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Media Political Endorsements: Voter Aid or Voter Turnoff?

   By Richard Benedetto  

     WASHINGTON – Call it the “Get-Giuliani” endorsement.  

      Because that is what the New York Times apparently was trying to do by releasing its editorial endorsement of John McCain last Friday, four days before Florida’s Republican presidential primary.  Florida is a must-win state for Rudy Giuliani, the former New York City mayor. And Giuliani, the ex-mayor The Times loves to hate, is trailing badly in most polls. 

      It makes little difference that New York City, home of The Times, is 1,288 driving miles from Miami. A lot of New York retirees now living in the Sunshine State still read The Times. And these are the folks the paper appears to be hoping to influence when they vote on Tuesday.  New York doesn’t vote until Feb. 5.  

     As it is, the Democrat-leaning Times, in making an endorsement in the Republican race, made sure we knew that it was doing so while holding its delicate political nose:.

    “We have strong disagreements with all the Republicans running for president……Still, there is a choice to be made…,” the editorial drearily sighed.

     It then went on to declare that McCain was the best of a bad GOP lot.

     But rather than wax on about the virtues of the Arizona senator, the editorial devoted much of its space to trashing Giuliani in apparent hope of pushing Florida voters inclined to take The Times word as gospel to reject him.

      “The real Mr. Giuliani, whom many New Yorkers came to know and mistrust, is a narrow, obsessively secretive, vindictive man who saw no need to limit police power,” the editorial said. “Racial polarization was as much a legacy of his tenure as the rebirth of Times Square…. Mr. Giuliani’s arrogance and bad judgment are breathtaking. .. The Rudolph Giuliani of 2008 first shamelessly turned the horror of 9/11 into a lucrative business, with a secret client list, then exploited his city’s and the country’s nightmare to promote his presidential campaign.”  

     Those are pretty rough words, much rougher than any of Guiliani’s primary opponents have used in their campaigns against him.  And this from a newspaper that often decries the insidiously nasty tone of political campaigns these days.     The timing of the endorsement, and the endorsement itself, raise two serious questions that we in the news media should be debating:

  1. Why should the media become players in an election race rather than observers, investigators and analysts?
  2. And why do the media think they have to “educate” voters by making endorsements?

    On the former, we in the news media, including reporters, have traveled a long way from our once-prized reputation for being disinterested, objective observers and interpreters of political races.  We somehow now think we have to lead readers, viewers and listeners by the nose from the darkness and into the light. 

    Rather than go places most people don’t go and come back and tell them what we saw and heard, we often go places other people don’t go and tell them what we should have seen and didn’t hear, and wring our hands with disappointment.   

     And when it comes to endorsements, the elite notion that we have to “educate” voters because they aren’t smart enough to figure things out for themselves is a public turnoff.  This we-know-better-than-you attitude – subliminal message of many editorial endorsements- demeans voters and contributes to what the public perceives as media arrogance. 

     For the good of the election process, the news media should cover the races fairly, provide full information and analysis on the candidates and their issues, express opinions in columns and leave the endorsements to the politicians and interest groups.

  Besides, an editorial endorsement doesn’t necessarily lead to the endorsee’s election.

   Ask Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, the 2004 Democratic presidential candidate. He won the lion’s share of major newspaper endorsements that year, including that of The Times, the Washington Post, the Boston Globe, the Detroit Free Press, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Chicago Sun-Times, the St. Louis Post Dispatch, the Seattle Times and the Miami Herald.  He still lost.

Richard Benedetto is a retired White House correspondent with USA Today and now teaches politics and journalism at American University in Washington, D.C. He has covered every presidential campaign since 1984. His latest book, “Politicians Are People, Too, was published in 2006.         

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