Undecided voters looking to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review’s editorial board for guidance in this year’s elections won’t get much help.
The newspaper has decided to do away with telling its readers who they should support for president or any of the down-ballot local races, says Lori Falce, community engagement editor for Trib Total Media.
“When I came on, I specifically said in my interview that I don’t believe in endorsement,” Falce wrote in an email. “I think it’s our job to inform, and we need to be able to do so impartially.”
But endorsements this election cycle still make the news.
New Hampshire’s otherwise conservative Union Leader endorsed a Democrat for president for the first time in maybe more than one hundred years, saying they have significant policy disagreements with Joe Biden but they have found him “to be a caring, compassionate and professional public servant.”
A few other national newspapers have bucked their past performance to endorse Biden for president after backing others four years ago: The Chicago Tribune had backed Libertarian Gary Johnson, while the The Topeka Capital-Journal in Kansas had previously endorsed Republican Donald Trump.
The Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Washington flipped the other way, endorsing Trump this time around, while backing Democrat Hillary Clinton in 2016.
“This is an election that pits a wretched human being whose policies and instincts for helping America thrive are generally correct against a doddering, doting uncle who would hand out gifts the nation can’t afford in order to win people’s love,” the newspaper wrote in endorsing Trump.
The Hill newspaper in Washington has been keeping track of newspaper endorsements and gives the overwhelming lead to Biden by a margin of 119 to six. But then Clinton had similar appeal among newspaper editors four years ago.
The New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) made news when it broke tradition and for the first time in its 208-year history came out against a presidential candidate. In an editorial signed by 34 editors, the NEJM said the Trump administration had responded so poorly to the coronavirus pandemic that they “have taken a crisis and turned it into a tragedy.”
Locally, the Post-Gazette’s editorial director Keith Burris (who had been executive editor as well until last month) declined to say whether the newspaper might yet make an endorsement for president. The last time around, the PG sidestepped the issue by giving readers a 12-point guide for making up their own minds around values, issues and leadership.
The newspaper did, however, lay down a marker this time in favor of Republican challenger Sean Parnell over incumbent Democrat Rep. Conor Lamb in the 17th District, south of the city. Burris did not reply to emailed questions about the newspaper’s process.
By making a choice for any elected official, newspapers put themselves at risk of looking too partisan, the Trib’s Falce said. Before he died in 2014, the Trib’s conservative owner Richard Scaife oversaw an editorial board that routinely endorsed Republicans for president such as Mitt Romney in 2012 and John McCain in 2008.
“In my opinion, endorsement can give the appearance of partisanship,” Falce said, “and readers should never think that a news agency is covering a leader unfairly — whether too kindly or too harshly — because of publicly stated support or opposition to that person’s campaign. I prefer to take stands on individual issues.”
The Columbia Journalism Review recently pushed back on the idea of doing away with newspaper editorials, saying that they uphold a “tradition of civic engagement and debate” whether voters pay attention or not.
Falce takes a more egalitarian approach: “In short, we endorse the voters and the process.”
Comings & Goings
The Post-Gazette’s new executive editor Stan Wischnowski has been in town for just a month and already he’s bringing the “fresh approach” that we predicted. He has hired Michael Sallah, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, to serve as senior investigations editor. Sallah most recently worked at BuzzFeed News.
Former PG reporter Adam Smeltz announced on Twitter that he’s coming back to the newspaper after a stint in public relations with the RW Jones Agency in Philadelphia.
The founding director of the Center for Media Innovation at Point Park University, Andrew Conte writes the On Media column at NEXTpittsburgh with support from The Heinz Endowments. You can find all of his columns here, and you may reach him at PittsburghPublicEditor@gmail.com.