Starting this general election season The Athens NEWS will no longer publish unsigned endorsement editorials for candidates and issues. This ends our policy of endorsing in every election (if not in every race), something we have done dating back to years before I arrived as editor in 1987.
This decision has nothing to do with any erosion of my longtime support for newspaper endorsements. I still feel they help engage readers in local issues and politics, but more to the point, spark an emotional response in many readers (whether positive or negative).
It also has nothing to do with pressure or criticism about our endorsements from any source, external or internal. I’ve written hundreds of endorsements over the past 33 years, many of which provoked negative reactions among some sections of the community. My skin, if anything, has thickened over the years.
I never did subscribe to the idea, however, that our – or any – endorsements moved the political needle that much. And that’s even when our former owner and publisher pushed The Athens NEWS endorsements hard. He really did think we could change the outcome of an election, and did everything possible to make that happen. From the very start, the boss directed me to run endorsement checklists on the cover of each edition that came out on the eve of election day, along with an “endorsement wrap-up” with summaries of all of them.
Knowing that deciding endorsements, even with the best of intentions, wasn’t an exact science, I never felt comfortable pretending that it was, and always tried to acknowledge ambivalence when it existed. But all the pushy stuff – the cover checklist and summaries – made that more difficult. I also suspected that the pushier the endorsement and its presentation, the more readers would be turned off and perhaps even vote the opposite way. People aren’t dumb (at least not most of them), and many recoil at being lectured or scolded about election questions.
So why are we discontinuing unsigned endorsements that purport to represent the opinion of The Athens NEWS?
It’s simple; we no longer have a working editorial board, the small group of people at newspapers, usually among the editorial staff, that decides whom and what to endorse.
With recent changes at The Athens NEWS and a smaller fulltime editorial staff, we finally accepted the fact that there’s no longer any way to form an editorial board among our four-legged editorial team. Two of those legs, those attached to Associate Editor Conor Morris, would have to recuse themselves from the vast majority of endorsement decisions because Morris covers those races and issues as a reporter. It would be a conflict of interest for him to cover these questions in a neutral manner while casting an editorial board vote on who and what gets our endorsement.
Even if Morris didn’t have to abstain in races in which he has a conflict, we’d still be stuck with a two-person board, which comes with obvious problems. How do you break a tie? Flip a coin? Rock, paper, scissors?
Without the ability to convene a legitimate editorial board, I’d be making all the endorsement decisions, and at that point those recommendations would stop being newspaper endorsements. It would just be me telling you what I think.
While I don’t mind doing that (as you may have noticed), I’d rather do it under my own name than pretend that it’s the opinion of this newspaper as a whole.
And I fully intend to write columns and commentaries under my name in particularly important political issues or races. As with our past endorsements, you can take them any way you want, whether opting to follow my advice or doing the exact opposite (a popular approach over the years). My hope is the same as it’s always been with political endorsements – that readers take our/my advice as one fragment of input among many before deciding whom or what to vote for.
We’ll also continue to encourage our readers to submit their own endorsement letters on candidates and issues, whether we agree with them or not.
Here’s hoping that Athens NEWS readers will continue to research candidates and issues, using a variety of different authoritative sources – including this newspaper – while ignoring bogus sources with an obvious ax to grind, before arriving at their conclusions.