Like making sausage, if people knew more about how many newspaper editorial boards go about deciding on endorsements, they'd be disgusted.
Today Salem's Statesman Journal, the newspaper in Oregon's capital, endorsed Hillary Clinton. That's no big deal. Here's why.
I have a better understanding than most of how this paper's editorial board works, because last fall I got hot and heavy into investigating how the Statesman Journal was able to justify endorsing a "no" vote on Measure 49 – a fix for Measure 37, which the newspaper opposed in 2004.
Go figure. My wife and I sure couldn't. Back in October I explained why the editorial board should get an "F" in journalism ethics. Dick Hughes, editorial page editor, wrote the "no on 49" piece.
After extensive exchanges of emails in which Hughes failed to offer me any substantive rationale for the newspaper's position, Laurel and I met with Hughes at a coffee house along with two other Measure 49 supporters who were similarly aghast at how the editorial's conclusion was marvelously unsupported by logic or facts.
It was quite a meeting. We learned a lot about how the editorial board decision making process works. Or, more accurately, doesn't work.
Most readers of a newspaper probably assume that an editorial board consists of a large group of people. More than four, at least. But that's how many are on the Statesman Journal board: four.
All are newspaper employees. In addition to Hughes, there's Brian Priester (President and Publisher), Bill Church (Executive Editor), and Barbara Curtin (Opinion Editor).
In the case of the Measure 49 editorial, Hughes told us that Priester stayed out of the debate, not having been in Oregon very long. So the "no" endorsement was made by three people, one of whom favored a "yes" vote. Thus one person ended up deciding the Statesman Journal's position, Dick Hughes (who also wrote the editorial).
Likely this is common. With some newspapers, the publisher calls the shots on endorsements. Again, one person. But when an editorial begins with "Our Viewpoint," as the Clinton endorsement does, readers are given the impression that "our" includes a representative group of people.
Nope. At the coffee house meeting we asked Hughes, "What happened to the community representatives on the Statesman Journal editorial board?"
Answer: Priester requested that they be removed in the summer of 2007 after he took over the reins of the paper. So there's no input from anyone other than Statesman Journal employees on editorial endorsements.
The Clinton endorsement editorial mentions a "divided Editorial Board" twice. I suspect it was divided right down the middle, two-two, with the publisher breaking the tie. If so, the endorsement again represents the position of one person.
The newspaper has a blog where draft editorials are posted prior to publication. Reader comments are requested, as they were with the Measure 49 editorial.
But Hughes explained to us that he was the only staffer who read the many comments submitted on the illogical "no on 49" draft. He didn't share them with the other editorial board members, reflecting the newspaper's lack of interest in community input.
Over and over Hughes told us that the Measure 49 editorial was opinion, not a news story. And I kept telling him that I recognized this, but opinion with no factual substance behind it shouldn't become a newspaper endorsement.
The Measure 49 piece was a travesty. There was essentially no connection between the conclusion – vote "no"– and facts supporting this recommendation. Because there weren't any facts. Just opinion.
That's a crappy way to run an editorial board. Which is why I wasn't surprised or disappointed to see the Clinton endorsement today, even though I'm an Obama supporter.
My expectations of the Statesman Journal are so low, after learning how the editorial writing process works from our meeting with Dick Hughes, that I no longer take seriously what newspaper employees publish on the editorial pages.
The Statesman Journal is a Gannett paper. And that's a whole other story, well told by Richard McCord in his book "The Chain Gang."
He documents how ethics and Gannett are two words that don't belong together, using as one of his examples how the Gannett empire drove newspaper competition out of Salem in a sleazy fashion.
So take Statesman Journal editorials for what they're worth: very little.