Saturday, May 12, 2007

Endorsement Peeve Blues

I have a pet peeve when it comes to endorsements. Everyone knows politicians crave endorsements. In some ways they help define the candidate. For instance, Labor usually backs Democrats. It’s supposed to indicate that the candidate supports working class values. Businesses, on the other hand typically backs Republicans because it’s assumed they support capitalism and personal industry. A Pro-Life or Pro-Choice endorsement defines how a candidate is perceived when it comes to control over one’s own body and their reproductive freedom verses the rights of the unborn and dignity of life, and so on.

Three key benefits of endorsements are the “legitimacy” it establishes for the candidate by showing that others agree with their position(s). Secondly, and related, the anticipated votes the endorsements will bring from the membership and those friendly to those organizations such as spouses, family, neighbors, and friends. Lastly and perhaps most importantly, is the money the endorsements often bring. Usually the candidate will receive a nice check (assuming the organization is properly registered to make donations), and again, the peripheral money generated from related industries or groups (with the same assumption applying), family, friends, and so forth. In short, while it’s great you-the candidate-agree with our position(s), and in exchange for our support, we expect access to you and your support on issues of importance to us. That is, they get a piece of you.

Ok, so that’s nothing new to anyone and not necessarily bad I suppose. It’s been apart of politics since day one. People should have access to their representatives, though not for a price in my opinion. But then again, money is the “mother’s milk” of politics. Now, here’s my pet peeve. Why do newspapers alone of the media, endorse candidates, and does it matter anymore? I think it stems from the fact that once upon a time, flyers, handbills, bulletins, and later newspapers were the only form of news aside from the local town gossip (who no doubt contributed greatly as the “unidentified source”). Somewhere around the end of the 19th century and the turn of the 20th century, newspapers decided they were going to fight the graft and corruption of the machine politics like Tammany Hall, which seemed rampant (in reality, machine politics was relatively rare nationally, and not always a bad thing in places where it existed).

Newspapers, it seems, became the self-appointed guardians of the public’s interests. They undoubtedly contributed greatly to exposing crooked politicians and business leaders. Although papers had long backed certain candidates, mainly because they were owned by members that individual’s party, it was about this same time that newspapers discovered they could become the purveyors of public morals and shape public opinion—not just report the news and exposing crime and corruption.
(Suggest reading and as a primer).

I think that the same self-appointed "public crusader" mentality remains in place although the role, and indeed the importance of newspapers have steadily declined since the advent of television in the 1950’s. Today, people have a dizzying array of sources for news, from hundreds (if not thousands) of internet news sites, cable news, special interest blogs, radio, and so on. People are better informed than ever before in history. Yet, despite this, only newspapers continue to try and manipulate public opinion by endorsing this or that candidate while the readership of newspapers continue their irreversible decline (many “experts” predict that in 10 to 20 years, newspapers will be all but extinct). Some would even go as far as to argue that the media in general and print media in particular are still “controlled”, either directly or indirectly by those who cater to one party or the other. Thus, the endorsements are nothing more than an attempt to marginalize the opposing side, be it Democrat or Republican with the third parties and Independents all but locked out of the process.

Others would argue that newspapers, or more specifically, their editorial boards, have a right under the First Amendment to express their opinion. And perhaps they do. And if that’s the case, perhaps then all media outlets do, which would mean that FOX, ABC, CBS, FOX, MSNBC, CNN, and radio stations to name a few have the same right to endorse candidates. Can you imagine every time you turn on the radio or TV, having to listen to their endorsement of some candidate? Admittedly Corporate American as well as Labor and a host of other groups attempt to influence public opinion through lobbying and public relations, but that’s an attempt at control a specific piece of legislation or spinning an event and not the same as trying to manipulate elections through political endorsements. But the mass media, with the exception primarily of print media, has chosen to let the people decide (granted, the news is often slanted one way or another, but it still leaves the individual the freedom to seek other sources in order to get a balanced picture of the candidate’s positions without them taking a hard stand in favor of this or that candidate).

What I would like to see is impartial reviews of campaigns and candidates by the print media’s editorial boards. Here is how it would work: The media (or more specifically here, newspaper editorial boards) would submit a set of questions to every candidate running for office, which they often do (though I should point out sometimes Independents or third party candidates are ignored, which they should not be). The Editorial Board would identify themselves (which they usually don’t do now) and their individual questions. They would then print the questions, who asked what, and each candidate’s response. That’s it! The public can read and compare for themselves which candidate best represents their values and interests and gain a better understanding of the Editorial Board’s agenda, if any.

Until newspapers and their editorial boards adopt a more modern, and perhaps more enlightened, perspective, I would recommend those who still read these endorsements remember the source of these opinions (and in reality that’s all they are), be they Liberal or Conservative, and that while these individuals may write for a living, their knowledge of the issues and the candidates may not only be limited, but colored with their own prejudices and biases which is certainly not in the public’s best interest.

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