Two prominent Florida newspapers appear to have thrown in the towel with a joint decision to “no longer endorse candidates in races for governor, Senate or president, including this year’s races.”
But the explanation provided by the newspapers for the decision makes little sense. While state and national polls are predicting big wins for Republicans, the races are far from over. Even so, the Orlando Sentinel and its sister publication, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, blame the decision on a new diktat from the “corporate leaders” at the hedge fund headquarters of Alden Global Capital. In a joint published statement earlier this month, both Sentinel editorial boards attempted to explain that the decision was “company wide,” meaning that all of Alden Global Capital’s newspapers would follow the same endorsement policy.
On the surface, at least, the decision is national in scope. With more than 200 newspapers under ownership, Alden Global Capital is the 2nd largest newspaper publisher in the United States. So a national corporate decree stripping once autonomous editorial boards of their authority to endorse in the highest profile state election contests is almost certainly a bitter pill to swallow, especially here in Florida where there are national implications beyond this year’s election cycle.
So what drove the decision by Alden to strip the Orlando and Sun Sentinel boards of their traditional authority to endorse? The explanation given to readers is a meandering missive that never quite satisfies:
“Since Alden Global Capital took over Tribune Publishing in May 2021, its leaders have made it clear that they support robust, local editorial pages. This is the first time they have asserted their traditional role, but this discussion of which races to endorse in occurs at newspapers every day in the run-up to an election. Company leaders acted out of concern that contests for president, U.S. Senate and governor are becoming more national in character, and that our editorial advocacy is strongest locally.”
What are we supposed to take from that? That the Sentinel’s editorial advocacy on statewide issues is too weak to be taken seriously?
That’s what Democrat political strategist Steve Schale thinks. And he should know about the importance of newspaper endorsements in campaigns as well as anyone. Schale directed Barack Obama’s presidential campaign in Florida in 2008 and served as senior advisor to the re-election in 2012. With that resume, Schale may be one of the rare Democratic strategists in Florida with more wins than losses. But as a self-described political junkie, Schale thinks newspaper endorsements have little value in modern campaigns.
“Corporate leaders also worry that common ground is being lost to culture wars. We’ve all seen society become more polarized. Look at what’s happened since Florida’s 2018 gubernatorial election. Could we have imagined that we would be so deeply divided over how to handle the pandemic that we would see shrieking parents dragged out of school board meetings? Or that partisan voices on both sides of the divide would take turns decrying law enforcement and medical professionals as villains or heroes?”
Now it appears the editorial board, speaking for their corporate overlords, are talking out of both sides of their collective mouths. On one hand, they say that statewide races for senator, governor and president have grown in importance and become too big for local newspapers to make recommendations with any relevance. But at the same time, the newspaper’s local leaders pledge to continue wading into national controversies like the COVID-19 pandemic response, or school masking policies.
One possible factor they didn’t mention: their abysmal record on endorsements over the last decade or so. Most of Florida’s major newspapers have leaned further and further to the left in recent years, becoming too predictable. The Orlando Sentinel, for example, has been out of touch with the rest of the state since 2010, when it began a remarkable losing streak, choosing three losing Democrats in a row: Alex Sink, Charlie Crist and Andrew Gillum. It wasn’t always that way, though. After successfully endorsing Democrat Lawton Chiles for re-election in 1992, the paper endorsed Republican Jeb Bush and, yes, Charlie Crist, back when he still pretended to be a Republican in 2006.
Those endorsements, however wrong and out of step with the rest of the state, still matter, because they help to inform the public about the views of those who bring us the news. Newspapers are not, and have never been objective purveyors of fact. They all have political views and editorial slants to their news coverage. As opinion leaders in their community and indeed around the state, it’s helpful to know where they stand on big questions and on big political contests.
Another factor: Republicans’ declining participation in the editorial board process. Back in 2010, Rick Scott famously rejected invitations from 17 editorial boards, and all 17 ended up endorsing his opponent, Alex Sink. What choice did they have? Scott ended up winning without a single newspaper endorsement, weakening the argument that newspaper endorsements were necessary to win elections. Of course, Scott enjoyed a financial advantage over his opponent and didn’t need any “free publicity” from newspapers, but the trend of Republicans snubbing editorial boards before they could snub Republicans certainly picked up steam after that point.
Today, other newspaper operations, including Gannett, are bemoaning the cost versus return on investment on its opinion pages. And assembling an editorial board interview with prominent candidate isn’t cheap or easy. Perhaps newspapers need to abandon the idea of meeting personally with each candidate and simply make their decisions based on all available information.
And if they want to be relevant, they have to stick their nose out and take a stand on big questions and big issues.
“I think if news organizations want to call themselves relevant at all they need to beef up content, including endorsements with detailed reasons why,” said Dr. Ed Moore, a partner in All Things Florida Consulting and a former president of the association of Independent Colleges and Universities of Florida. “Print mediums seem to have lost their place in political discourse.”