In praise of candidate endorsements

Why do newspapers endorse political candidates?

At best, it’s an archaic practice, a little quaint, a little bizarre.

Other media don’t do it. TV and radio news never have, in part because their roots are in over-the-air broadcasting, whose regulatory overlords traditionally frowned on opinion-mongering.  Magazines—apart from partisan sheets whose politics are integral to their brands—shy away. Online, today’s media are brimming with opinion, but none of the dozen or so Internet-based news sites I frequent explicitly support one candidate or another.

So what’s with newspapers? Why is it that every election cycle, they routinely defy their own sinking revenues, shrinking payrolls, reader skepticism, and declining credibility, and tell us how they think we should vote?

And is this a good thing? Is it a neural twitch from a moribund industry that refuses to accept its own irrelevance, or the legacy of a proud tradition of public service?

This year newspaper endorsements have gotten more publicity than usual because a number of papers that supported President Obama in 2008 aren’t Continue reading “In praise of candidate endorsements”

Electoral debates offer a rare moment of transparency

I like the campaign debates. I watched most of the Republican primary matchups, even after they got repetitive, and I find the current flight of televised faceoffs riveting.

Yes, I realize the candidates are drilled relentlessly to suppress whatever capacity they retain for spontaneity and to make sure candor yields to calculation. But I figure even intensive coaching can only do so much. Pro football teams train exhaustively too, but the games always test them in unexpected ways. As heavyweight boxing champ Mike Tyson put it, “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the face.”

Once the bell rings and the action starts, you’ve got two contenders fending, parrying, explaining, attacking, and at some fundamental level, revealing the quality of their minds and the nature of their aspirations.

Better still, the whole undertaking rests on the wondrous idea that voters aren’t idiots. Why bother debating unless everybody accepts the notion that voters listen, they follow arguments, they can distinguish sense from foolishness and, above all, they may even allow their conclusions about who “won” the debate to guide their votes?

The problem isn’t with the debates, it’s with most everything else in the campaigns. The debates are grievously marginalized. Whatever illumination voters might get from them is snuffed out by the unstoppable mudslide of paid propaganda, and the quadrennial welfare check—estimated at nearly $3 billion this time—that parties and patrons write to our commercial media, chiefly local TV, so they’ll carry the generally deceitful, emotionally toxic assaults on honesty, patriotism, integrity and character that inundate pivotal states.

One huge dimension of electoral advertising that I hadn’t known about was recently the target of a sobering expose by ProPublica, the nonprofit investigative reporting team. Their focus was the surge of money from so-called social welfare groups. In the world of big-bucks givers, the super PACS (political action committees) have drawn much of the public attention as ad funders, but they have actually been outspent by these social welfare nonprofits.

The thing is, that’s not what they’re for. These nonprofits get tax breaks, which Continue reading “Electoral debates offer a rare moment of transparency”

The dubious value of primary debates

Televised candidate debates have become the marquee spectacles of presidential campaigns. By the time Republicans vote in the Florida primary, candidates seeking the party’s presidential nomination will have debated 19 times since May. That’s 30-some hours of live national TV, plus untold hours of recap, recrimination, chatter and miscellaneous noise churned up by the events.

Now, as somebody who deplores the larcenous rates commercial broadcasters normally charge candidates to reach the electorate, I’m glad. The debates constitute a grant of free TV time to hopefuls who might otherwise be priced off the air and out of the race.

But beyond that, since debates seem certain to be a feature of U.S. elections as far as the eye can see, it’s worth asking about how they affect the way elections are conducted and decided.

At the outset, a huge core fact: These debates are TV shows. They aren’t events arranged independently by candidates that the media then decide are newsworthy enough to broadcast. They are classic pseudo-events, in the late Daniel Boorstin’s memorable term — they happen only because they’ll be televised. Accordingly, media organizations far outnumber all other co-sponsors: Of this season’s 19 Republican debates, Wikipedia notes, four co-sponsors were foundations or universities, 12 were political entities, and 34 were media organizations.

That’s not new. The 2008 primaries, when both parties had fierce primary races, had 34 debates, according to a George Washington University website. The co-sponsors: 13 political groups, 14 foundations or universities, and 55 media organizations.

This co-dependency rests on warm and cozy mutual advantage: The candidates get to tee up their messages, the media get a self-replenishing source of quotable utterances. Broadcasters, who nowadays break less and less news, get a cheap and exhilarating chance to once again be a vital source of current affairs programming.

But to what effect? As a fan of this season’s GOP debates, I began wondering whether their overall impact on political discourse was, in partisan terms, absurdly one-sided. For months, hours of television time had been given to aspirants who agreed on little but their conviction that the Obama administration has been a disastrous failure.

There was no room for dissent on that fundamental premise. Debate protocol, obviously enough, enables candidates who are attacked to respond. But if someone egregiously distorted the facts about the incumbent administration, and nobody on stage thought they’d win any friends by correcting the distortion, the false assertion stood unchallenged.

Now, consider the cumulative impact of having dozens of hours of such lopsided discourse, in which the only push-back came from within the closed universe of a single party. It occurred to me that the overall consequence of such an intensely covered primary season, when candidates from one party vied before national audiences to run against a sitting president, might be powerful tailwind for the challengers and against the incumbent. Continue reading “The dubious value of primary debates”