“A newspaper endorsement is a useful contribution to the public debate during a campaign,” says Philip Seib, Marquette University’s Neiman Professor of Journalism. “Nobody has to agree with it.”
As the media circus of Inauguration Day approaches, consider the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s endorsement odyssey. When it comes to endorsing for president, this curiously unpredictable newspapergets slammed no matter what it tries. Endorsements may not change many votes, but they do spark a powerful, lasting response in people’s hearts and minds.
In 1996, after the Journal Sentinel endorsed -Republican Bob Dole, an irate reader wrote “SHAME”in bright red ink on copies of the newspaper and left them strewn in the Downtown lobby of publisher Journal Communications.
In 2000, after Editorial Page Editor Mike Ruby reportedly overruled the editorial board and decided there would be no endorsement for president, the newspaper’s own staff called the move “wimpy,” “wishy-washy” and a “gutless cop-out.”
In October 2004, newly hired Editorial Page Editor O. -Ricardo Pimentel told the editorial board there would again be no endorsement, and he did it before the board had even talked about the issue, according to newsroom sources. Word has it Democratic candidate John Kerry, who was scheduled to meet with the board on October 15, nearly cancelled because it seemed pointless.
Insiders and outsiders alike mocked the editorial board as irrelevant.
“We should endorse for president or get out of the editorial business,” said one veteran Journal Sentinel reporter.
“It definitely raises a question of why you have an editorial page,” says David Allen, chairman of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s journalism department. “If you’re not going to editorialize on the most important topic of the day, and if you’re not going to take a stand in the most important presidential election of our lives, what’s the point?”
Pimentel added fuel to rumors about a non-endorsement in an interview with respected industry publication Editor & Publisher. “We didn’t endorse in 2000 and we think we are going to continue that policy this year,” Pimentel said. “We are still talking about what we are going to do.”
Then, two weeks later, the Journal Sentinel unexpectedly endorsed Kerry on a Thursday, defying the standard practice of Sunday endorsements for higher readership. Although Journal Sentinel officials deny it, indications are they initially wanted to avoid losing subscribers opposed to an endorsed candidate, but a non-endorsement for president left an intolerable impression of weakness.
One editorial board -member tells Milwaukee Magazine that among the board’s conservatives and liberals, the consensus for Kerry was surprisingly clear: “It was unanimous.”
Of course, the newspaper was blasted yet again. This time, some readers howled that it was proof positive that the Journal Sentinel has a liberal bias driving its editorials and news coverage.
Racine’s Casey Rouse Sr., in a published October 31 letter, accused the newspaper of hiring only liberals. “I can see the application now: If you don’t have a 90 percent liberal bias, you need not apply,” he sneered.
“Thanks for being consistent in endorsing Democrats,” wrote Waukesha’s Kristopher -Pfeiffer. “If the Journal Sentinel isn’t being paid by the Democratic National Committee, the paper is being ripped off.”
In reality, the Journal -Sentinel has not been consistent at all, as the newspaper’s relatively brief history of presidential nods shows – one Republican, one neutral, one Democrat. Add its endorsements for other state and federal races during presidential election years, and the only consistency is inconsistency.
For instance, in the November 1996 general election, the Journal Sentinel endorsed 19 Republicans and 15 Democrats, and in November 2004, it was 14 Democrats and 10 -Republicans.
That’s a remarkably bipartisan record. “Readers should look at all of our endorsements before they draw conclusions,” says Pimentel.
On the other hand, some readers had a valid beef with Editor Marty Kaiser, who saw the recent endorsements as a chance to “educate” the public on the difference between editorials and news reporting.
“There is a wall of separation between the newsroom and the editorial board. As editor, I enforce that wall. No reporters who cover the news and no other editors who handle news stories participate in the discussions that dictate editorial board decisions,” Kaiser wrote on October 28 and repeated almost word for word on October 31.
David Klika of West Bend wrote back: “No one who reads the Journal Sentinel believes that for even one second.”
Marquette University’s Seib, a media expert who has written opinion pieces for the Journal Sentinel’s editorial section, says there’s a hole in the wall, and Kaiser himself put it there.
You see, Kaiser directs the paper’s news reporting as editor, yet he also editorializes as an official editorial board member.
“That’s a problem because it contradicts the whole notion of having a wall of separation,” says Seib. “When you have the editor going back and forth, it’s only going to heighten any distrust.”