Newspaper endorsements

This is the story of a friend who works in municipal government– we’ll Newspaperssay he’s the city administrator– in a medium size city in… let’s say Vermont. The need for obfuscation will become clear.

The city administrator is unhappy with one of the editorial policies of the local newspaper publisher. (It’s a one paper town) In order to be published, letters to the editor must be signed. But comments on the newspaper website can be anonymous.

Recent comments on one story had gotten kind of personal (toward the administrator). When he complained to the publisher, pointing out the inconsistency of the print and online policy, the publisher explained it was a matter of cross-promoting the two, and readers online expected to be able to share their views anonymously.

I suggested my friend tell his side of the story on his blog. “I really can’t do that,” he explained. “I need the paper’s support in the upcoming annexation vote.”

I’ve never given much thought to the tradition of newspapers endorsing candidates and issues. And I struggle to understand how it’s a good idea. Once the paper takes a position, let’s say “Yes On Annexation,” how can the readers have any confidence in their reporting of the issue going forward?

It seems to me they can wield this kind of power for only as long as they are one of limited sources of news and information in that community.

And if their editorial support for a candidate or issue is pure, how can it be used to intimidate those who call them out in public, on a blog, for example. Seems like you’d have to keep your position secret until the last minute in order to keep folks in line.

If this is the way the game works, I don’t think the public is well served. It’s all about power. Power of those who govern. Power of the media who help them get elected. Where’s the power for the little guy?

I have no idea what will replace the dying newspaper business. But I bet it won’t have this kind of don’t-piss-us-off-or-you’ll-regret-it power. And we’ll see soon enough.

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