It’s town election season, and there are contested select board seats in both Provincetown and Wellfleet this spring. The Independent isn’t endorsing any of them. And I don’t mean that as an insult. So far, we’ve decided we’d rather not endorse candidates.
The history of political endorsements by newspapers is somewhat checkered. In 1897, nearly all of New York’s newspapers endorsed candidates who went on to lose. “What a hollow sham the boasted power of the press is,” wrote The Journalist, a trade publication.
Nevertheless, many good newspapers, including the New York Times, continue to endorse candidates in national and local elections. “Swaying votes is only one reason for endorsing, and arguably not the most important,” wrote John McCormick, editorial page editor of the Chicago Tribune in the Columbia Journalism Review. Endorsements “explain to the world what that publication is, what it advocates, how it thinks, what principles it holds dear,” he argued.
But many journalists have come to see editorial endorsements as a liability, according to a report for the Nieman Foundation by researchers Gregory Perreault and Volha Kahanovich. Reporters told them that readers don’t always see the distinction between editorial opinions and their news stories — which they work hard to make unbiased. At least some reporters feel that endorsements contribute to people’s view that publications have an agenda.
Readers’ supposed inability to distinguish between news and opinion was the reason the Cape Cod Times gave when it stopped publishing any editorials at all three years ago. That’s a shame.
Newspapers need to report facts — but being a journalist also means making judgments and sometimes taking stands. That’s one reason we decided to establish the Independent as a for-profit business, not as a nonprofit (although we do have a nonprofit partner, the Local Journalism Project, with an educational mission).
Nonprofit news organizations — a growing trend — are prevented by law from endorsing political candidates or taking positions on specific pieces of legislation, including ballot questions and town meeting articles.
In one sense, we are in favor of anyone who runs for local office, because having choices is so much better than having none. But even though the Independent has not, in its first three and a half years of publication, endorsed anyone seeking public office, we want to preserve our option to do so someday.
This local political season, we have once again focused on reporting the candidates’ stories and positions on the issues. We profiled the two Wellfleet Select Board candidates last week, and this week you’ll find profiles of the four Provincetown hopefuls.
Join us at the Crown & Anchor this Thursday at 6, when the Independent and our friends at Wake Up! in Provincetown will co-host a candidates’ forum. And don’t forget to vote on Monday, May 1 in Wellfleet and on Tuesday, May 9 in Provincetown.