Come with me to an inner sanctum that few have experienced or ever will. Be forewarned: it’s not pretty and you may never be able to forget what you’ve seen.
I’m taking you behind the curtain where you’ll learn how newspapers decide which candidates they will endorse and why. The political junkies among you may wish things had been left to your imagination.
The “why” is the most entertaining aspect. Any group of people may better decide the best candidate in a race by flipping a coin. It’s not, as they say, rocket science, or any kind of science at all. But then again, sometimes editorial boards get things right.
I’ve participated in two newspapers’ endorsement processes, so I can’t say this is how all Wyoming publications do it. For that matter one of those papers no longer exists and the other has made a lot of changes in the last 5 years, so I can’t speak to their current systems.
However, as a former member of the National Conference of Editorial Writers, I’ve listened to enough panels and peer critique sessions to attest that the process is similar from small city dailies to mighty metropolitan pillars of journalism. There are two basic models:
We have what what the industry calls a “one-person shop” in which the opinion editor sits in his or her office and decides what politicians to endorse. They may consult with their publisher, depending how hands-on the person who supervises all departments wants to be.
In my experience at the Wyoming Eagle, before Cheyenne’s morning daily merged with the afternoon Wyoming State Tribune, endorsements were made this way and they were easy. The Eagle trumpeted the qualifications of Democrats while the Tribune was the capital city’s Republican paper. I can’t remember a time either publication ever crossed party lines.
The leeway given the two editors to pontificate about candidates was enormous. At many small-city papers an editorial writer usually consults with the publisher about the paper’s views on general issues and clears the endorsement before publishing.
The second and more complicated method is by editorial board. It’s preferred by newspapers that want to involve more diverse views.
Shortly after I left The Eagle in 1993 and the papers joined forces, the new publication created an editorial board comprised of editors of various sections and community representatives. I’ve never been to a Tribune Eagle editorial board meeting, but several friends have served on it and they’ve told me it’s a solid, fair process that allows the board to make informed decisions about endorsements.
As the opinion editor of the Casper Star-Tribune between 2006 and 2013 I served as the coordinator of its editorial board, which took a different approach. There were usually five or six members, including the publisher and myself. We didn’t have a rotating group of community members as some do. I think it would have helped broaden our perspective, particularly relating to elections.
I am glad to see, however, that both papers now put their candidate interview sessions online so the public can see for themselves who said what instead of solely relying on the editorial board’s end product.
I coordinated interviews with all federal, statewide, legislative, city council and county commission candidates. Each board member prepared a list of questions for each office. We initially had individual interviews but eventually brought in all legislative candidates for the district they were running to represent.
That system worked well until my last editor decided he was going to pose all the questions while the rest of us watched, limp, with no ability to follow up or do much besides shake hands with candidates when they came in and when they left. This ritual was immediately followed by a closed-door session to share our impressions about each politician.
Cordial discussions when we were in obvious agreement could degenerate into rancorous arguments when we weren’t. As the opinion editor I was responsible for synthesizing all those perspectives into the newspaper’s single endorsement. (I guess corporations really are people after all!) I came to view election time as the most headache-inducing part of my job for two reasons.
First is the inner conflict. Often there’d be vehement objections to the chosen candidate.
The second and more difficult problem came when I was that objector. Candidates I considered respected acquaintances or friends could be tossed on the dung heap by my colleagues — and I’d have to write it up.
I always tried to say at least one positive thing about these also-rans (“We certainly hope Candidate X will continue to seek political office because they have many worthwhile ideas, but we feel the candidate we endorsed is better qualified”).
My job description spelled out that I had to write every endorsement, no exceptions. But each one had to be signed off on by the other board members. Imagine trying to satisfy five people who sometimes disagreed about the wording of five different sentences and reconcile them on deadline. You can’t please everyone, but not pleasing anyone can be a maddening way to make a living.
Take, for example, the Star-Tribune’s controversial endorsement of Barack Obama in the 2008 presidential election.
That was me. I did that, with two people who agreed with the pick and two others who essentially conveyed, “Over my dead body.” It was up to the publisher to decide whether to back Obama or John McCain.
In reality, though, it is always up to the publisher to decide. An endorsement is predicated on how much muscle a publisher wants to flex. Make no mistake: an editorial board is not a democracy. In my experience, and those of every other editorial editor I’ve talked to, a board can vote 10-0 to endorse Candidate A, but if the publisher insists on Candidate B, that’s who gets the nod.
It’s frustrating but I can defend the practice because the publisher is ultimately responsible for everything that’s printed, including endorsements.
Our publisher secretly leaned toward Obama but knew that backing him would effectively mean all his considerable efforts to convince our most conservative readers that the Star-Tribune was no longer the “Red Star” would be tossed out the window.
It took nearly a week of personal lobbying but I wore him down and finally convinced the publisher to let me write an Obama draft. Much to his later chagrin, he approved it.
The higher-ups in the corporation were on the phone before the ink dried, wondering if he had lost his mind. A Rocky Mountain editor in our corporate chain endorsing a Democrat? Unthinkable!
I was openly delighted. Little did I know then though it had paved the way for what we would do in the 2012 Obama-Mitt Romney contest. Immediately after the 2008 election I was informed we would endorse the GOP candidate no matter who it was. I think Osama bin Laden would have been heartily praised if he appeared on the ballot with an (R) after his name.
I thought I had an “out” and wouldn’t have to write such a monstrosity. The previous editor assured me I would never have to write something I did not believe to be true.
When 2012 rolled around, I reminded my publisher about that promise. He grinned and reminded me that editor was no longer employed.
I was spared when my then-editor agreed to write the Romney endorsement even though he personally abhorred the idea. I enjoyed the response we got from several readers who accused us of some combination of losing our integrity and our minds. This was my favorite letter to the editor, from Leslie Punches of Green River:
“We let the Mad Hatter out of his box and then forgot to give him his meds? Or was it a Mitt Romney staffer that wrote this piece and you all just published it unread?”
I couldn’t have said it better myself. And I’m very glad I didn’t have to type the words “we endorse Romney.”
Paychecks are great, but so is being able to sleep at night.