Dying Newspaper Endorsements

by: Matt Stoller

Mon Oct 20, 2008 at 16:19

After seeing how the Philadelphia Inquirer treated Joshua Zeitz, I'm getting a little obsessed with local newspapers.  They have a LOT of power over local officials, and they use it to promote specific policies.  For instance, the Tacoma News-Tribune, the Seattle Times, and the Seattle PI all endorsed Dave Reichert over Darcy Burner, and two of the three papers mention her opposition to corporate trade agreements as reasons to vote for her opponent, a line echoed by the Oregonian in its endorsement of Republican Gordon Smith.
Matt Stoller :: Dying Newspaper Endorsements

Local press has always been a bit less examined than DC press, but it is just as pernicious.  With very little information in most electoral environments, local endorsements are useful as props in campaign commercials, as in 'Dave Reichert has been endorsed by XYZ papers'.  I don't know if this affects voters, but it certainly affects politicians when they consider voting against the agenda of these newspapers, which often amounts to a pro-choice neoliberal ideology.  

Another interesting element of local press endorsements is that they are often really really stupid.  For instance, the Democrat and Chronicle in upstate New York actually attacked Democrat Eric Massa for knowing a lot about policy: "Massa is a walking briefing book when it comes to the issues. But his connection to constituents is less clear, less developed. He's a big-picture guy in a district with small-picture needs."

As an excuse for endorsing Kuhl, who pulled a couple of shotguns on his ex-wife, this paper argues he's 'grown in office'.  That's the same reason, the same wording in fact, as the PI's endorsement of Reichert (he's 'grown' in office as well).

Mostly campaigns come down to huge amounts of paid media, and newspaper endorsements are playing less and less of a role.  These papers also tend to hate liberals; the Tacoma News-Tribune cited as a criticism of Darcy that "she is a celebrity in the world of MoveOn.org, ActBlue and the Daily Kos. Her campaign has been powered by vast sums of money from the liberal blogosphere."

It's all very stupid and corrupt.  These papers are not performing a public service, they are pushing a specific agenda, and they don't like people that trod on their hallowed trusted turf.

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The Oregonian is asking readers (4.00 / 2)
to give them feedback about their endorsement of Gordon Smith. The Ed Board is actually going back and forth with readers right now, who overwhelmingly find their endorsement mystifying. And, Kari Chisholm over at Blue Oregon pointed out a few interesting tidbits about their coverage lately, for instance why is the Senate endorsement front and center while the Presidential endorsement is buried?  

Netroots Director for Oregon Senate Candidate Jeff Merkley

I was motivated (0.00 / 0)
by your post to thank the Press of Atlantic City at Blue Jersey for actually covering the "race" and even commissioning a poll in my district (NJ2), one where the challenger is completed neglected otherwise. Plus the local reporter actually tracked me down to ask about some of my blog posts, which was a pleasant surprise.

Far worse than that bad editorials is no meaningful coverage.  

New Jersey politics at Blue Jersey.

Newspaper ownership (4.00 / 1)
I would like to see a light shone on newspaper ownership.  The editorial board seems to generally be a direct reflection of the owner's politics, and the owners are generally very rich and well-connected local families.  Liberals are accustomed to vilifying the "corporate media", meaning CBS/NBC/ABC/CNN, but at least those outlets are publicly-traded corporations with (theoretically) a strict profit motive.  Newspapers tend to be privately held, and are run to please their owner, in the case of the Washington Times even running at a loss for decades in order to advance a political agenda.

Newspapers are one of the major engines of opinion creation, in that they are one of the major drivers of what voters know about and what they don't, and yet they are directly controlled by a tiny handful of rich families.  That's one of the oddest facts about American democracy I think.

Nixon (0.00 / 0)
During and after the 1960 election, Richard Nixon bitterly complained that although 80% of newspapers endorsed him, representing the politics of their owners, the daily coverage was not in his favor.  His one point: newspaper and magazine coverage of Eisenhower was down right idolotrous.

What increasingly drives coverage is advertising revenue.  The New York Times, for example, has shaped coverage to include a huge stock market bias to its business and economics sections.  Traditional coverage had included far more mention of new products, market share, customer preferences and the general business climate.  The Times admits that its readership would prefer more coverage oif news and sports and less business/stock market "news."  But the advertisers demand the juge Business section and they get it.

[ Parent ]
They want to be right (0.00 / 0)
Back in 2003, my local newspaper in New Jersey, the Asbury Park Press (a total conservative rag, but anyway) published an expose of some questionable billing practices of Republican State Senate President John Bennett (who served as an attorney for various municipal boards in the district).  They ultimately endorsed the Democratic challenger (Ellen Karcher) in the race, and she narrowly won in a conservative district, along with the two Democratic Assembly candidates.  

Two years later, one of those Assemblymen had one vote on ethics that the Press didn't like, and so they endorsed the other incumbent Democrat and a Republican challenger (Karcher wouldn't have to run again until 2007).  They made the right picks again, as the Democratic incumbent barely held on (by like, 8 or 10 votes) and the Republican challenger won.  

So now, the Press has a reputation of being the arbiter of all 12th district elections, only reinforced by their pick of the full slate of Republicans for the 2007 election (even against Karcher and the previously endorsed Assemblyman), when they all won.  But when they made that pick, it was on really flimsy grounds, and it became clear that their reputation for picking the winner had gone to their head, and instead of choosing legitimate issues, they just wanted to pick the winner (which was looking fairly certain to be the Republicans).

They also have an inexplicable and petty hatred of Corzine, not to mention "north Jersey machine politics" (code for black people in a pretty racist area - any money allocated to urban issues is basically characterized as welfare being ripped from the pockets of unfortunate upper middle class white children in McMansions).  Now, because of their success, it's like a competition of grovelling to see who can get the Press legislative endorsements.  So Matt is right, in my experience - local media have a strangely strong ability to set the agenda in their region, and it generally disfavors progressive candidates (especially when the publication is owned by a local rich family since the 17th century or whatever - it basically guarantees total conservatism).

Like LCV and others (0.00 / 0)
I suspect they view their credibility as being inexorably linked with picking the winner, and so they'll never go out on a political limb (especially when any kind of significance they have is tied into their apparent ability to 'pick winners').  But eventually, as in the case of the Press, the limb comes to them, so to speak.  

In the 2007 election that I mentioned, the 11th district races were the closest and most expensive (something like $10 million spent by all candidates/parties) in the state, and the hottest subject of the political chattering classes in New Jersey was who would get the Press endorsement.  All the candidates were actively sucking up the Press, even the Democrats. Despite these efforts, I seem to remember them waiting a really long time to make an endorsement (so as to best gauge who appeared most likely to win), and then endorsed when the odds were probably 70-30 in favor of the Republicans.

When this happens, and the media has some perverse credibility, the candidates try to meet the agenda of whoever is making endorsement decisions.  Inevitably, that's the conservative owner/editor, and so the agenda and politics of the election drifts in that direction.

It's like a local little Village game - where picking the winner wins your credibility points, at the expense of principle (where was the Asbury Park Press when the Republicans fucked up the state budget under Whitman, and they're now blaming Democrats?) and consistency (what changed in the last four years to make you completely reverse favor on someone you previously endorsed?).

[ Parent ]
Masters thesis (4.00 / 1)
Years ago I did a master's thesis on newspapers.  One of the minor topics was a comparison of newspaper readership with each area's demographics.  We looked at data from half of the newspapers in the country (literally every other one from a national list).  Only one newspaper out of that huge sample had lower income and education than the area demographics: The Asbury Park Press.  Seems that upper income/education residents either read no newspaper at all or read either the New York or Philly papers.

[ Parent ]
I would tend to agree (0.00 / 0)
The Asbury Park Press is super localized, and offers virtually no meaningful coverage of anything outside of the Monmouth/Ocean County area.  When they do focus on state or federal issues, it always seems to be towards the end of making some kind of connection between "corrupt urban machine north Jersey Democrats" and any other Democrat (which is not surprising; they were the only Jersey paper to endorse Bush in 2004).  

Moreover, a disproportionate amount of their local coverage is devoted to lower education, lower income, white areas of the region.  If you enjoy reading about national or international issues in the newspaper (as I do, and others in the area do), you can't possibly get them from the Asbury Park Press, and so you subscribe to the New York Times or The Wall Street Journal (or a Philadelphia paper if you live in the far southern portion of the the Press' market).  But if you're a local crank who wants to read a paper that will fulfill your conservative/white persecution complex with USA Today-esque nuance, the Asbury Park Press is for you.

[ Parent ]
Left the following comment... (4.00 / 3)
The News Tribune editorial blog provided a means to leave a comment on their endorsement of Reichert, so I left the following:

"Her campaign has been powered by vast sums of money from the liberal blogosphere."

Actually, only a small percentage of her fundraising has come through the so-called liberal blogosphere ...which really comes from simple, regular people. As opposed to the millions Reichert is relying on from corporate PACS, lobbyists and special interests.

You so easily equate the convenience of online donation tools, such as ActBlue, with some nefarious organization that is somehow turning the contributor into a wacko activist through the mere act of making a campaign contribution. The vast majority of donations received via such online sites are made by working and middle class people, a great many of whom are voters within the 8th, like myself, who appreciate the convenience with which one can make a small campaign contribution. The average donation through ActBlue is only around $35.

I don't know about you folks, but I'm getting pretty sick of being considered some dangerous liberal activist simply because I read a blog, or donate to ActBlue.  Somehow we've been made to be the enemy of Democracy, as opposed to the corporate, religious and special interests out there pooring millions into the campaign coffers of Republicans.

On The Road To 2008: Commentary on issues as we countdown to the next opportunity to change the direction of America

Philadelphia Papers (4.00 / 1)
The Inquirer and the Daily News are (chiefly) owned by by a Republican, Brian Tierney.  At least columnist Michael Smerconish flipped for Obama.  Christine Flowers is forever in the dark side.  Her soul needs to be vetted like McCain's medical records.

Seattle Times (0.00 / 0)
The Seattle Times is not a bad paper but the owner and editorial staff are right of McCain and do not reflect the majority of the community. Consequently, most people don't pay too much attention to their endorsements.


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