By:
October 28, 2020

Good morning, everyone. Today’s Poynter Report starts off with a special look at political endorsements. Why do newspapers even do them? I have a three-question Q&A with three editorial editors from three major newspapers to get their takes on why endorsements still matter.

Hang in there. We’re now less than a week from the election. Here’s today’s newsletter …


It’s political endorsement season.

Editorial boards from newspapers across the country are coming out with endorsements for political offices, from the local level all the way to the president of the United States.

But in these divisive and polarizing times, might they do more damage than good if an endorsement can potentially alienate half of a publication’s audience?

Are they still worth doing?

Last month, The New York Times’ Ben Smith wrote that the 30 papers in the McClatchy chain would only make a presidential endorsement if they actually conducted interviews with both President Donald Trump and Joe Biden. McClatchy’s national opinion editor wrote a memo saying, “If we don’t interview the candidates, we won’t make a recommendation for president. Most readers aren’t turning to us for national political commentary, and they can choose among dozens of news organizations that deploy journalists to cover the presidential campaign full-time. If we’re simply observing the race from afar, our ability to provide unique content and our own reporting is severely limited.”

However, most papers, big and small, across the country still recommend who readers should vote for president.

Josh Sternberg, in his Media Nut column, showed that endorsements might not even matter, at least when it comes to big political offices such as president. In 2016, Hillary Clinton racked up about 500 endorsements from various daily and weekly papers and magazines, compared to fewer than 30 for Donald Trump. And while Clinton did win the popular vote, Trump was elected president. That’s just one example, but it would lead one to ask if readers actually pay attention to or are influenced by an endorsement?

And that goes back to whether or not endorsing a candidate might simply anger readers who don’t agree with the endorsement.

Another issue? Many readers might not realize that there’s a difference between the editorial board of a newspaper and the news division. Readers simply see that “the paper” endorsed a candidate. And that could lead them to believe that the entire paper favors a particular candidate.

So, what about all this? I reached out to three journalists who play key roles in endorsements to get their thoughts on the topic: Scott Gillespie, editorial page editor and vice president at The Star Tribune in Minneapolis; Bina Venkataraman, the editorial page editor of The Boston Globe; and Mike Lafferty, the opinions editor at the Orlando Sentinel.

Here is my Q&A session with each of them:

Why do newspapers endorse or recommend candidates?

Scott Gillespie, The Star Tribune: “It’s a tradition that dates back, in our case, more than 150 years. If a newspaper chooses to have an editorial voice representing the institution, it should take its leadership role seriously. We publish more than 400 editorials from our Editorial Board. It would be an abdication of that leadership role to sit out elections. We also want to be widely read and be relevant, and our endorsements generate readership and spark healthy debate — on our website and no doubt at kitchen and dining room tables.”

Bina Venkataraman, The Boston Globe: “The Globe endorses candidates to clarify key issues at stake in a political race and to help inform readers who are aligned with the editorial board’s positions and values when they are deciding how to vote. We do the work of reporting and analysis that many readers don’t have time to do. Particularly for down-ballot (non-presidential, local) races and for ballot questions, we take the time to learn about the candidates and questions, to interview candidates and proponents, and to deliberate on the tradeoffs. We then transparently share that reasoning and information as a service to readers and voters who don’t have the opportunity to meet candidates in person or to vet them as thoroughly as the board. The board comes to a collective decision in an endorsement, which is something that requires balancing various points of view, not just advancing one person’s opinion. For some readers and voters that carries some weight.”

Mike Lafferty, Orlando Sentinel: “The purpose of editorials is to express institutional opinions, often about laws and policies that affect people. It seems natural that we would also express institutional opinions about the people who are running to make those laws and create those policies. At the Sentinel we view our endorsements as just another piece of the puzzle for voters to make up their minds.”

Isn’t there a risk of alienating a good portion of your audience because they disagree with your endorsement?

Gillespie: “We run that risk with many editorials, not just endorsements. We hope our endorsements generate more interest in elections and more voting, whether or not readers agree with our picks. We also run counterpoints from candidates or their supporters who compete for but do not receive our endorsement. I don’t think an endorsement editorial, if well labeled and explained, is going to alienate more readers than a hard-hitting metro or sports column.”

Venkataraman: “There is always a risk in taking any kind of political or policy stand, particularly in the polarized era we live in. We don’t pretend to be the final word, and we imagine that many readers will agree or disagree with us at any moment depending on the editorial position we take in a given race or for that matter on any given issue. But we try to weigh strong counterarguments to our positions and to be transparent about the evidence and reasoning behind our choices, so that readers can disagree with us but at least see what led to our conclusions. We strive to be a non-ideological editorial board; we pride ourselves on weighing the evidence about what policies and ideas and people can create the best outcomes for society. That said, we do uphold values (such as fairness, equality, freedom of expression) that underpin our decisions. Even if readers don’t share those values, we hope they find it interesting or thought-provoking to read the editorials. With our opinion pages, the goal is not to have people universally agree with us, but to provoke learning, debate, and, ideally, progress. Sometimes that means being persuasive to people with open minds; sometimes it means making sure a critical consideration about a candidate or policy gets aired and weighed in public.”

Lafferty: “There’s always that risk, whether it’s an endorsement or taking an unpopular position on an issue. We hope that readers will see that our endorsements are made in good faith and are the product of reporting. That won’t satisfy everyone, but once we start shaping or withholding opinions based on a fear of alienating readers, we might as well get out of the opinion business.”

Do you believe readers recognize the difference between the editorial page and the news department at newspapers?

Gillespie: “Some do, many do not. We try very hard to explain the difference and emphasize the separation between the news operation and opinion. (See this guide, for example, which has a permanent home on our website.)”

Venkataraman: “I don’t think we can take for granted that readers know the difference, and it’s on us to better explain how endorsements work and that the editorial board and opinion team are separate from the newsroom. We’ve made some attempts to be more transparent about our endorsement process with Q&As, a video with our presidential primary endorsement process, and virtual events about endorsements. We clearly mark our content on social media as opinion/editorials, but in the digital era, it’s easier for editorials to become part of one big muddle that isn’t clearly delineated like sections of the printed newspaper. I think we need to get more creative about communicating with readers the distinctions and the firewall between news and opinion.”

Lafferty: “Sometimes not, and I’m not sure we do a good enough job of driving home that distinction on a regular basis. I often get notes from readers, or get copied on notes, where the criticism of news coverage spills over into opinion, and vice versa. We need to do better.”

My thanks to Scott Gillespie, Bina Venkataraman and Mike Lafferty for their time and thoughtful answers. And now for the rest of today’s newsletter …

Trump’s Twitter attack on the media

President Trump at a campaign event on Tuesday in Lansing, Mich. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

Speaking of endorsements, President Trump bragged Tuesday about picking up the endorsement from The Boston Herald. But most of his media tweets were not as kind on Tuesday. Here are some of his tweets:

  • “Until November 4th., Fake News Media is going full on Covid, Covid, Covid. We are rounding the turn. 99.9%.”
  • “Now @FoxNews is playing Obama’s no crowd, fake speech for Biden, a man he could barely endorse because he couldn’t believe he won. Also, I PREPAID many Millions of Dollars in Taxes.”
  • “The biggest difference between now and 2016 is @FoxNews. They are a whole different deal. Despite this, our campaign is doing much better, with bigger crowds and even more (much!) enthusiasm, than we had in 2016. Big Debate & SCOTUS Win! Real Polls have us winning everywhere!”
  • “Death rate of people going into hospitals is MUCH LOWER now than it was. @MSNBC  Wow, MSDNC has come a long way! The fact is that we have learned and done a lot about this Virus. Much different now than when it first arrived on our shores, and the World’s, from China!”

And that was all before 3 p.m. Trump also complained at one of his rallies on Tuesday about Fox News airing a Barack Obama campaign speech for Joe Biden.

“This would not have happened with Roger Ailes,” Trump said, referring to the late chairman and CEO of Fox News.

Powerful remarks

Here is how anchor Lester Holt closed Tuesday’s “NBC Nightly News:”

“Traveling around the country this week talking to voters one thing has already become clear: The 2020 election is in many ways just that, a referendum on the year 2020. The year that has brought us sickness, that’s taken loved ones and friends, taken jobs, brought us unrest in our streets and tested the meaning of truth. Are we a divided nation? You bet we are. Angst, uncertainty and fear will do that. Rarely has an election ever been so personal for so many or the stakes so consequential. And now after all the passion and anger, the quiet power of voting will speak to and for our future.”

She said what?

White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Good gosh, old sound clips do come back to haunt White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany, don’t they?

Back in February, before she was press secretary, McEnany went on Fox Business and said, “We will not see diseases like the coronavirus come here, we will not see terrorism come here, and isn’t that refreshing when contrasting it with the awful presidency of President Obama?”

Now, CNN has uncovered interviews from 2015 when McEnany praised Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden and even suggested Republicans would have a problem if Biden ran against Donald Trump for president.

In an interview in August of 2015 with New York’s AM 970, McEnany said, “Because Joe Biden, one of the things he is remarkable at is really kind of being a man of the people and resonating with middle-class voters. Feeling like — coming off as human. His gaffes — as much as we make fun of them — to a certain extent they make him look human. So not, since he’s likable.”

To excuse his “gaffes” is a stunning admission considering McEnany regularly repeats Trump’s talking points about Biden being “sleepy.” McEnany also praised Biden as being “funny and likable” and a “man of the people” who resonates with “middle-class voters.”

When asked at the time if Biden or Hillary Clinton would be easier for Trump to beat in 2016, McEnany said, “I think at the end of the day, probably Joe, although if Trump is against Joe, I think the juxtaposition of kind of the man of the people and kind of this tycoon, is a problem. Although Donald Trump’s remarkably coming off as a man of the people despite being this wealthy business tycoon.”

When asked about old comments, McEnany told CNN in a statement that she has since learned of what she called Biden’s “profound personal corruption” and said Biden has become “an empty vessel for the liberal elites and far left.”

Grim news

During an appearance on “MTP Daily,” infectious disease expert Dr. William Schaffner told host Chuck Todd that this holiday season — Halloween, Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas, New Year’s — could be a dangerous one because of the coronavirus.

“We’re in a bit of trouble with this coronavirus,” Schaffner said. “It’s increasing over most of the states. Hospitalizations have increased … and down the road there will be an increase in deaths.”

Weather is turning colder, which means influenza is on the way to, what Schaffner says, “to double our trouble.”

“It’s going to be a rather grim kind of winter, we’re afraid,” Schaffner said.

Will Lee Corso wear a Tiger head?

“College GameDay,” ESPN’s traveling college football pregame show, is going somewhere it has never been before — and probably will never go again. On Saturday, Nov. 14, the show will be broadcast from Augusta National Golf Club, home of the Masters golf tournament.

The Masters is always held in April, but because the coronavirus threw the sports calendar out of whack, the Masters this year is being held in November. So, hey, in a year when nothing is normal, why not try something completely different?

“Anytime ‘College GameDay’ travels to a new destination it’s special, and the opportunity to be on the grounds of Augusta National Golf Club during the Masters is extraordinary,” said Jimmy Pitaro, chairman, ESPN and Sports Content. “As this iconic event coincides with the college football season for the first time, we look forward to getting fans ready for a football Saturday, while also showcasing the Masters and the greatest golfers in the world.”

Host Rece Davis and analysts Kirk Herbstreit, Desmond Howard, and David Pollack all will be at Augusta, along with reporters Maria Taylor and Tom Rinaldi, who is covering the Masters for ESPN. Analyst Lee Corso will continue doing the show from his home in Orlando, Florida. There will be no spectators at the Masters this year.

Corso is known for picking the winner of the big college football game of the weekend by putting on the headpiece of the mascot. So does he pick a college football winner or who is going to win the Masters?

Media tidbits

Fox News’ Tucker Carlson. (Courtesy: Fox News)

 

  • The election season is treating Fox News well. In October, Fox News was the most-watched cable network in both total day and primetime total viewers. And Tucker Carlson’s show set the record for the highest-rated monthly viewership of any program in the history of cable news with more than 5.3 million viewers.
  • Big scoop from Axios’ Sara Fischer. She reports that The Lincoln Project — a prominent group of “Never-Trumpers” who formed an influential advertising PAC and turned it into a media company — wants to beef up its media business after the election. Fischer writes, “The project’s plan is part of the new trend of activists developing massive audiences for political influence that they are then able to spin into commercial media success.” She added, “The group, formed in late 2019, has been approached by several media and entertainment companies and podcast platforms looking to launch franchises from its brand.”
  • The next episode of HBO’s “The Shot: Uninterrupted” — the conversation show typically held in a barbershop and hosted by LeBron James and Maverick Carter — will have a very special guest: Barack Obama. Here’s a trailer. The episode debuts Friday night at 9 p.m. Eastern on HBO and will be available to stream on HBO Max. The episode will be available for free viewing for non-HBO subscribers from Saturday, Oct. 31 at 10 a.m. Eastern through Saturday, Nov. 28 at HBO.com, YouTube.com/HBO, HBOMax.com and YouTube.com/HBOMax.
  • The two newspapers serving Salt Lake City and other parts of Utah — The Salt Lake Tribune and Deseret News — announced they will go from daily to once-a-week print editions early in 2021. Poynter media business analyst Rick Edmonds has the details.

Hot type

Have feedback or a tip? Email Poynter senior media writer Tom Jones at tjones@poynter.org.

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Tom Jones is Poynter’s senior media writer for Poynter.org. He was previously part of the Tampa Bay Times family during three stints over some 30…
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