x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Obama wins majority of newspaper endorsements

In endorsing Barack Obama for president, his hometown newspaper said he "has risen with his honour, grace and civility intact.

In endorsing Barack Obama for president, his hometown newspaper said he "has risen with his honour, grace and civility intact. He has the intelligence to understand the grave economic and national security risks that face us and listen to good advice and make careful decisions." Such glowing words might normally be expected when the local guy makes it big on the national stage.

But in backing Mr Obama, the Chicago Tribune defied its 161-year history. Never before had the paper of Joseph Medill, an early leader in the Republican Party, supported a Democrat for the presidency. Other major papers were equally enthusiastic. In Washington, the Post wrote: "Mr Obama's temperament is unlike anything we've seen on the national stage in many years. He is deliberate, but not indecisive; eloquent but a master of substance and detail? He has inspired millions of voters of diverse ages and races, no small thing in our divided and cynical country. We think he is the right man for a perilous moment."

The New York Times simply said: "As tough as the times are the selection of a new president is easy. After nearly two years of a gruelling and ugly campaign? [Sen] Obama? has proved that he is the right choice to be the 44th president of the United States." On the other side, the Detroit News backed John McCain, arguing that "he is both tested and tempered by his extensive political and military experience. But more than anything else, McCain stands out for being his own man, driven by principle and not afraid to challenge the status quo".

Every four years when newspapers weigh in on their presidential choices, some say they should refrain from telling their readers how to vote, while others argue endorsements really do not matter. This year is certainly no exception. Rick Stengel, Time magazine's managing editor, got the anti-endorsement crusade going early with a February essay saying: "Media outlets should publish editorials and take positions, but the vote for president is the most personal decision we make as citizens. No one wants to be told how to vote."

He also cautioned that because the credibility and viability of the press are at all-time lows, it makes no sense to further alienate some readers by picking sides in the presidential race. Fred Hiatt, the editorial page editor of The Washington Post, disagrees: "We spend four years spouting our views on everything from A to Z and talking about what politicians should and shouldn't do. At election time, none of us have a choice of ideals, but of two [or more] real people, flaws and all. We expect voters to make a judgement between them, and I think newspapers owe their readers the respect of making the same judgement."

Having worked as the editorial page editor of four newspapers - in Missouri, Virginia, Kansas and New Jersey - and as an editor at the Post, I wholeheartedly agree, not that I think editorial writers should expect to change someone's view, but because, as Hiatt said, it was the responsibility of a newspaper to offer informed opinions on matters of local, national and international importance. As in elections past, Editor & Publisher magazine, which chronicles the newspaper industry, is tracking the number of US newspaper endorsements each candidate receives. As of Saturday, the tally was 240 for Mr Obama to 114 for Mr McCain, with at least 50 papers that backed George W Bush in 2004 now supporting the Democratic candidate.

One of those papers that switched is the Denver Post in the key battleground state of Colorado. Mr Obama is "better equipped to lead America back to a prosperous future," the paper said. "We know our endorsement is likely to anger about, oh, 47 per cent of the people in Colorado. And that's OK, too," said Dan Haley, the paper's editorial page editor. "Endorsements are meant to stoke a public dialogue."

Right, he is. "Presidential endorsements matter less than those for down-ballot positions" such as a local bond issue, said Richard Prince, a former editorial writer who writes a column on the media and diversity issues for the California-based Maynard Institute. "My sense is that most people make up their own minds in the presidential race." In the internet age, endorsement editorials receive an almost instantaneous and, in the case of the Post and other major US papers, a global reaction.

"We have a big international readership, which is one of the great things about being online," Hiatt said. "But they're not who was in my mind when I was publishing this editorial. And I don't know how many comments we got - last I looked it was over 3,000 - came from overseas." Nonetheless, Hiatt acknowledges that few Post editorials are as scrutinised and commented upon, both at home and abroad, as the one written every four years offering the paper's view of who should lead the United States.

He arguably echoed the thoughts of most editorial page editors when he said: "We have lost our share that's for sure. But honestly, I am more interested in putting our best judgement out and hoping that it becomes one factor in voters' decision-making process than in being a kingmaker. Certainly for a presidential election, no single newspaper is going to be decisive." rpretorius@thennational.ae