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LEXINGTON--Why do newspapers endorse political candidates? At best, it's an archaic practice, a little quaint, a little bizarre.
Other media don't do it. TV and radio news never have, in part because their roots are in over-the-air broadcasting, whose regulatory overlords traditionally frowned on opinion-mongering. Magazines--apart from partisan sheets whose politics are integral to their brands--shy away. Online, today's media are brimming with opinion, but none of the dozen or so Internet-based news sites I frequent explicitly support one candidate or another.
So what's with newspapers? Why is it that every election cycle, they routinely defy their own sinking revenues, shrinking payrolls, reader skepticism, and declining credibility, and tell us how they think we should vote?
And is this a good thing? Is it a neural twitch from a moribund industry that refuses to accept its own irrelevance, or the legacy of a proud tradition of public service?
This year newspaper endorsements have gotten more publicity than usual because a number of papers that supported President Obama in 2008 didn't back him this time. Their reasons varied, but the fact that this change of heart was noted is premised on the belief that newspaper support merits serious attention in a way that, say, backing from movie actors or rock stars does not.
Now, this respect paid to endorsements isn't because anyone believes they actually influence voters, at least on the presidential level. In fact, if there's anything analysts agree on, it's that newspaper recommendations don't move many votes.
Why should they? For starters, voters don't really view newspaper editorial boards as speaking with great authority, leastways not the authority that comes from having better information than the rest of us. Few of them have looked the candidates in the eye and taken their measure. By and large, if you've been paying attention you know about as much as the editorialists do.
Besides, by the time the boards finish stroking their chins it's so late in the campaign season that the kind of person who might still be swayed by an endorsement probably doesn't even read newspapers, and may not have the capacity to fill out a ballot anyway.
So it can't be superior insight or their likely impact on election results that make newspaper endorsements important. But they are important, I think, and for more fundamental reasons.
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.