Me­dia en­dorse­ments un­der re­view af­ter di­vi­sive elec­tion

The Washington Times Daily - - CELEBRATING FREEDOM - By Dr. Jef­frey Herbst Jef­frey Herbst, Ph.D., is pres­i­dent and CEO of the New­seum and the New­seum In­sti­tute. He has served as pres­i­dent of Col­gate Univer­sity, was provost at Mi­ami Univer­sity and taught at Prince­ton Univer­sity for 18 years. He is the au­thor

The news­pa­per ed­i­to­rial is em­blem­atic of press free­dom and the right of free ex­pres­sion that are at the heart of our democ­racy. How­ever, es­pe­cially in light of the re­cent elec­tion, is the news­pa­per ed­i­to­rial an­other vic­tim of the dis­rup­tion that is up­end­ing jour­nal­ism?

There has been much hand-wring­ing about the me­dia’s per­for­mance, in­clud­ing feel­ings that news­pa­pers and cable television gave too much or too lit­tle cov­er­age to par­tic­u­lar can­di­dates, did not have the pulse of the coun­try and were too re­liant on polls that turned out to be wrong. Largely lost in the de­bate is that an un­prece­dented ed­i­to­rial as­sault on Don­ald Trump seemed to have lit­tle ef­fect on the out­come. What does it mean for the ed­i­to­rial voice if the peo­ple are not lis­ten­ing?

Over­all, more than 240 news­pa­pers en­dorsed Hil­lary Clin­ton, com­pared to only 19 for Mr. Trump. Pres­i­dent Barack Obama re­ceived only 99 en­dorse­ments be­fore his 2012 re-elec­tion, while his op­po­nent, Mitt Rom­ney, had 105. It was hardly a sur­prise that tra­di­tion­ally lib­eral news­pa­pers such as The New York Times sided with Mrs. Clin­ton, but the Times’s ve­he­ment op­po­si­tion to Mr. Trump — “the worst nom­i­nee put for­ward by a ma­jor party in mod­ern Amer­i­can his­tory” — was no­table.

How­ever, the en­dorse­ment of Mrs. Clin­ton went way beyond tra­di­tional lines. The Ari­zona Repub­lic en­dorsed the Demo­cratic pres­i­den­tial nom­i­nee for the first time in its 126-year his­tory, say­ing, “The 2016 Repub­li­can can­di­date is not con­ser­va­tive and he is not qual­i­fied.” The news­pa­per re­mained adamant, de­spite a num­ber of death threats to se­nior ed­i­tors.

USA To­day made its first ed­i­to­rial com­ment on a pres­i­den­tial can­di­date in its his­tory — Mr. Trump is “un­fit for the pres­i­dency” — although the pa­per did not for­mally en­dorse Mrs. Clin­ton.

The At­lantic en­dorsed Mrs. Clin­ton; only the third time that the mag­a­zine had sided with a pres­i­den­tial can­di­date in its 159-year his­tory, say­ing Mr. Trump “might be the most os­ten­ta­tiously un­qual­i­fied ma­jor-party can­di­date in the 227-year his­tory of the Amer­i­can pres­i­dency.”

The en­dorse­ment wave was pow­er­ful enough that it might have been thought to af­fect some crit­i­cal states. For in­stance, The Colum­bus Dis­patch, con­sid­ered by many to be the most cov­eted ed­i­to­rial en­dorse­ment in the na­tion, given Ohio’s his­tory as a swing state, broke with a cen­tury of Repub­li­can al­le­giance to side with Mrs. Clin­ton, declar­ing, “Don­ald Trump is un­fit to be pres­i­dent of the United States.” The Cincin­nati En­quirer, with a sim­i­lar his­tory of Repub­li­can sup­port, also went for Mrs. Clin­ton, de­scrib­ing Mr. Trump as “a clear and present dan­ger.”

Mr. Trump de­feated Mrs. Clin­ton in Ohio by 8 per­cent­age points af­ter Mr. Obama had won the state in 2012 by 3 per­cent­age points.

Just for sym­me­try, it is use­ful to note that the most im­por­tant news­pa­per that en­dorsed Mr. Trump was prob­a­bly the Las Ve­gas Re­view-Jour­nal, which said Mr. Trump “prom­ises to be a source of dis­rup­tion and dis­com­fort to the priv­i­leged, back-scratch­ing po­lit­i­cal elites.”

Mrs. Clin­ton won Ne­vada by 2.4 per­cent­age points.

We will be dis­en­tan­gling the dy­nam­ics of this cam­paign for years to come. Cer­tainly, some ed­i­to­ri­al­ists are suf­fer­ing from pop­u­lar sen­ti­ments against elites and skep­ti­cism of na­tional in­sti­tu­tions, top­ics that have trended for some time and ac­cel­er­ated dur­ing the cam­paign. Ed­u­ca­tion lev­els were also a very pow­er­ful pre­dic­tor, and it is rea­son­able to as­sume that less-ed­u­cated cit­i­zens also were less likely to have read the many ed­i­to­ri­als that ex­co­ri­ated the man they even­tu­ally elected to the White House.

These news­pa­pers also may not have per­suaded many Trump sup­port­ers. Many publi­ca­tions went out of their way to say that those sid­ing with the Repub­li­can can­di­date had le­git­i­mate griev­ances given ris­ing in­equal­ity, the dis­ap­pear­ance of tra­di­tional man­u­fac­tur­ing jobs and for­eign pol­icy set­backs. The news­pa­pers and mag­a­zines then ar­gued that Mr. Trump was not go­ing to ad­dress those prob­lems. But the publi­ca­tions fell into the very trap that Mr. Trump ex­ploited dur­ing the pres­i­den­tial de­bates when he re­peat­edly asked Mrs. Clin­ton why she had not ad­dressed his sup­port­ers’ con­cerns dur­ing her many years at or near the cen­ter of power. That may not have been fair, but it was a pow­er­ful de­bat­ing point that prob­a­bly had res­o­nance when many read about their le­git­i­mate griev­ances but were not told when or how those is­sues would be ad­dressed.

Fi­nally, the ed­i­to­rial voice may have been muf­fled be­cause of the way news is be­ing dis­trib­uted. In­creas­ingly, a large num­ber of read­ers get their news­pa­per sto­ries via so­cial me­dia, es­pe­cially Face­book. This may be a use­ful strat­egy on the part of news­pa­pers to at­tract more read­ers and cap­ture dig­i­tal ad rev­enue. How­ever, the com­mod­i­fi­ca­tion of news sto­ries means that read­ers see ar­ti­cles in a feed that may seem in­creas­ingly dis­as­so­ci­ated with a par­tic­u­lar pa­per. It also may seem that the news­pa­pers them­selves have lost their ground­ing in the com­mu­ni­ties, if peo­ple read their sto­ries in a stream that in­cludes news from other sources, om­nipresent cat videos and greet­ings from rel­a­tives.

Whether the ed­i­to­rial voice, es­pe­cially in the age of so­cial me­dia, can ever be re­cov­ered is un­clear. It is cer­tain, es­pe­cially af­ter an elec­tion with nearly unan­i­mous ed­i­to­rial skep­ti­cism about the even­tual win­ner, that it can no longer sim­ply be as­sumed that a news­pa­per or mag­a­zine en­dorse­ment means much of any­thing. These publi­ca­tions will now have to work very hard to jus­tify their sen­ti­ments be­ing taken se­ri­ously, an­other chal­lenge when just about ev­ery other jour­nal­is­tic cer­tainty is be­ing overturned. News­pa­pers and mag­a­zines will, in short, have to rein­vent the ed­i­to­rial voice for the age of so­cial me­dia, just as they are chang­ing al­most ev­ery other as­pect of their publi­ca­tions.

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