Let's get this straight before I launch into my main point: community newspapers like the Salem Statesman Journal shouldn't make election endorsements.
I'm not a big fan of the Statesman Journal editorial page. To put it mildly. You can read my blunter criticisms of the newspaper's opinionating in these posts.
Salem's newspaper gets an "F" in journalistic ethics
Inside look at Statesman Journal election endorsements
Statesman Journal endorsement of Romney: pathetic editorial
Today's editorial, "Why Tuesday's Election Matters," focused my long-time (since 1977) subscriber attention on why the Statesman Journal is making election endorsements at all.
As noted in one of the links above, the Statesman Journal likely endorsed Hillary Clinton over Barack Obama in the 2008 primary because one person broke an editorial board tie. So when you see "This newspaper endorses..." keep in mind that behind that statement may be a single individual's personal political opinion.
Back in 2012 there was a rather testy SJ editorial about why the newspaper makes endorsements. Part of it said:
The easy path would be to remain silent. We would not alienate any reader. Some newspapers around the country chose not to endorse a presidential candidate this year for that very reason.
But on this Opinion page we want our voice to be clear. We want to stand up and be counted. We want all to know, whether they agree with us or not, that will we never be afraid to speak up and won’t remain silent. You can trust us to speak our mind.
Wow. So brave.
But nobody is asking anybody at the newspaper to stop speaking his/her mind. Everybody in this country is able to do that. It's that use of the royal "We" that bothers me, the implication that a few members of a newspaper's editorial board have some sort of special political knowledge and wisdom that others lack in this hyper-informed age.
The Chicago Sun-Times explained why it no longer makes election endorsements. The reasons make a lot of sense. I've added some emphasis in boldface.
Seventy-one years ago, Marshall Field III founded this newspaper to create a bully pulpit, on the editorial page, for America’s entry into the war in Europe and for President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s domestic agenda, the New Deal.
Somebody in the Midwest, Field believed, had to stand up and counter the isolationist and anti-Roosevelt fulminations of Col. Robert McCormick and his Chicago Tribune.
It was an era, even then drawing to a close, when many American newspapers were unabashedly partisan, and not necessarily only on the editorial page. Not unlike news shops on cable TV and the Web today, they catered to a core of readers who thought very much like them.
Those days are gone. Most good newspapers today attempt to appeal to the widest possible readership, including people of every political persuasion, by serving up the best and most unbiased news coverage possible. They want to inform you, not spin you.
With this in mind, the Chicago Sun-Times Editorial Board will approach election coverage in a new way. We will provide clear and accurate information about who the candidates are and where they stand on the issues most important to our city, our state and our country. We will post candidate questionnaires online. We will interview candidates in person and post the videos online. We will present side-by-side comparisons of the candidates’ views on the key issues. We will post assessments made by respected civic and professional groups, such as the Chicago Bar Association’s guide to judicial candidates.
What we will not do is endorse candidates. We have come to doubt the value of candidate endorsements by this newspaper or any newspaper, especially in a day when a multitude of information sources allow even a casual voter to be better informed than ever before.
I hope Statesman Journal executives will consider how jarring it is for readers to be told for 363 days a year that their community newspaper is committed to pursuing journalistic truth wherever it lies, fearlessly investigating wrongdoing by politicians and government officials.
Then, on two days of the year, before primary and general elections, the Statesman Journal wholeheartedly expresses the support of its small editorial board for certain politicians -- after which the newspaper repeatedly urges readers to vote for them.
Yet us readers are expected to believe that the same Statesman Journal executives -- publisher, executive editor, editorial page editor -- who were so supportive of politician X won't let their personal political views influence subsequent news and editorial content decisions.
Understand: I'm not saying that newspaper staff shouldn't have political opinions.
But recently a reporter at the Statesman Journal explained why she doesn't sign initiative petitions or otherwise get personally involved with supporting certain candidates: it would make readers think she wasn't capable of reporting fairly and independently.
Well, why doesn't this apply equally (heck, even more so) to the newspaper executives who are deciding what news and opinion pieces get published in the Statesman Journal? How ethical is it that Steve Silberman, publisher of the paper, is about to join the Chamber of Commerce board of directors?
The Chamber endorsed four candidates for City Council. The Statesman Journal editorial board endorsed those same four candidates, offering up very little solid policy reasons for doing so. Just because, basically.
Naturally the editorial board would take offense that their personal political views, as expressed in the newspaper's candidate endorsements, have anything at all to do with their supposedly journalistically pure assessment of each city council candidate's qualifications.
Many readers, including me, are skeptical about this.
So wouldn't it be better, as the Chicago Sun-Times editorial board concluded, to give up the charade that in this 21st century, a few people who happen to be newspaper executives have the right to use their community journalism platform to tell everybody else in Salem how to vote?
As the Sun-Times said, community newspapers supposedly represent and serve everybody. This makes the Statesman Journal different from our alternative newspaper, Salem Weekly, which unabashedly has a liberal slant. And different from the Chamber of Commerce, which unabashedly has a conservative slant.
I've lost confidence that the Statesman Journal really cares about everybody in Salem, in part because of its editorial page endorsements. Maybe the newspaper doesn't care about me, and so many others, feeling this way.
But it should.