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The Cold Filtered Ramblings of Gene Mueller

The death of the JS political endorsement

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The Milwaukee Journal/Sentinel is done making political endorsements.

No longer will its editorial page take apart races, local and national, list the pluses/minuses of various candidates and then render a choice. 

Editorial board editor David Haynes told me Friday on Wisconsin's Morning News  (and repeated in Sunday's paper) that he wants independent opinion pages that offer a marketplace of ideas.   

Haynes says political endorsements put the paper's independence at risk.  "Believe me," he writes. "Nowhere in my job description does it say that I should help politicians get elected.   Yet, that's exactly what some readers believe.  They remember that we recommended Gov. Scott Walker or former Sen. Russ their minds, the endorsements color everything we do, no matter how often we criticize the folks we recommend.  To these readers, our mission is suspect and some of them confuse our political news coverage with our editorial recommendations."

This just in, Dave, but that isn't going to stop with an end to endorsements.   To devotees of conservative talk radio, you are already being painted with various brushes, already accused of having contrary missions, convicted of misguided coverage and an agenda contrary to all that's right and good.

JS endorsements were craved and considered valuable by those who got them, minimized by candidates who don't.  And, I've seen the paper's editorial support used as a weapon, the candidate who wore the endorsement accused of being the paper's toady and a tool of it's suspect mission.   Which is all the more reason to keep doing them.

The editorial board has access to candidates, the ability to question and vet all who are seeking office, from those of the major parties to those who run the most miniscule of independent efforts.  It was the JS board that exposed Herman Cain during the Wisconsin primary.   And, as the Poynter Institute's Al Tompkins pointed out during a Friday interview on Wisconsin's Morning News, a paper's editorial staff provides an irreplaceable service in local elections by providing that same scrutiny to those seeking spots on boards of education, common councils and village boards.   These are races that often don't get enough attention, yet the paper has the space and resources to do the vetting. 

"Endorsements are a relic of a time when every town had more than one newspaper, of a time long before the wide river of commentary now available to anyone with a smartphone."   Just what this world needs in this digital age--more commentary left to any chucklehead with a keyboard who can make up whatever he or she wants without fear of scrutiny, accountability or even the most basic fact-check.   A newspaper political endorsement carries heft and should be based on sit-down interviews with candidates, as opposed to the average blog which is usually no more than someone's opinion (this one included).  At a time when more and more readers/viewers/listeners seek echo chambers which give them 24/7 access to people who share their beliefs rather than challenge them or even offer a modest comparrision of differing opinions, is this really the time to offer them one less informed observation?

The newspaper business is changing.  Operations grow smaller as readership declines and publications turn to digital formats to distribute their work, all under the pressure of trying to generate the same volume of information with fewer reporters while finding new revenue streams.   The editorial endorsement is something that doesn't need to die off in the process.   If anything, amid all the cacophony and bloviation, we need more informed opinion in the think-place, not less. 

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