Editorial endorsements: Don’t shy away

The Orlando Sentinel, the Dallas Morning News, the Omaha World-Herald, the Las Vegas Review-Journal and the Nashville Tennessean have endorsed Romney. The Winston-Salem Journal, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Seattle Times, the Sacramento Bee, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the Denver Post have endorsed Obama.

Do they make a difference?

First, I’m impressed that the endorsements are in. Many of them came early this month or late last month, long before Election Day. The papers are responding to the opening of early voting, which, in North Carolina, started yesterday. Given that a projected 50 percent of North Carolina voters are going to vote early, it makes sense. In fact, waiting  until the traditional presidential endorsement day — the Sunday before the election — ensures irrelevance to half the voters.

Second, more newspapers are choosing not to endorse in the presidential election. My former newspaper is one. (That decision was made on a corporate level.) It’s an odd decision, I think. (Here’s one editor’s explanation.) Newspaper editorial pages opine every day on issues of importance to their readers and community. So on an issue that’s clearly significant the local paper is going to be silent? It’s another step toward irrelevance, I think.

Given the survivalist instinct newspapers have now, they should be running from irrelevance to dynamism.

That said I suspect that few regular editorial page readers will be surprised by their newspaper’s endorsement. After all, editorial pages are guided by fundamental philosophies that come through daily. It is doubtful that many papers zig all year long only to zag when the election comes up.

Do they make a difference? It is true that opinion abounds on the presidential race. They’re online. They’re on TV. Newspapers publish opinion columnists and letters to the editor, all endorsing one candidate or the other.

In the explanation by the editor linked above, he says that the newspaper has no more access to information about presidential candidates that anyone else, which is true. And which applies to many other topics editorial pages write about. But newspaper editorial page writers pay close attention to the election and the candidates; it’s their job. I’m not saying they know more about the candidates and the issues than everyone, but I’m thinking that they know more than most people.

I also doubt that there are few truly undecided voters. There are plenty of apathetic people who won’t vote. There are plenty of cynical voters who think it won’t matter. But it’s hard for me to believe that there are many people who are going to vote who haven’t made up their minds. (Based on the questions by the “undecided” voters at the town hall debate Tuesday night, I concluded that many of them really had decided.

So, do editorial page endorsements make a difference? No, I don’t think they persuade many people. They affirm people’s opinions of their leanings and of the paper’s. But they are worth doing, as all of the paper’s opinions are, generally speaking, worth writing. They engage readers, elating and angering them. They reveal the thinking of the paper, which is always welcome.

And they weigh in on an issue of great importance to their readers. Why court irrelevance by shying away.

Saturday update: A Facebook friend told me that he know 10 people who canceled their subscriptions to the Winston-Salem Journal when it endorsed Obama last Sunday. He said people want information, not opinions. I think people want information and opinions that agree with theirs. But I don’t doubt that the paper had cancellations.

In fact, a major reason — usually unstated — that newspapers don’t endorse is that they know they will lose readers who have and practice a confirmation bias. Given the polarization in the presidential race, that’s no big surprise. Why write something that will upset readers? Of course, these decisions aren’t made by journalists, who often live by the Finley Peter Dunne adage to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”

But when it gets to the point of not wanting to upset or anger readers with your opinions, perhaps you shouldn’t be in the editorial business at all.