Two prominent Florida newspapers appear to have thrown in the towel with a joint decision to “no longer endorse candidates in the races for governor, senate or president, including this year’s races.”
The explanation given by the newspaper for this decision, however, does not make sense. While state and national polls predict big wins for Republicans, the race is far from over. And so it is Orlando Sentinel and its sister publication, South Florida Sun-Sentinel, blaming the decision on the new dictates of “corporate leaders” at hedge fund headquarters Alden Global Capital. In a joint statement released earlier this month, both Guard editorial boards attempted to explain that the decision was “company-wide,” meaning that all Alden Global Capital newspapers would follow the same endorsement policy.
On the face of it, at least, the decision is national in scope. With more than 200 newspapers under its ownership, Alden Global Capital is the 2nd largest newspaper publisher in the United States. So a national corporate decree stripping once-autonomous editorial boards of their endorsement power in the state’s most high-profile contests is almost certainly a bitter pill to swallow, especially here in Florida, where there are national ramifications beyond this year’s election cycle.
So what led to Alden’s decision to strip Orlando and the Sun Sentinel board of directors their traditional authority to approve? The explanation given to readers is a meandering letter that never quite satisfies:
“Since Alden Global Capital acquired Tribune Publishing in May 2021, its leaders have made it clear that they support robust local editorial sites. This is the first time they have asserted their traditional role, but this debate about which races to support is in the papers every day before the election. The company’s leaders acted out of concern that the races for president, U.S. Senate and governor were becoming national and that our editorial advocacy was strongest locally.”
What should we take from this? That Sentinel’s editorial defense of national issues too weak to be taken seriously?
That’s what a Democratic political strategist does Steve Schale thinks. And he should know about the importance of newspaper endorsements in campaigns as well as anyone. Schale directed Barack Obama Florida presidential campaign in 2008 and served as a senior adviser for re-election in 2012. With that resume, Schale may be one of the few Democratic strategists in Florida with more wins than losses. But as a political junkie, Schale thinks newspaper endorsements have little value in modern campaigns.
“The days of relevant recommendations in big races are long gone. Let’s put it this way, I didn’t notice if they supported it or not [until asked to comment for this story]and I’m a hack who generally lives and breathes this stuff,” says Schale. “I’m not even sure it matters at the local level. I’m much more likely to read the candidates’ statements when the paper makes them than I am to editorialize at the races.’
It’s hard to tell if the editorial boards on one of Florida Sentinels I agree with Schale. In the following paragraph of their explanation of why they have abandoned the traditional role of opinion leaders, the apologetics continued with more “corporate” finger-pointing:
“Companies’ leaders also worry that the culture wars are losing common ground. We have all seen society become more polarized. Look at what’s happened since Florida’s 2018 gubernatorial election. Could we have imagined we’d be so deeply divided over how to handle the pandemic that we’d see screaming parents being dragged out of school board meetings? Or that partisan voices on both sides of the divide would take turns casting the police and doctors as villains or heroes?
Now the editorial board, speaking for their corporate masters, seems to be talking out of both sides of their collective mouths. On the one hand, they say, statewide contests for senator, governor and president have grown in importance and become too big for local newspapers to issue endorsements of any significance. But at the same time, local leaders are pledging to the paper that they will continue to wade into national controversies, such as the COVID-19 pandemic response or school masking policies.
One possible factor they didn’t mention: their abysmal support record over the past decade. Most of Florida’s major newspapers have leaned more and more to the left in recent years and become too predictable. The Orlando Sentinelfor example, she has been out of touch with the rest of the state since 2010, when she began a remarkable losing streak, picking off three straight Democratic losers: Alex Sink, Charlie Crist and Andrew Gillum. But it wasn’t always like that. After the successful support of the Democrat Lawton Chiles for re-election in 1992, the paper endorsed the Republican Jeb Bush and yes, Charlie Crist when he was still pretending to be a Republican in 2006.
These posts, however flawed and out of line with the rest of the state, still matter because they help inform the public about the views of those who bring us the news. Newspapers are not and have never been objective purveyors of facts. All have political views and editorial leanings on their reporting. As opinion leaders in your community, and indeed across the state, it’s helpful to know where you stand on the big issues and the big political contests.
Another factor: declining Republican participation in the editorial board process. In 2010, Rick Scott famously declined invitations from 17 editorial boards, and all 17 ended up endorsing his opponent, Alex Sink. Which one did they have to choose from? Scott ended up winning without a single newspaper endorsement, weakening the argument that newspaper endorsements are necessary to win an election. Of course Scott enjoyed a financial advantage over his opponent and didn’t need any “free publicity” from the paper, but the trend of Republicans insulting editorial boards before they could disparage Republicans definitely took off after that point.
Today, other news outlets, including Gannett, complain about cost versus ROI on their opinion pages. And putting together an editorial board interview with a high-profile candidate isn’t cheap or easy. Perhaps newspapers need to abandon the idea of meeting each candidate in person and simply make decisions based on all available information.
And if they want to be relevant, they need to stick their noses out and take a stand on the big questions and the big problems.
“I think if news organizations want to call themselves relevant at all, they need to improve their content, including recommendations with detailed reasons,” he said. Dr. Ed Moore, partner of All Things Florida Consulting and former president of the Florida Association of Independent Colleges and Universities. “Print media seems to have lost its place in political discourse.”
They really do. And in some cases they seem to have given it up willingly.