January 21, 2020

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The trouble with two

For 59 minutes, it was the most fascinating TV news program in recent memory. Then, in mere moments, that all washed away in a sea of confusion and frustration.

Now, more than 24 hours later, it’s still hard to wrap a brain around what happened.

On Sunday night, The New York Times’ TV show, “The Weekly,” took viewers somewhere they have never been — inside the meetings of the editorial board as it interviewed those running to become the Democratic nominee for president. It was an unprecedented glimpse into what normally are off-the-record conversations behind closed doors. Inside that room, the editorial board of one of the most influential news outlets in the world tried to figure out who should be the Democratic nominee for president. And we were right there inside to witness it.

The candidates were interviewed. The editorial board discussed each one. Then they gathered to figure out who to endorse.

The transparency was refreshing. The candor of the board and the candidates was informative. The entire program was illuminating and absolutely sensational.

Then came the moment everyone was waiting for, the big reveal. Who was the Times going to endorse to run against President Donald Trump?

The next sound was a mammoth thud, followed by a Twitter uproar.

Instead of picking one candidate, the Times did something it had never done. It endorsed two candidates: Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar.


It’s like saying, here’s my Super Bowl pick: The Kansas Chiefs. AND the San Francisco 49ers.

The crux of the Times’ decision can be found in this one paragraph of the 3,400-word editorial:

“Both the radical and the realist models warrant serious consideration. If there were ever a time to be open to new ideas, it is now. If there were ever a time to seek stability, now is it.”

In explaining two endorsements, Times’ deputy editorial page editor Kathleen Kingsbury tweeted:

“Endorsements can help educate voters on national and local candidates and lead to better-informed decisions at the ballot box. The point is to inform our readers, not to help a candidate in the polls. We believe this endorsement is more helpful to a wider range of voters.”

Kingsbury is absolutely correct to say endorsements are meant to better inform readers. Yet endorsing two candidates because you aren’t sure which has the best path to the White House isn’t informing anyone. It’s confusing them. Kingsbury’s goal to be more helpful might have resulted in the exact opposite.

She also said:

“As I’ve said before, not everyone will agree with our decision or the thinking behind it. Our goal from the beginning was to provide an informed view through reasoned analysis and open debate among the 15 opinion journalists who participated in the endorsement interviews.”

But isn’t endorsing two candidates a cop out? What’s the point of endorsing two when only one can actually become the nominee? If you’re going to endorse someone, shouldn’t it be someONE?

One theory being floated — something that Northeastern University journalism professor and media observer Dan Kennedy wrote about — is that the Times’ endorsement says as much about the candidates who were not endorsed as it did about the two who were. In other words, endorsing Warren is a way to stop Bernie Sanders, while endorsing Klobuchar is a way to stop Joe Biden and Pete Buttigieg.

“Essentially,” Kennedy wrote, “the Times sees itself as endorsing candidates in two separate Democratic primaries — the progressive primary and moderate primary.

Appearing on Monday’s “Morning Joe” on MSNBC, Times editorial board member Mara Gay admitted the board was “extremely torn” about which candidate to endorse. But, she said, “this is an acknowledgement that there’s more than one pathway forward but I also want to say that this is about respecting the voters. No one has actually cast a ballot in this election yet. And so let’s let this play out. However, we did have to narrow the field.”

Did it? Did it have to narrow the field right now?

True, the Iowa Caucuses are almost here and the Times traditionally endorses someone before then. But with the field this wide open, and with the Times’ board still obviously not convinced of who would make the best candidate, perhaps it would have been better to wait. The Times sees picking two as a radical choice. Maybe the radical choice would have been to hold off endorsing anyone.

Even Gay said in her “Morning Joe” interview: “Let’s let this play out.”

But the problem was the Times was facing a tight deadline. Not because of the Iowa Caucuses, but because of its TV show. For weeks, the Times had been teasing that Sunday night’s “The Weekly” would reveal who the Times was endorsing. The interviews of the candidates, which included someone who isn’t even in the race anymore (Cory Booker), took place in December. Everything was geared toward Sunday night.

If we had gotten to the end of Sunday night’s show and the Times said, “Sorry, we’re not endorsing anyone yet” then viewers would have been disappointed.

But perhaps no more disappointing than what actually happened when the Times announced two endorsements.

Ultimately, who the Times endorses might not matter to voters. But if you’re going to do it, do it right.

Most interesting moment

The final endorsements notwithstanding, there was lots to enjoy about “The Weekly’s” coverage of the editorial meetings with the Democratic presidential nominees. Two moments stood out.

One, Joe Biden taking a selfie with a Times’ elevator operator. (See the clip here.)

The other was Cory Booker talking about a time when his heart was broken. Powerful stuff as this clip shows.

How to watch impeachment coverage

Courtesy of C-SPAN2

You won’t have to do much channel surfing to come across impeachment coverage today. All the major networks are expected to break into programming, typically by 12:30 p.m. Eastern. In most cases, the network’s top anchors will be in the lead broadcast chair, including NBC’s Lester Holt and PBS’s Judy Woodruff. Speaking of PBS, “NewHour” has an impeachment newsletter called “Here’s the Deal.” You can sign up here.

MSNBC’s coverage will start on “Morning Joe” at 6 a.m. Eastern with Chuck Todd taking over at 9 a.m. for special impeachment coverage. Brian Williams and Nicolle Wallace with anchor starting at 11 a.m. Look for early morning coverage on CNN and Fox News, although it’s always interesting to see how much attention (or lack of attention) shows such as “Fox & Friends” pays to impeachment.

All of the above is what you can expect throughout the impeachment trial. But if you’re looking for just straight gavel-to-gavel coverage with no commentary, your best best is C-SPAN2, which kicks off coverage today at 1 p.m. Eastern.

Trouble in America’s ‘prairie metropolis’

There’s a journalism crisis going on in Chicago. In a powerful op-ed in The New York Times, Chicago Tribune investigative reporters David Jackson and Gary Marx write that journalism in Chicago “faces an urgent threat.”

Why? Because, they write, Alden Global Capital is the Trib’s largest shareholder and is angling for control of the company. Jackson and Marx wrote:

“Alden’s strategy of acquiring struggling local newsrooms and stripping them of assets has built the personal wealth of the hedge fund’s investors. But Alden has imposed draconian staff cuts that decimated The Denver Post and other once-proud newspapers that have been vital to their communities and to American democracy.”

With a stripped-down Tribune, Jackson and Marx wonder who will play watchdog over the powerful and corrupt. They wrote, “Illinois’s most vulnerable people would lose a powerful guardian, its corrupt politicians would be freer to exploit and plunder, and this prairie metropolis would lose the common forum that binds together and lifts its citizens.”

Speaking of the Tribune company, Scott Maxwell of the Tribune-owned Orlando Sentinel writes why he and his co-workers won’t take the Trib up on buyout offers.

Soap opera or serious ethical conflict?

Britain’s Prince Harry and Meghan, Duchess of Sussex. (Daniel Leal-Olivas/Pool Photo via AP)

The juiciest story in the U.K. these days is, of course, Prince Harry and Meghan Markle stepping back from the royal family. (By the way, the New York Post shows why it has the best headline writers in the business with this gem: “Great British Break Off!”)

But if you’re looking for reliable information, you probably won’t find it coming out of the British papers. In a column for The Guardian, Alan Rusbridger says the press is hardly a “disinterested bystander.” He writes:

“All three of the major newspaper groups most obsessed with Harry and Meghan are themselves being sued by the couple for assorted breaches of privacy and copyright. There is, to any reasonable eyes, a glaring conflict of interest that, for the most part, goes undeclared.”

Maybe the soap opera of Harry and Meghan isn’t a big deal in the grand scheme of things, but Rusbridger’s column is an interesting study in journalism conflicts of interest.

Hey, check out the news guy

Fox News Channel’s Bill Hemmer on the set of his new show. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

Bill Hemmer’s new Fox News show — the one replacing Shep Smith’s in the 3 p.m. Eastern time slot — debuted Monday. Unlike Smith, who often took on President Trump’s presidency, Hemmer claims opinion will not be a part of his “Bill Hemmer Reports” show.

He told the Associated Press, “I will be playing golf in Florida before that ever happens. I don’t walk in the door thinking about 100 ways to change government. I don’t think that way. I don’t believe I’m built that way. I’m much more comfortable in this news lane than I would ever be as an opinion anchor.”

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Tom Jones is Poynter’s senior media writer for He was previously part of the Tampa Bay Times family during three stints over some 30…
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  • Found it refreshing that a news agency could not whittle its endorsement list to one and went multiple. Wish more would do it rather than flipping a coin to separate the finalists. As for the Super Bowl analogy, there are only two teams, so ya gotta pick one. (Besides, that would constitute a prediction, which the NYT endorsement isn’t.) The Dems’ field is more like a golf tournament, so much so that I’m guessing almost nobody can accurately state the number of players.