1984, Hampton found himself in another tight spot. The editorial board wanted to endorse Democratic challenger Walter Mondale, but Richard Capen, the paper's publisher, mandated a Reagan endorsement. At this point, Hampton was understandably a bit fed up with the process and decided to resign from the paper. Capen, however, refused to accept the resignation and had Hampton instead pen an editorial of his own explaining why he disagreed with the endorsement of Reagan.

The New York Times has had its adventures.

nytimes.jpgAlthough The New York Times has yet to endorse a candidate this year, the smart money is betting that it eventually endorses Obama. After all, the paper has endorsed the Democrat in the last 12 elections, and throughout its history has largely supported the party's candidates. However, there have been a few notable exceptions, like when the paper threw its vote behind Republican challenger Wendell Wilkie during his 1940 run against Franklin Roosevelt. (The paper did come back around on FDR and endorsed him in 1944.) The Times has also declined to endorse on certain occasions, most notably in 1928, when it said that given the choice between Al Smith and Herbert Hoover it was "happy with either."

The L.A. Times took a nice long break.

nixon-latimes.jpgUntil 1972 the Los Angeles Times had only given out endorsements to Republican candidates, and that year was no exception when the paper weighed in in favor of reelecting Richard Nixon. After that election, though, the paper stopped giving endorsements. Why?

As with many political problems of that era, you can blame Nixon. The LA Times admittedly played a large role in Nixon's rise to national prominence as he worked his way through Congress and into the Vice Presidency. Throughout his early career, Nixon enjoyed a particularly cozy relationship with the Chandler family who owned and ran the paper, so they'd help give him little positive bumps, both on the editorial and news pages. By the 1960s, the paper's staff was starting to grow tired of the cronyism between the Chandlers and Nixon, and although he continued getting the paper's endorsements, it also started being openly critical of him and doing investigative work into his apparent shenanigans. By 1972, the paper's writers were so fed up with the connection between Tricky Dick and their publication that they countered with their own endorsement of George McGovern, which ran as letter to the editor. Months later, the Watergate scandal broke, and the dissenting reporters looked wise for withholding their support. In September of 1973, the Times officially quit making endorsements.

The paper got back into the endorsement business with the primaries earlier this year, though, and has now given its support to Obama, its first-ever Democratic endorsement.

October 23, 2008 - 7:27am
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