Friday, February 22, 2008

How newspapers endorse candidates, with one dirty little secret

In between comments I made at Washington Monthly yesterday about “la M├ęsalliance McCain,” somebody commented about Mitt Romney being upset about the New York Times endorsing McCain instead of him; that person also wondered a bit about the process involved.

I touched a bit on the process here, but thought I could do a bit more public service by detailing the editorial endorsement process, from my experience at (much smaller) daily newspapers.

The NYT editorial board would likely have publisher Pinch Sulzberger, Executive Editor Bill Keller, Managing Editor Jill Abramson, Opinion Editor Gail Collins, possibly the top editorial writer (editorial writers and bylined op-ed columnists are different critters at major dailies), possibly/probably the deputy managing editor for politics, or similar position, and perhaps a couple of others.

You’d also have some ad hoc members. For example, for New York City mayoral endorsements, the city editor might sit in. For gubernatorial endorsements, the Albany editor. For presidential endorsements, Dean Baquet, the Washington editor.

First, outside of campaign endorsements, here’s a bit of how an editorial board operates in general. It will meet once, maybe twice a week, plus special meetings on hot button issues. At the NYT, for example, the board would develop a consensus on what issues the paper needs to officially opine about in the next week. It then, after discussion and some sort of vote, especially in a division of house on tough issues, decides the official stance to take, talking points to be mentioned, etc. (If the division on an issue is fierce, an op-ed column might be devoted to the leading representative of the minority view.) Collins would then, after the meeting, assign different editorials to her various writers, copy edit them, etc.

When it comes time for endorsements, the board would first schedule interviews, whenever possible, with the candidates involved, in elections big enough to warrant. (The full editorial board is not going to interview NYC municipal judge candidates, or even get involved in the process.) Before the interviews, board members will discuss questions they want to raise, angles they want to pursue, issues they see of importance, etc. For endorsements in primaries, rather than general elections, these issues will also be connected to some degree with party stances, etc. Interviews may be in person, speakerphone, video, e-mail or whatever.

The board then discusses the candidates after the interview and makes their call.

How this relates to Keller sitting on the story?

As I noted before, I’m sure Keller played his cards close to the vest. If Baquet was in on the McCain vs. Romney endorsement, of course he knew. Abramson was in on the loop, too. Pinch may have been. Collins, likely not.

So, this was something that could have been discussed in the endorsement process. If necessary, you could boot most the people out of the room and have discussed the McCain story and its relation to an endorsement just between Pinch, Keller, Baquet if there, Abramson and Collins, bringing her in the loop.

Was it discussed? Ahh, that’s a whole different kettle of fish.

Given that the endorsement didn’t mention McCain being ethically challenged on lobbyist issues, let alone personal issues, I’d say no. Pinch is neoconish enough, I think his mind would already have been made up for McCain. For different reasons, ditto on Keller. Baquet would have pushed to talk more about the story, I think, and not been in McCain’s endorsement corner, but I’m guessing Keller had him on an officially very short leash if he was there. Abramson? Guessing she had an open mind on the endorsement, and at this point at least, figured the story didn’t have enough new, or wasn’t moved enough by the story, for whatever reasons.

And, the dirty little secret?

It’s well-known inside the biz, and discussed, but editorial endorsements from major daily newspapers provide little “bump” in the polls to candidates. In fact, some newspapers, whether to save time or to save face, are moving away from doing them.

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