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First, they remind people that elections aren't just media spectacle; at some point, as citizens, people also need to make up their minds, because their civic duty requires them not just to allow information to flood over them, but to exercise their judgment.
In that respect, it doesn't matter whom the paper supports; the fact that it accepts the obligation to make a choice is what's praiseworthy.
Second, endorsements close the circuit between knowledge and action: The purpose of media political coverage isn't just to inform, it's to enable a civic engagement, not to please us as consumers, but to help us act as citizens. The endorsements don't seek agreement; they demand action.
So, what endorsements bring to our attention is that amid the ceaseless media clatter of fact, opinion, accusation, exhortation, and pageantry, there comes a moment when each of us has a duty to decide and to act. That's a big deal. It's why, on balance, newspaper endorsements are a good thing, and it's why the failure of Internet-based news sites to carry on that tradition is a pity.
Of course, they don't want to. Newspapers never did, either. Endorsements never made marketplace sense. They always irritated some portion of the readership. They routinely drove off advertisers. They fractured staffs that were otherwise chummy and collegial. They left some readers convinced of bias in news coverage. In short, they've always been a pain in the neck.
And they have less of a place than ever in an age when media define their value by how cleverly they pick up, repackage, and relay stuff around an astounding interactive emporium that is spectacularly self-absorbed--and where offline engagement of any kind is, at best, an optional side-trip.
So, if newspapers remain defiantly out of step by persisting with their endorsements, I'd say they deserve our thanks. We're all the better for it.
Edward Wasserman is Knight professor of journalism ethics at Washington and Lee University. He wrote this column for The Miami Herald.