On this last episode, we look back on 23 years of joyous, difficult and always informative conversation.
It’s primary season in Virginia, which means that many voters are turning to a variety of information sources to help them distinguish between candidates in local races.
One old standby: political endorsements from editorial boards at local news outlets, whose newsrooms also seek to cover these races objectively.
What is the thought process that goes into making those endorsements? And how do publications distinguish between their news and opinion functions during election season? We’ll discuss.
Produced by Margaret Barthel
- Fred Hiatt Editorial Page Editor and Columnist, The Washington Post; @hiattf
- Andrew Dupuy Contributor and Member, Elections Committee, Greater Greater Washington; @adup512
- Nikki Usher Associate Professor of Media and Public Affairs, George Washington University; incoming Associate Professor of Media and Communications Research, University of Illinois; @nikkiusher
KOJO NNAMDIWelcome back. Virginia voters head to the polls for primaries next week. Every seat in the general assembly is up in November. Political endorsements from local publications are a staple of elections, but they're also a bit of a black box. Who exactly weighs in on the endorsements and what are the criteria that go into a candidate endorsement? Joining us to discuss this is Fred Hiatt. He is the editorial page editor at the Washington Post. He joins us from studios at the Post. Fred Hiatt, thank you for joining us.
FRED HIATTThanks for having me, Kojo.
NNAMDICan you walk us through the Washington Post endorsement process? What are the different sources of information you are taking into account when you're deciding your stance on a race?
HIATTYou know, it varies a little bit, national, local, different races, but I would say in local races we do a lot of reporting. We always look at a candidate's website and what their positions are. And then we try to talk to all the candidates in the race, either inviting them in to meet with our board or having a phone conversation with one member of the board, who then reports back to all of us. So it depends a little bit on the stakes, but we try to talk to everybody involved before we come to a decision.
NNAMDIWho makes the final call on which candidate to endorse? How does that work?
HIATTI mean, ultimately I'm responsible, but we have a board with a bunch of people and I always try to come to a consensus. You know, one of the fun things about running an editorial board is -- and at the Post in particular, we have people, who aren't, I would say, all in locked step. We have various perspectives. And so one of the fun things is the discussions we have, the arguments we have and trying to come to decisions, and this isn't just an endorsement, it's in general, that aren't kind of a lowest common denominator, but that are a consensus that reflects the views of everybody and hopefully takes us to a higher place.
NNAMDIObviously it involves a lot of meetings (laugh). Do you consider endorsements to be part of the Post journalistic mission?
HIATTI think it's -- so I'd step back. You know, I don't think of us as king makers or people who are going to decide who are going to be -- that any voter's going to read our editorial and say, oh okay, therefore I'm voting for this person. I think endorsements are something we do because, you know, we care about the community, we care about the future of the community. Who gets elected is important and my goal is if we do our job right, which is to do good reporting and to offer sound argumentation, that we can be one useful point of reference for voters as they make up their minds recognizing that today, more than ever, they've got a lot of points of reference. And so I guess in that sense you would say it's part of our mission, but I don't love that word but, you know, I think it's part of our responsibility.
NNAMDIAlso joining me in studio is Andrew Dupuy. He is a contributor and member of the Elections Committee. Andrew, thank you for joining us.
ANDREW DUPUYGood afternoon, Kojo.
NNAMDIGreater Greater Washington just started putting out voter guides and endorsements last election cycle and you've got a unique structure for how you do it. What is the Elections Committee and how does it work?
DUPUYThe Elections Committee was something that Greater Greater Washington, which is a local blog that highlights affordable, walkable, transit-connected communities in the Washington Metro area, added last year as an additional service to our readers to highlight candidates' positions on the issues that are important to us like affordable housing, biking and walking, public transit, equity and inclusiveness in the city context.
DUPUYWe have an all-volunteer Election Committee that is composed of people, who live primarily in the area that we're covering, like Virginia this year, and who helps come up with some questions for the questionnaire. We distribute them to candidates and then we all rate them and compare answers so we can come to, like Fred said, a near consensus on deciding whom to endorse.
NNAMDIWhy not stop at the information in voter guides? What's the added value of an endorsement?
DUPUYI think, you know, we're spending additional time that the average voter might not have to really dig deeper into their answers and cover candidate forums and other things and sort of take it altogether and issue, who we think is going to be the biggest champion for affordable housing and transit and walkability in the area. Certainly our readers are more than able to draw a different conclusion and we try to provide some of the answers from the questionnaires so they can draw their own conclusions as well.
NNAMDINikki Usher is an associate professor of media and public affairs at George Washington University. She's an incoming associate professor of media and communications research at the University of Illinois. She joins us in studio. Nikki, thank you for joining us.
NIKKI USHERThanks for having me.
NNAMDIWhat do we know and what do we not know about how much political endorsements from the press actually matter in an election?
USHERSo there is -- most of the research is on presidential endorsements. We know relatively less about municipal endorsements. It seems that with presidential endorsements the research suggests that if the endorsement coincides with your view, you might have a slight budge. But again, a lot of this research is from the nineties and a less crowded media environment. So it actually needs a bunch of updating. That said, since the nineties, 70 percent of news organizations have decided to stop making presidential endorsements.
USHERAnd so for as far as local municipal elections, what matters is that often editorial boards and local news are the only people invested enough to actually bother to go out and ask candidates. And so often for local elections, this is an essential source of information for people.
NNAMDII was curious about whether there's a distinction to be made between endorsements in presidential elections and endorsements in presidential primaries, because everybody knows that the New Hampshire union leaders tends to have a significant effect in the presidential primaries. So is there a distinction to be made there?
USHERSo with the early primary states, the reason that those endorsements matter so much is it actually sets an agenda for the process tone, much less the voting nationwide. It may have more of an effect in terms of voting decisions made by early primary states.
NNAMDIAndrew, what are you looking for in the candidates you endorse? Do you have criteria?
DUPUYI don't know that there's an explicit criteria, but we look at their answers, we ask them what they're -- we ask different sets of questions for different offices. So in this year's Virginia elections we asked a different suite of questions to the Fairfax County board of supervisors candidates than we did for the general assembly candidates, for example.
DUPUYWe're going to ask them about their plans for transportation, their plans to increase housing and increase affordable housing. And then each of the members usually rates them independently so then before we come together to make a decision we've all had a chance to analyze it. And we can look at what everybody thinks about the particular candidates' answers.
NNAMDIFred Hiatt, are there common qualities, positions or experiences that the editorial board typically favors in a candidate?
HIATTThat's a good question. You know, part of our decision, of course, is based on what their positions are on issues that are important to us. But part is also based on, you know, what we think of the caliber of the person. Are they honest, are they ethical, are they smart, are they qualified? And over the years, you know, we have certainly -- I mean, every time we make an endorsement we're endorsing somebody, who doesn't agree with us on everything. And over the years we've endorsed lots of people who we disagree with on lots of things.
HIATTI think one of the keys is to try and be as up front with the reader as possible about that, you know, why are we endorsing this person? Where do we agree, where don't we agree? And if we disagree on some things, why do we nonetheless think they would be an asset in the city council or the legislature or whatever the race happens to be.
NNAMDICarlos in Potomac, Maryland I think wants to ask a question about when you don't endorse. Carlos, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
CARLOSHello. So, yeah, I'm in Potomac and there was an important race last year where, you know, the guy from Total Wine was running and they put a lot of ads in your paper. I know you have a firewall and it's not supposed to affect things, but you just didn't endorse in that race and you endorsed in all the other races. It was very -- you know, to a lot of voters it was suspicious. And I wish you could clear that up, because it didn't make any sense that you wouldn't endorse or even say anything about that race when you said stuff about every other race.
HIATTSo the guy you referred to we actually endorsed against in his first race. So you're right, whatever people do with advertising has no effect on what I do. And I'm lucky to work at a place where nobody from the business side has ever once come to me and said, oh you know, so-and-so or such-and-such a company is an advertiser. You ought to take that into account in your editorials. It just never happens.
HIATTOn races where we do and don't endorse -- I mean, for me this is a tough thing, because I don't have enough people to do a fair job on every race that comes along, particularly in a year when, you know, every state legislative office may be open and county executives and county boards. And it hurts me that we can't, because I think there are some readers who look and say, oh, how come there's no endorsement in this race? I could've used some help here. But I'd rather not endorse then do a half --
NNAMDIDoes the editorial board do its own independent reporting before you decide on an endorsement?
HIATTYes, absolutely. I mean, I don't think we ever write an editorial of any kind without our own reporting. You know, often we start with the excellent reporting the Post news side does, but then we do our own calls and our own research and it's time consuming to do it right. So sometimes there are just races that we don't have the resources for and occasionally there's a race where, you know -- I mean, so we try and do it where we think we can have an impact, where we think it's going to be maybe close, where we think readers may be looking for guidance. And, you know, I wish we could do more.
NNAMDIWe've got to take a short break. When we come back we'll continue this conversation about local news making political endorsements. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking about local newspapers making political endorsements with Fred Hiatt, editorial page editor of the Washington Post, Andrew Dupuy, contributor and member of the Elections Committee put together by Greater Greater Washington. Nikki Usher is an associate professor of media and public affairs at George Washington University. And joining us now by phone is Caroline Jones, the managing editor of the Washington City Paper. Caroline, thank you for joining us.
CAROLINE JONESThank you for having me.
NNAMDISometimes you endorse candidates and sometimes you create a voter guide. What's the difference and what's the thought process there?
JONESSo City Paper has a history sort of going back -- we've been around for about 40 years -- of endorsing candidates in D.C. council elections and other local municipal races. And sort of in the past four or five years we've realized that we don't quite have the resources to always endorse candidates. We either have a committee of one, and that doesn't feel like it's totally representative of what we're seeing from our readers and in the city as a whole. And we're also seeing a trend of incumbents, who are unchallenged. And so endorsing in those races feels a bit strange. If you can't endorse the incumbent and there aren't really challengers, what's the point of having an endorsement?
JONESSo we have switched, in a way, to creating a voter guide and giving all of the candidates, whether they're really small or whether they're Muriel Bowser, a chance to answer the same questions and just print those for our readers. And we feel like that does, in a way, a better service to our readers so we can have them going to the polls informed, because what we want is for our readers to be civically engaged.
NNAMDIHow much do concerns about blurring the lines between reported news versus opinion factor into that decision?
JONESI think that's an interesting question. I think it sort of depends. We try and put the voter guide in the candidates' words so that there's not a lot of reporting or editorializing. It's really just the news that they're giving you straight ahead.
NNAMDIThank you so much for joining us.
NNAMDICaroline Jones is managing editor of Washington City Paper. Nikki Usher has making the distinction between opinion and reporting gotten more difficult in the digital age?
USHERThis is one of the hardest things that a newspaper or any news organization has to deal with, the fact that people are getting content in lots of distributed ways. They'll see one story on Facebook. Maybe they'll go to a home page, but a home page editor's trying to optimize web traffic. So we know opinions and editorials generally, because they have opinions, tend to get a bit more so that might be optimized on a home page versus a news story.
USHERAnd I think probably what most people don't even realize is that there is a difference and we know, based on an API survey, American Press Institute survey that less than a third of people actually are able to differentiate. And then about 40 percent of those people feel comfortable doing that online, the people, who can differentiate. So it's very concerning on some level that it's not quite clear.
NNAMDIFred Hiatt, do you worry that content, editorial and news is all jumbled together on this online grab bag as opposed to visually organized into different sections in a print newspaper?
HIATTSure, I worry. I think Nikki states it well. I'd say a couple things. One is, it's always been an issue. You know, I think there've always been people on the news side, who wish that we wouldn't endorse because their reporters go out and, you know, they say, oh, you're for Al Gore. And they have to say, no, I'm not for Al Gore. That's the people on the editorial side. I have nothing to do with it. So it's always been a challenge for us to make sure that people understand there really is a firewall.
HIATTOn our website we work very hard. Everything that's opinion is labeled opinion. You know, on the home page, I wish they'd maximize us more, Nikki, but whatever's on the home page, if it's opinion it says opinion and that gets carried through the entire site. So it's something we're very aware of. But I think it's a constant challenge to keep in our head to explain to readers, yes, there's a difference.
NNAMDIAndrew Dupuy, in a past life you worked in politics and so you've been on the other side of the table so to speak. Does that experience shape how you approach the endorsement process now?
DUPUYA little bit, yes. I mean, I've been in editorial board meetings with newspapers, not the Washington Post, but similar publications. And I think one way when we've been crafting this, I've tried to be a little more sympathetic to the candidates and to the campaign staff, particularly these local campaigns. They don't have a lot of staff and so I've been -- I don't want to hit them with 40 long questions that they have to answer or where they really feel like they're getting boxed into a corner. We just want to hear what they think about our issues and so we can kind of get them on the record, but we're not trying to play Gotcha with them.
NNAMDIWe got a Tweet from Abby. The Post has faced some scrutiny this week, Fred Hiatt, over its endorsements in the Fairfax County board of supervisors elections. You endorsed all men in those races and two female candidates who did not receive endorsements said they were asked questions about their ability to juggle being mothers with elected office. I know that you have responded to that criticism, but by pointing out that at least one of those candidates, Jeff McKay, was asked a similar kind of question.
NNAMDIWe've got a Tweet from Abby, who says, can Fred Hiatt comment on several female candidates in Fairfax County alleging the editorial board had asked them whether they could balance public service with their motherhood childcare responsibilities and then failed to endorse those women? I know there was one male candidate who said he was not asked that question but, Fred Hiatt, go ahead, please.
HIATTSure. I'm glad you brought it up. It's not several. I think it's two, but in any case it came as a surprise to me when WAMU's reporter called me, because the inferences somehow, did we believe that women with small children are less deserving to be elected. And all you have to do is look at our record of endorsements over the last couple of years to see that that's not true. You know, off the top of my head we've endorsed Jennifer Wexton for many years. Well, she's had kids. Angela Alsobrooks, well, she's had kids. Donna Edwards we started endorsing for congress long ago.
HIATTSo it's demonstrably false and so I'm sorry it was taken this way. You know, a conversation that I heard is trying to just have pleasant small talk at the end as one would with anybody about, oh, you know, what's your family and life is hard for all of us, balancing work and kids and career was obviously taken by these two candidates differently. And I'm sorry for that and in the future --
NNAMDIWell, regardless of whether female and male candidates were both asked questions about their family lives, can you see why that line of inquiry might feel especially loaded for female candidates? Even if it's small talk it's, after all, small talk coming from a member of the editorial board, who is likely to be writing an endorsement.
HIATTYou know, if it were a line of inquiry I could definitely see that. As I said, given that our history of endorsements is very public and very clearly shows we have no bias against fathers or mothers of young children, it just didn't occur to me that small talk at the end of a meeting, after the sort of substance was out of the way would be taken that way. You're right. In the future I will be more careful to either not have that kind of small talk or to make clear it has nothing to do with our endorsement.
NNAMDIOne of the calls we're getting seems to be from Alicia Plerhoples, who is one of the candidates running for chair of the board of supervisors. Alicia Plerhoples, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ALICIA PLERHOPLESHi. Good morning, Kojo. Yes, this is Alicia Plerhoples and I am running for chairman of the board of supervisors. I was interviewed by the Washington Post editorial board. I'd just like to clarify a few things is that one, not all of the candidates in the chairs race were interviewed for the endorsement. And it gave me pause as to whether I should even accept that editorial interview given that I was starting from thinking that I was at a disadvantage, when I was told that only viable candidates were being brought in. And that sometimes they don't go with the status quo. And that was my introduction to the Washington Post editorial board.
ALICIA PLERHOPLESI'd just like to say that I don't think it was not within a line of inquiry. I was still sitting at the table with the five editorial board members across from me when the question was asked, how will I be chairman with two small children.
NNAMDIOkay. Thank you very much for your call and good luck in your candidacy.
NNAMDINikki, some would say it strains for journalistic institutions aiming to be objective to make recommendations to their readership about which candidates to support. Why did newspapers start making political endorsements in the first place?
USHERSo a lot of this is tied up in the modernization of American news, more generally in the shift to mass market news, which had to be more objective in order to get people to buy in of political persuasion. So in about the 1920s the development of editorial page was institutionalized and that was the one place where a publisher could weigh in. And part of this was to sort of make it seem like the news was not held by corporate titans. But the publisher, including at the Washington Post, had a history of weighing in and influencing what those editorials would sound like.
NNAMDIFred Hiatt, to what extent are your publisher and owner today involved in the endorsement process? Does Jeff Bezos care about what candidates the Post editorial board backs?
HIATTHe might care. I hope he cares, but he does not tell me what to do.
NNAMDIOkay. So he's not involved in the process at this point. Andrew, when you're choosing which candidates to endorse and to what extent, to what extent do you weigh the viability of the candidate, because that was one of the comments that our caller raised. Would you ever endorse someone whose candidacy you like, but whose odds of winning were not great?
DUPUYOh, I think we certainly would. If we saw somebody, who was an ardent champion of transit and affordable housing, we would endorse them -- if they were such an ardent champion compared to their opponents we would endorse them because we would see them as a potential champion and we want to elevate that. But it is true that we do consider other factors beyond just the questionnaire. I mean, we have a volunteer committee who has a lot of deep local knowledge in the communities that we're covering and, you know, sometimes people tell us what we want to hear in a questionnaire but it might not square up with their actual voting record, for example.
NNAMDIAnd I know that here we have to make decision all the time about which candidates in the local election that we will interview, because sometimes an individual race has ten candidates. And we have to make a decision about which one of those two or three, four candidates are viable, and so those we interview. The others we ask to submit answers to questions and we go about it in a variety of different ways. But it's often difficult to just get everybody in on the interviews.
NNAMDIJennifer Tweets, such a great topic. How can we make sure there is more information available to voters for all issues at stake in elections, including those races in question that do not get covered currently like down ballot judge and delegate candidates. Fred Hiatt, how do I know who's running for dog catcher in my neighborhood?
HIATT(laugh) You know, it's a good question. We try to do as much as we can on local. I think, as you know, the challenge to local news coverage across the country is something that none of us have really entirely figured out. And it's a challenge to democracy. There are a lot of good websites, like Greater Greater Washington, that are trying to fill in gaps. And we do what we can but I don't have a great answer for it.
HIATTYou know, I would say that one of the things that we try to think about when we're doing editorials is looking at issues that we think are important where a candidate may have been courageous, but where it's not that popular or where people haven't really focused on it. And an editorial is a place where we can highlight a local politician, who has stepped up and taken a hard stand on a difficult issue that might not get that much attention on the news side and say, this candidate deserves a look from you.
NNAMDIDo you think it reflects on the credibility of paper or its alignment with the region if the candidate your endorse doesn't win? First you Fred and then you Andrew.
HIATT(laugh) You know, sometimes we joke, we're better off if our candidate loses, because if they win then we're held responsible for all the terrible things they do over the next four years. But, no, seriously I don't think so. And we don't make our judgments -- I mean, we've endorsed plenty of people, who I understood probably weren't going to win. We don't entirely disregard that but we're looking for the best candidate. And, as I said at the beginning, we're not looking to be the king maker. We recognize that sometimes voters will agree with us and sometimes they won't and we're looking at a lot of different factors.
NNAMDIAlmost out of time. Andrew, how much does it matter to you?
DUPUYI think it more matters their stance and how much they're going to fulfill what they say that they're going to do. I think we're less concerned about whether they win or lose and more that they're going to fulfill their promises.
NNAMDIAndrew Dupuy is a contributor and member of the Elections Committee put together by Greater Greater Washington. Thank you for joining us.
DUPUYThank you, Kojo.
NNAMDIFred Hiatt is the editorial page editor of the Washington Post. Fred, thank you for joining us.
NNAMDINikki Usher's an associate professor of media and public affairs at George Washington University. Thank you for joining us.
NNAMDIWell, it turns out no one's running for dog catcher in my neighborhood. This conversation about editorial boards and endorsements was produced by Margaret Barthel. And our show about the challenges faced by the local LGBTQ community and affordable housing was produced by Mark Gunnery.
NNAMDIComing up tomorrow we'll learn about the history of the Women's Suffrage movement as we mark the 100-year anniversary of women gaining the right to vote in the U.S. And we'll meet three female chefs, who have blazed a path in a male-dominated industry all while helping to make D.C. a food city. That all starts tomorrow at noon. Until then, thank you for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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