While I was out enjoying a couple of Helena High soccer wins this afternoon, on what might have been the first and last day of fall, I found myself thinking more about the decision some Montana papers have made to give up endorsing candidates in political contests. Both the Independent Record and Great Falls Tribune have announced plans to replace endorsements, the IR with puff pieces from the candidates about themselves and the Tribune with enhanced voter guides.
In the current election season, Montana Republicans are likely to be offended by meaningful editorial endorsements, but that’s a problem of their own making. They’ve nominated a slate of statewide candidates who have either demonstrated a total incapacity to perform the duties of the office they seek or an absolute dearth of knowledge and experience necessary to fill those roles.
What’s most troubling is the reason the Tribune offered for its decision. According to Publisher and Editor Jim Strauss, the Tribune decided to abandon endorsements because readers couldn’t believe that the same newspaper could run and editorial endorsement and fair news coverage of political candidates. As he put it, “we don’t want to undermine the hard work of our reporters covering the races.”
That’s simply an entirely fatuous argument. To suggest that editorial endorsements compromise the appearance of news fairness at the same time we’re asked to believe that advertising doesn’t compromise coverage of any number of stories is absolutely absurd. Taken to its logical endpoint, how can Strauss defend running advertisements from Benefis Hospital in Great Falls while there’s an ongoing dispute about Board compensation and ER practices raging in the community?
Either the newspaper editors have the fortitude to offer uncompromised news judgment or they do not—and as a subscriber to the Tribune and frequent reader of the Independent Record, it’s troubling that both papers seem to be suggesting they lack the integrity to separate fair news coverage from outside influence.
It’s evident that the decisions to end endorsements actually have little to do with concern about editorial interference and everything to do with lacking the courage to potentially offend a reader or advertiser. But that is precisely the role of the editorial writer: to use facts to challenge readers to see issues in another light, instruct, and even offend.
In the current election season, Montana Republicans are likely to be offended by meaningful editorial endorsements, but that’s a problem of their own making. They’ve nominated a slate of statewide candidates who have either demonstrated a total incapacity to perform the duties of the office they seek or an absolute dearth of knowledge and experience necessary to fill those roles. Could any serious endorsement really defend giving Colonel Skees a platform from which to spew his secessionist nonsense in the Auditor’s office, a position for which he has no relevant experience? Or providing Sandy Welch the power to reform Montana schools without any understanding of the complexity of the job?
Of course not—and no editorial board worthy of the name could defend those picks. The failure of the Republicans to choose qualified candidates not only doesn’t excuse the decision to end endorsements, but it mandates a strong editorial response.
The races that actually feature two qualified candidates even better demonstrate the need for newspaper endorsements. An editorial board could come to the (mistaken, in my view) opinion that Rick Hill would be a better governor than Steve Bullock. Such an endorsement would be dissected by blogs like this one, critiqued in comments and letters to the editor, and debated by the public—as any important question should be.
It would do what newspapers are supposed to do: generate the kind of political dialogue necessary for democratic institutions to flourish. Far from closing off debate, it would open one up.
Abandoning the critical role newspapers play as generators of discussion in small communities like Helena and Great Falls will impoverish our political discourse and solidify the role of the empty sophistry and virulent bile that characterizes so much of today’s political landscape.
Want an antidote to the sea of inane and misleading ads? It’s a well-informed board of community members forcing candidates to answer hard questions before carefully deciding which candidate to endorse.
A future in which newspapers lack the courage to take controversial editorial stands means far worse than being subjected to vacuous pieces like Sometimes Social Media Mistakes Are Just Mistakes and We hope BCBS deal is good for Montana. It means newspapers abandoning an essential First Amendment role, a role that helped end acceptance of slavery, discrimination against women, and even misguided wars. It means a future in which controversial commentary and intellectual risk taking leave the daily reading lives of thousands of Montanans.
It’s a tragedy—for the political process and for the diminishing integrity of our press. I can only hope that these Montana newspapers, these Montana institutions, reconsider—and realize just how important endorsements (and challenging opinions) are.