Declining Endorsements: Fear of Favor, Local Flavor, Increasingly Drive Newspapers to Stay Neutral on Presidential Candidates

Article excerpt

THE EDITORIAL VOICES of American newspapers are developing a severe case of laryngitis, at least when comes to endorsing a presidential candidate, according to E&P's quadrennial presidential poll.

The latest poll shows 69.9% of papers responding or 451, as undecided or adhering to a "no-endorsement" policy--up a bit from 1992, when 542 newspapers, or nearly 67% of the sampling, shied away from taking a stand on the candidates.

Of the papers taking no stand, 166, with nearly 7 million circulation, have a policy not to endorse.

Newspapers declining to endorse in the 1992 poll had a daily circulation of 22.2 million, compared with 26.2 million this year.

The industry's slow but steady crawl away from presidential endorsements is documented in E&P polls dating back to 1940 when only 138, or 13.4% of newspapers remained neutral:

However, when newspapers have registered an opinion on presidential candidates, they have overwhelmingly backed Republicans, suggesting that "the liberal media" are less liberal than a lot of critics might think.

In the 15 polls since Franklin D. Roosevelt ran against Wendell Willkie in 1940, the majority of newspapers have put their weight behind Republican candidates 13 times. Only Democrats Lyndon Johnson in 1964 and Bill Clinton in 1992 have received the nod from most newspapers polled.

Bill Kovach, curator of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism and former editor of the Atlanta Journal and Constitution, said the march toward nonendorsements began, in force, in the 1970s, as newspaper monopolies and chain ownership surged. The trend away from independent ownership resulted in fewer two- and three-newspaper towns.

Given a lack of daily competition, a political endorsement "doesn't make a lot of sense," Kovach said. "If we are the only voice in town, maybe we shouldn't be on the editorial pages."

It's worth noting that in past elections, newspaper editorials haven't always meshed with public opinion. While citizens voted FDR into the White House four times, he never won the support of a majority of newspapers.

In 1944, 60% of newspapers endorsed Dewey. Only 22% sided with Roosevelt.

Newspapers, likewise, were out of step with the public in the 1960 Kennedy vs. Nixon race, when 57.7% of newspapers endorsed Nixon, compared with 16.4% for Kennedy.

For Andy Stone, co-publisher and editor in chief of the Aspen Times, the decision to avoid presidential endorsements was less a statement about fairness and candidates than about the needs of his readers.

"As a local paper, we feel our area of expertise, and where we have any credibility at all, is in the local arena, so it's important to limit our endorsements to that area," explained Stone.

"Our opinion of who should be president of the United States is not germane to our area," he said of the 7,000 circulation daily; "But for local races, we shoot our mouth off constantly We have no hesitation about telling them who to vote for."

The fear of appearing biased drives the noendorsement policy at the Fayetteville ObserverTimes in North Carolina, said editor Charles Broadwell, whose 86,000-circulation paper has endorsed only two political candidates--both local--in the last 36 years.

"We don't want an outright endorsement to affect how people read our paper. We don't want them to read into anything," he said. The problem, as Broadwell sees it, is that an endorsement either way"could result in an image problem over the next four years."

A similar philosophy guides the editorial stance of the Patriot Ledger in Quincy, Mass. Editor William Ketter said an endorsement "belies the paper's purpose to serve as an unbiased fountain of information."

The Patriot Ledger does take editorial positions on issues, but when it comes to candidates, it reports on them in news columns and leaves the choosing to the people. …