It's time for newspaper endorsements to go the way of soapboxes, whistle-stop tours, and emery boards bearing a candidate's name. By pursuing a partisan, presumptuous path on the editorial page, newspapers encourage questions about their objectivity elsewhere and put themselves on a level with other mediums that have cheapened the civic debate.
While technological advances have done wonders for our connectivity, ability to withdraw cash, and access to directions, they have also spawned a plethora of media outlets and opinion-makers all shouting for attention and professing to know what's in voters' best interest.
Take your pick. Cable TV, talk radio, the blogosphere, Facebook, and Twitter are a partisan cacophony. Here, all candidates and issues get defined according to simplistic, easily divisible ideological and partisan grounds. In this faux debate, every controversy gets reduced to the equivalent of a Republican-Democrat, left-right, blue state-red state split screen.
Unrepresented are those voices offering opinions incapable of being so strictly defined. That's because like certain of our political parties, these forums demand purity of thought. There's no nuance allowed, and any expression of subtlety is dismissed as wishy-washy weakness.
This is no environment for newspapers to cloud their true role by joining the ranks of pundits, particularly when fewer readers are relying on their election recommendations. A Pew survey released in January 2004 found that over the previous four years, a nod of approval from an editorial board had become less influential in voters' eyes (and, in fact, actually came to "dissuade as many Americans as they persuade," according to Pew).
Meanwhile, a study conducted in January and February of 2008 by the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg Public Policy Center found that endorsements had a relatively minimal effect on voters' decisions. During the presidential primaries that year, for example, nearly equal proportions of respondents said the New York Times' endorsement of John McCain increased the likelihood that they'd vote for him (7 percent) as said they'd be less likely to do so (6 percent). "A large majority (83 percent)," the study's authors noted, "reported that knowing of the endorsement made no difference in their level of support."
The credibility of the news pages is directly dependent on the perception of their objectivity. That's different from the everyday extremes of talk radio, cable TV, or the blogosphere. There, ratings and pageviews are driven by ideology and passion. Newspapers, on the other hand, are dependent upon authenticity.
Fairly or not, however, the presence of political endorsements erodes that perception of objectivity. The average voter probably doesn't distinguish between the considerations of the editorial board -- whose job it is to debate issues of public significance and offer an opinion on them -- and the reportage on the front page.
Maybe with good reason. According to a study released in June of 2002 by two political science professors at Arizona State University, incumbent U.S. senators who received the endorsement of their state's most circulated newspaper could expect press coverage (and headlines) with a more favorable tone, featuring more positive treatment of their policy views and fewer attributed criticisms within that coverage. Moreover, the authors found that incumbent senators enjoyed an increase in positive coverage after the endorsement in their favor had been published.
"I think newspapers need to know how endorsement decisions may inadvertently influence coverage of candidates on the news pages," Kim Fridkin Kahn, one of the authors of the Arizona State study, told me in an e-mail message. "If editors and reporters are aware of this, perhaps the relationship between endorsement decisions and coverage patterns would diminish."
Or perhaps newspaper editorial boards will abandon the practice of offering endorsements altogether.
When any newspaper lines up alongside Glenn Beck or Keith Olbermann, they unnecessarily compromise their status as objective sources of fact at a time when an increasing number of media outlets traffic in ideologically driven, artificial political debates. The vaunted wall separating news coverage and editorializing is sacrificed -- apparently based on the assumption that readers are capable of consuming the paper's reportage from the campaign trail, but unable to come to their own conclusions as a result of that information.
I say that voters who want to be told in writing what to do should fire up their inkjet and print out the Huffington Post or Drudge Report. Or immerse themselves in talk radio or cable TV. Newspapers, on the other hand, have the chance to swap decision-making for detachment. In so doing, they'd claim the high ground in today's relentlessly divided media environment.
Michael Smerconish writes a weekly column for The Philadelphia Inquirer. Readers may contact him via www.smerconish.com.