Saturday, March 8, 2014
This is the time of year when candidates traditionally march into our offices to ask for our endorsement.
These sessions can be very revealing.
One year, three sleep-deprived Portland City Council candidates started snarling at each other in the middle of the endorsement meeting and looked like they were ready to start throwing punches. The fourth one appeared to doze off, and he's the one we endorsed. He lost.
But endorsing candidates is not about picking winners (which is what you would say, too, after you'd picked a string of losers). It is really a service to readers, and the reasons the editorial board gives for the endorsement are as valuable to a voter trying to make up his mind as the endorsement itself.
If we say candidate X is the best because she favors gun control, voters could disagree with our conclusion while still finding our argument helpful.
This spring we are not having those meetings.
There is a debate in newsrooms around the country about the value of newspaper endorsements, and the same debate is going on here at The Portland Press Herald and Maine Sunday Telegram. While it plays out in our newspapers, we have decided to stay out of this year's primaries even though they are hotly contested.
The argument against endorsing goes like this: Endorsements are a relic from a long-ago age when newspapers were functions of political parties or movements and candidates were championed on the front page, back page and every other page. Over time, the news pages became separate from the editorial pages, with different standards for news and opinion.
Now we live in an era where it seems every sentence of every story is dissected by skeptical readers who are looking for proof of bias. In that arena, some news people think, endorsements send a confusing message to readers. By picking a candidate in a race on the editorial page, a newspaper sacrifices its ability to cover the race as an unbiased observer on Page 1.
The argument in favor of endorsements is also strong: The editorial board, however it is assembled, gets to meet all the candidates and sometimes, as with that Portland City Council race, gets to see them at something less than their best. Having met the candidates in person, we can provide some insight that you won't get just from reading a list of position statements that were probably written by someone else.
We always write editorials reminding people to vote and get involved in their democracy. The least we can do, the argument goes, is make the same choice ourselves.
Some papers always endorse. Some never do. Most endorse on some races and not on others.
Traditionally, we endorsed candidates for president, senator, Congress and governor. We also endorsed in statewide referendums and bond questions, legislative races in districts that included part of Portland, Portland City Council, School Committee and Cumberland County offices.
The quality of the discussion in these meetings varied widely. There might be a good policy reason why someone would be a better registrar of probate than someone else, but I wouldn't say we ever got to the bottom of it in any meeting I attended.
This year the Chicago Sun-Times made news by announcing that it would no longer endorse candidates in any election, ever.
An editorial explaining the decision promised readers that the editorial board would continue to interview candidates, evaluate their positions on the issues and publish the analysis. They just won't tell people how they should vote.
We are not there yet. We are having the debate and will sit out the primaries, but the question stays open for a while.
So this year, instead of talking to candidates, we want to talk to readers and see what kind of editorial pages you would like to see.
Feel free to email me (my address is below, just write "editorial ideas" in the subject line). But since it's always better to talk face to face, I'm going to revive the old Thursday editorial board public meeting at noon on June 7, 14 and 21 at our offices on the 5th floor of One City Center.
I want to hear what you think about endorsements, but feel free to go further than that and let me know what other opinions you have about the opinion pages.
What should change? What should never change?
What would you endorse?
Greg Kesich is the editorial page editor. He can be contacted at 791-6481 or at: firstname.lastname@example.org