Under attack, newspaper endorsements matter more than ever

Perhaps more than any election year in my lifetime, the press has come under intense pressure and attack.

Deemed the “enemy of the people,” the media is being forced to adapt to a political climate in which a significant portion of the people have given up on the idea of truth and facts.

Instead, they adhere to a reality manufactured, by President Donald Trump, who works everyday to erase the lines between objective truth and the lies he tells.

He constantly attacks the media, blames them for the divisions in our country and remains focused on putting the watchdogs of government on a tighter and tighter leash.

The tactics are swimming downstream from the top through state and local politicians and the radio talkers who make their living selling anger on the AM and FM dials.

And it’s caused tension between the news pages and the editorial and opinion pages at newspapers, which are usually run independent of one another.

The haters will say there is no difference between them. But that’s not true.

On Aug. 16, newspapers from Maine to Hawaii pushed back against President Donald Trump’s attacks on “fake news” with editorials speaking up for a free and vigorous press. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

I spent 17 years as a reporter and editor for newspapers in Virginia, Maryland, Washington, D.C., and Maine. I worked on the news side for most of that time, but I also worked as the editorial page editor at the Lewiston Sun Journal in the early 2000s.

When I worked on the news side, I had little appreciation for the opinion pages and their importance. For the most part, I thought they were more trouble than they were worth.

As I tried to cover stories, particularly in politics, the editorial pages kept people mad at me, especially around election time when the pages would endorse candidates.

Then as an editorial page editor and opinion writer, my opinion shifted. I learned that the opinion pages were some of the most read in the paper. Not only did the editorial pages and opinion columns give the newspaper’s editorial board an opportunity to provide important context on the news, the pages were also some of the most interactive in the paper.

Subscribers didn’t just read the opinion pages, they also interacted with them through letters to the editor, OpEd columns and sometimes angry phone calls or threats written in crayon.

In the current climate, it’s harder and harder to work on the opinion pages of a newspaper. Reporters and editors, already under constant fire, would prefer you just shut up so their jobs would be a little bit easier.

Owners face mounting pressure from their peer group and from advertisers.

And when the opinions on the editorial page go against the rich, the powerful and the connected, those folks make their voices heard.

There’s also an existential question all editorial writers and columnists – maybe all journalists – frequently ask: “Does it even matter.”

This year, the Richmond Times Dispatch in Richmond, Virginia, announced that 2018 would be the last year that it would endorse candidates for office on the editorial pages.

In its endorsement this year of Democrat Janet Mills, the Portland Press Herald went to great lengths to explain its process, make the distinction between news and editorial/opinion content and even to admit to the division caused by the endorsements in the newsroom.

“Before we came to a decision, our newsroom leadership asked us not to endorse in this or any race, arguing that when the opinion staff express a preference for a candidate, readers impute a partisan bias to the reporters, photographers and editors, who stay out of politics as a matter of professional discipline,” the newspaper’s editorial board wrote.

The Press Herald made the right decision; the Times Dispatch the wrong one.

I believe that newspaper editorial boards are in a unique position to provide insight and context to the biggest questions of the day, and there are none bigger than who we as voters will choose to elect to office or how we will vote on ballot initiatives.

For those who are seeking a reason to say the media is biased, ending endorsements won’t appease them. The argument is often with the facts and with aggressive coverage, whether it’s on the news pages or in the opinion section.

Agree or disagree, the opinion pages offer a map for members of the community, a way to explain complex issues (like Question 1 on the ballot this year) and to put the experience and access of the editorial board to work for the reader.

To answer the question every reporter and journalist asks: Yes it matters. Now more than ever.

David Farmer

About David Farmer

David Farmer is a political and media consultant in Portland, where he lives with his wife and two children. He was senior adviser to Democrat Mike Michaud’s campaign for governor and a longtime journalist. You can reach him at dfarmer14@hotmail.com.