November 3, 2022

In Georgia, the U.S. Senate contest between incumbent Democrat Raphael Warnock, and his Republican challenger, former football star Herschel Walker, couldn’t be more consequential. Determining the majority party in the Senate when it convenes in 2023 may well hang in the balance.

Voters, especially those who may lean toward Walker’s party-line positions but have reservations about him personally, will not find any guidance in Georgia newspaper editorials.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution stopped doing endorsements in 2009.  The next four largest papers in the state – in Savannah, Augusta, Columbus and Macon — are sitting out recommendations this year too.  

“Our research has consistently shown that voters want candidates fully vetted, but voters don’t want to be told how to vote. …,” Andre Jackson, opinion editor of the Journal-Constitution, wrote me in an email. “They want us to provide the information they need to make decisions.”

Looking at a half dozen states with the most hotly contested Senate races, I found a range of approaches. Explaining why they are no longer doing endorsements, some directly commented on a raging industry debate. Are candidate recommendations an unwelcome exercise in lecturing readers or still part of what a responsible newspaper does?

Among those taking the traditional approach is the Philadelphia Inquirer, which endorsed Democrats John Fetterman for U.S. Senate and Josh Shapiro for Governor. (The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, The Patriot-News of Harrisburg and the Scranton Times-Tribune endorsed too). 

Managing editor of opinions Richard Jones explained in an email interview: “Providing endorsement guidance remains a vital part of the public service mission of The Inquirer’s Opinion Desk. One could argue that given the current climate — in which many people inhabit filter bubbles and rarely encounter independent assessments of candidates — endorsements have seldom been more essential as a sense-making tool for open-minded voters.”

The Inquirer editorial ran before Fetterman’s halting performance, as he recovers from a stroke, in his debate with Republican Mehmet Oz. The Inquirer published a second editorial the day after, saying Fetterman “deserved credit, not ridicule, for taking part in the debate given his continued recovery.”

Papers and their websites that are no longer endorsing provide varied alternatives. Of course, there is still heavy news coverage of the races.  Many run multiple op-eds both by their own columnists and outside contributors.

Gannett’s 16 Ohio papers took the approach of publishing an editorial board interview with Senate candidates but without endorsements (Democrat Tim Ryan participated; Republican J.D. Vance didn’t).

Amalie Nash, senior vice president of local news for Gannett, pointed me toward a prominently displayed editorial in the largest of the chain’s 200-plus titles, The Arizona Republic in Phoenix.

Arizona has been the epicenter of right-wing allegations of voting irregularity, and the Republic weighed in emphatically with an editorial  headlined, “Democracy is under attack. Here’s how we know Arizona elections are safe and secure.” A subhead continued, Democracy dies when we believe our vote can be stolen. Don’t give in to those lies, especially given the election safeguards Arizona has in place.”

In the body of the editorial, the Republic writes that “Arizona has elected leaders from both parties who stand against the rogues and charlatans who worked to reverse the 2020 results in Arizona and, in so doing, courted a U.S. constitutional crisis. Leaders such as Maricopa County Recorder Stephen Richer and Secretary of State Katie Hobbs have pushed back against these accusations at no small cost.” (Hobbs is the Democratic candidate for governor in a tight race against Republican Kari Lake).                  

Earlier this year, Gannett strongly urged its papers to ditch endorsements and cut back the space devoted to editorials and other opinion pieces. But that was a recommendation, not a dictate, Nash told me then.

Election season has turned up an interesting case in point. At the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, opinion editor David Haynes moved away from a traditional format several years ago, in favor of what the Journal Sentinel calls an Ideas Lab – a solutions-oriented dialogue with readers on city and state problems.

However, Haynes has reverted to the endorsement format, urging the defeat of incumbent Republican Sen. Ron Johnson, on the grounds that Johnson is a virulent election denier. 

In a signed editorial, Haynes explained why the Journal Sentinel was making an exception with the anti-endorsement. “Johnson’s reckless conspiracy mongering,” he wrote, “stretching of the truth, unwillingness to accept election results and obeisance to the Trumpist right should disqualify him from public office.” 

Typically, newspaper outlets that quit making endorsements offer readers explanations, citing factors like polarization, the cost of deploying staff to do interviews and a mismatch to digital format (effectively saying endorsements are a relic of the print era).

Arizona Republic executive editor Greg Burton and editor of editorials Phil Boas wrote in 2020:

“In the months and years to come, The Republic Opinions pages will fight to preserve the public space for responsible people to express their views. We will defend speech rights guaranteed by the First Amendment and challenge those individuals and political movements that would deny them.  

“Our pages will continue to weigh in on large policy issues, including ballot initiatives, but will step back from recommending candidates in the more partisan arena of electoral politics. Choosing candidates has sometimes  inhibited our ability to further the dialogue because many readers think our endorsements compromise our analysis.”

Lee Enterprises’ Arizona Daily Star of Tucson, the state’s second largest paper, followed suit in a July editorial, saying it would “continue to call out  politicians when they push repugnant ideas or present worthy proposals,” but would no longer endorse.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution anticipated current thinking when it abandoned endorsements back in 2009: 

“Going forward, our board will use its unique position to work for readers in pursuing with candidates the issues that are critical to the future of our community. The board will provide readers with clear, concise information about candidates’ positions and records. The AJC will no longer endorse political candidates. …

“We have heard from readers — and we agree — that you don’t need us to tell you how to vote. What readers tell us they need is information on who the candidates are, what they have done and what they want to do in the new job.”

Those who continue to make endorsements in major races have faced a new issue over the last several years – a lack of cooperation from candidates. It used to be that making the rounds of editorial boards came with the territory for statewide candidates. Now they are as likely as not to skip, especially if they are Republicans suspicious of liberal bias in the press.

When Oz and other Republican Senate candidates declined interview invitations, the Inquirer chose not to make an endorsement for the primaries. 

The trend is what it is, and I would be amazed to see it reversed anytime soon. At risk of appearing a dinosaur, however, I am left with three concerns.

The movement away from editorials in general and endorsements particularly is chain-led. Alden Global Capital joined Gannett with a formal policy switch this cycle for the two chains it owns, announced a month ago. The Allentown Morning Call did not endorse in the Pennsylvania races. Many locally-owned papers, by contrast, still seem to think the effort is worthwhile.

Worries about offending entrenched partisans may seem reader-friendly but seem to me a cop-out. What’s next – holding back on critical, accountability reporting on a popular mayor? I don’t see a bright future for bland.

Granted, good political reporting matters more, and an endorsement will not often be the difference maker in a statewide race. However, absent what the Inquirer’s Jones called “independent assessment of candidates,” voters are left even more at the mercy of those endless and mostly negative TV ads.

(Caryn Baird contributed research to this article)

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Rick Edmonds is media business analyst for the Poynter Institute where he has done research and writing for the last fifteen years. His commentary on…
Rick Edmonds

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