In Boston mayor’s race, newspaper endorsements a faint voice
Open contest for mayor notable for editorial page silence
“THE PAST ISN’T what it used to be; then again, it never was.” So goes an old saying, and perhaps the same is true for newspaper endorsements in elections.
We might think there was a time when the editorial voice of newspapers carried tremendous weight and tipped election outcomes to candidates receiving the unsigned “voice of God” endorsement of editorial pages. But that impact was probably never as great as some might have imagined, particularly for high-profile races in which voters have made up their own mind.
Still, it’s always interesting to see which way the endorsement winds are blowing, and the Boston mayoral contest offers an interesting window into what seems to be the waning presence of strong endorsement voices in elections.
The Boston Globe, the region’s dominant media player, weighed in last week by endorsing Michelle Wu in her final election showdown with Annissa Essaibi George. It followed the paper’s earlier endorsement in the September preliminary of Andrea Campbell, who finished third and out of the running for the final.
The Boston Herald, which has seen its staffing ranks increasingly depleted, has been strangely silent when it comes to endorsements in the race. The paper did not make an endorsement in the preliminary and has not made one in the final. Editorial page editor Sandra Kent did not return emails sent during each round asking about the paper’s decision to not weigh in.
Wu also won the backing of the Latino community newspaper El Planeta. “Our values of freedom, democracy and tolerance are at stake in our city and in our country” and Wu “will work and fight for those values,” the paper said. It noted that it was only the second time in its 17 years that El Planeta has endorsed a candidate, the other time being for Ed Markey in his 2013 Senate run.
The Dorchester Reporter and Bay State Banner, which have both provided extensive news coverage of the mayor’s race, have not made endorsements. The Reporter weighed in during the last open race for mayor, backing Marty Walsh in 2013. Publisher and executive editor Bill Forry says his thinking is changing on the issue of candidate endorsements.
“While I don’t rule out making an endorsement in local races—and reserve the publisher’s prerogative to do so anytime— I’d say generally that a newsroom like ours can have a far greater impact with consistent, enterprise-driven reporting than with any single endorsement column,” Forry said in an email. “Particularly with a smaller newsroom, it’s better to keep our team unencumbered by the dynamics that an endorsement process can create.”
Dan Kennedy, a journalism professor at Northeastern University, said public attitudes toward the press have played a role in papers being more reluctant to make endorsements. “I think news organizations are more reluctant to endorse than used to be the case, mainly because the public is more skeptical about the media these days and resent being told how to vote,” he said. “A no-endorsement policy makes life easier for reporters, too, since they’re not perceived as being in the bag for whichever candidate their editorial page has decided to back.”In terms of the rationale for editorial backing in an election, Kennedy said papers make endorsements for two reasons: “to express their values and to persuade voters.” He said persuasion works best in low-profile contests where “voters might genuinely want some guidance, such as city council.” He thinks endorsements have no impact in high-profile races where voters have made up their own minds, such as president, US Senate, and governor. “The Boston mayoral race is probably high-profile enough that an endorsement isn’t going to make much of a difference except at the margins,” he said.
Another dynamic at play that seems likely to further reduce the role of media endorsements, said Kennedy, is the growth of nonprofit news outlets in the face of the continued battering of the for-profit business model supporting local newspapers. Such nonprofit outlets, which include public radio stations as well as digital publications such as CommonWealth, can’t make candidate endorsements without jeopardizing their tax-exempt status. “So that’s another force pushing us away from endorsements,” Kennedy said.