Media endorsements in the age of the new left

By John Wight,

Media endorsements are a fixture of the political season. But have you ever wondered who are the people who make them? The endorsements are not insights delivered from on high but rather the opinions of ordinary people who are trying to use their extraordinary access to the public to influence the election.

But what do they know that the citizens don’t know? What goes into their decision-making? Why would anyone care what he or she thinks? To answer those questions, we need information, or transparency, so this political season I asked Willamette Week and The Oregonian to make their endorsement systems transparent. When asked to come in for an endorsement interview, I sent the following email:

“For the sake of transparency, I invite [your newspaper] to shed a little light on a dark corner of the political process, specifically media endorsements of candidates. [Your newspaper] could lead off the endorsement season by running a story on how these endorsements are made and by whom among the various media sources in the community.

“A good first step would be full disclosure by [your newspaper] of who and how those decisions are made at your own publication. Specifically, resumes of those involved including education, work history, civic involvement, political involvement, personal preferences in past candidates and personal or professional relationships with political candidates. If the endorsement decision is not a subjective decision, what criteria does each person use to make the endorsement decision?

” Isn’t it time to set an example to transparency?

” I would like to receive this information before my interview. I look forward to hearing from you.”

I received no reply from Willamette Week, despite repeated efforts. The initial response from The Oregonian was positive. They emailed, “Good idea, John. You raise valid points, and I’ll try to respond early next week in a helpful way. I do believe our editorial page editor, Bob Caldwell, has written on the endorsement process in past years, and I’ll see if I can dig out what he’s published and e-mail it to you. Meanwhile, have a great weekend.”

In the end, my Oregonian correspondent was overruled and the Oregonian refused to shed any light on the situation. However, my final conversation with them, before I declined the interview when I told them that I did not seek and would not accept their endorsement, was illuminating. The conversation was after the Vice Presidential debate and I asked if The Oregonian thought, in the name of journalistic ethics, that Gwen Ifill of PBS should have disclosed her political preferences and that she was writing a book whose success depended greatly on an Obama victory, before she was selected as the moderator. The Oregonian refused to answer the question all though I repeated it numerous times. Where is the unblinking eye of the TV camera when you need it? So much for the oxymoron called “journalistic ethics.”

Since Willamette Week would not respond in writing or by phone, I went to the recorded interview and made the same request. It was a shame that the cameras did not show the faces of the Willamette Week interrogators as they tried to defend their efforts to hide their agendas, faces and resumes from the voters. Enron execs doing the perp walk showed more confidence in their positions. They tried to say that transparency only applies to politicians who have a conflict of interest but a quick Google of their web site had shown me that they demanded transparency of everyone, except themselves. They continued to quibble and dodge.

So what is it we should know about these anonymous endorsers? I asked them for their criteria. They claimed they had no criteria for making endorsements. Such a claim is ludicrous. Can you imagine having an interview for any position without some forethought about the selection criteria? A claim not to have any predetermined criteria either shows a high level of naiveté and inexperience or dishonesty.

Personally, before I am going to put any importance in someone’s opinion, I want to know how their knowledge and experience leads them to a conclusion. You can get medical advice from a stranger on the bus but are you going to attach any importance to it without knowing if the person has some experience or expertise?

What kind of hands-on community or governmental experience do these newspaper folks have? Have they owned a business, have they had a responsible governmental position? Do they have kids in school and if so where and when. What was their involvement with school, daycare, etc? Quite frankly, I like to get some idea of a persons support for their favorite charity. How are politicians and editors qualified to talk about spreading the wealth when their own charitable contributions are paltry? So I want to know how much the editors are willing to spread their time and wealth before I put much stock in their tax and “investment” recommendations.

One of the Willamette Week interviewers did send me his resume and it’s a good resume if you are hiring a reporter. But it showed no civic, community, charitable or public service commitments. So who cares what he thinks? I don’t.

I think one of the primary purposes of these interviews is a cover for the lack of transparency. The newspaper can say the have interviewed the candidates and determined one to be more fit than the other. Shouldn’t we draw attention to this sham by refusing to participate until the newspapers disclose their agendas and backgrounds? It is, after all, the Forth Estate.