Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Has Tribune Been Freed from McCormick?

Tribune papers across the country have been endorsing Barack Obama for president. The LA Times, Orlando Sentinel and even -- even -- the Chicago Tribune have editorialized in favor of Obama. Colonel Robert McCormick, the arch conservative who ruled the Tribune roost in the 20th century, must be fit to be tied, in purgatory, of course. The Chicago Tribune has never endorsed a Democrat for president.

Having been an editorial writer at three different newspapers, I understand how these things work. You would think that it's all to do with interviewing the candidates and learning more about their positions and experience. Ah, but there's more. Much more.

After the editorial writers have made their best arguments pro and con, we start worrying about what the paper's position is really going to be. The editor and/or publisher can change the whole thing by making a decision that doesn't reflect any kind of consensus. The head of a newspaper chain can also hand down an edict. In addition, it can also get personal, as in "I don't like this person." That's just the way it is, because some members of an editorial board are more equal than others. It's a faux democracy.

In the 2004 presidential election, the Orlando Sentinel editorial page editor spent a good deal of time massaging the publisher (and who knows who else) in order to endorse John Kerry. It was the Sentinel's first Democratic endorsement in a very long time. I think 40 years, if I'm not mistaken.

(Kerry, by the way, was very knowledgeable and likeable in private, devoting lots of time to the editorial board interview. His public persona was another matter.)

All of which is to say that newspaper editorial endorsements are not really the above-board, what's in the best interest of the community kind of opinion. Sometimes it ain't got nothing to do with the community.

To have newspapers like the Sentinel, LA Times and, of course, the Trib endorse Obama signals that Sam Zell really allowed the papers to make their own choices. He may not care very much about the part of the job that people like Col. McCormick lusted after: Kingmaker! All editorial page editors want to be kingmakers, every single last one of them.

However, if it's true that Zell didn't play his hand -- a hand that he had every right to play as owner -- that makes him a very unusual person indeed.


Anonymous said...

Interesting column here:


Anonymous said...

I just don't think newspaper endorsements carry that much weight any more. That voice of authority that people once respected - or at least read - is gone. In a click and scan culture, when senate speeches are sound bites and political party platform planks are only for the hardcore partisan, the endorsement is a dusty relic.
Yes, I know they work hard concocting these things. I am not picking a fight with editorial boards. But I can't recall ever hearing a friend, associate or anyone ever reference an endorsement or even appear to have read one.
They seem to be filler for ads, where they are often quoted out of context. Maybe the new iteration of newspapers can skip these??

Maria Padilla said...

I agree that endorsements are dusty relics that have been overtaken by all the excellent political Web sites out there.