Why newspapers shouldn't pick candidates.
The end of the political season is in sight, and voters are preparing to reap, mow, and weed out the various candidates and propositions on the ballot. It is a San Francisco election like most others, the one minor difference being that this year SF Weekly isn't endorsing in races or ballot measures.
In fact, SF Weekly is the only institution in the city that has an abiding interest in politics but won't tell you who to vote for. Every union, from the plumbers to the police, has summoned the candidates, poking and probing and sizing them up like pliant hogs-bound-for-slaughter. San Francisco Democrats, who have partitioned themselves into as many clubs as can be found in Major League Baseball, run the same drill, trading campaign promises and future patronage postings in return for endorsements.
If San Francisco's politically savvy electorate isn't already feeling tick-bit by the endorsement process, it will be soon. The editorial pages of the Chronicle and Examiner, those twin mattresses of platitudes upon which readers rest their weary heads in the rush from the front page to the Sports section, are due to give yea and nay to the races for mayor, DA, and sheriff. They'll advise voters on Propositions A through O, as will the broadcasters, the San Francisco Bay Guardian, and other city weeklies.
With so many opinions from which to choose, scores of political endorsements clogging the body politic like so much arrowroot, it may come as a relief to some readers that SF Weekly spurns the beauty pageant, says no to the straight slate, and feeds the political litmus tests to the Bunsen burner. Yet the tradition of newspaper endorsements remains so integral to the Bay Area's political culture that some are struck woozy to learn that this paper has declined to make any fall picks.
This policy has produced puffs of outrage from some quarters, mostly the political camps. But at least the paper is consistent. When it changed hands eight months ago, weekly editorials were dropped, the editorial "we" was banished, and the freed-up editorial hole was shifted to news and features. The goal wasn't to excise opinions from SF Weekly's pages; there's still plenty of point-of-view journalism in the interpretive and investigative reporting published here. Rather, the ambition was to include more points of view than just a progressive/liberal (or right/reactionary) agenda can accommodate. Just because politicians organize themselves by left and right doesn't mean a newspaper has to--or should.
The attempt to build a narrow consensus for every issue and candidate tends to turn editorial pages and positions to mush. Or, in those rare cases where one editorial voice reigns supreme, those pages sound like the resident drunk at the CNN bar & grill. Is it any wonder that many readers don't give a rusty thumbtack as to what newspaper editorial writers think, and that only candidates and pols truly covet the corsage of endorsements?
The truth is, the bloom went off editorial endorsements decades ago. Today, they read like a sorry anachronism from the last century, when most American newspapers were either party organs or captives of a political movement. The modest goal of many of those papers was to instruct and incite the aliterate and the immigrant into political action with narrow and emotional messages. Election-year pulpit thumping mostly preached to the converted, the value of which should never be underestimated. If not for Sunday sermons to reinforce the basic catechisms, we would have fewer Christians.
But modern readers, better educated and more independent than their forefathers, are less likely to be stirred by emotional appeals. In the old days, most political battles simply pitted labor against capital, which is less true today than ever before. The mugwumpery of contemporary readers is better served by newspapers that seek no friends in high places. A newspaper should learn something and tell readers about it: Opinions are inferior to information. The easiest way to fill column inches is for a newspaper to download what it "believes," or as Alexander Cockburn puts it, "Remember the old rule: Comment is free, facts are expensive."
At SF Weekly, reporters write what they know--not what they expect you to believe. This week's 8,600-word cover story on Willie Brown is a prime example of that philosophy. Read in conjunction with a similarly sized SF Weekly profile of Roberta Achtenberg and a shorter piece on Joel Ventresca, the Brown story presents the sort of expensive facts and information that should help readers make up their own minds about which mayoral candidate to vote for. (Forgive us if we haven't given you the soup to nuts on Frank Jordan; if you don't know what you think of him after the last four years, then heaven help you.)
This anti-endorsement view is not universal, even at SF Weekly, where some writers and editors legitimately covet the access that the endorsement process offers them. But a newspaper should be a critic to power, not its adjunct. Unless a paper runs a separately staffed editorial page, its endorsements merge the publication's fortune with that of the candidate, and abrogate its essential independence. Yielding the personal responsibility to cast an intelligent ballot to a newspaper is the lazy man's way out. Readers should vote their conscience, not "ours."
The dog-and-pony procession of candidates and proposition activists before editorial boards has become a huge and howling joke. The butt of the joke isn't the candidates, however, who know that their bowing and scraping for Election Day favors may pay off. The butt isn't the voters, who heavily discount the plugs. The joke is on the fat-ass publishers who are born with unappeasable egos, and who act out their avarice at the dining table and in their wild swilling at the bar. The process is more about politicians validating the press than about the press validating politicians.
(Reprinted from SF Weekly with permission.)