Newspaper editorials a 19th century nuisance, but is anyone listening?

By Martin Kidston

When I was a kid growing up, my stepfather often warned that I not let my “canary mouth override my alligator ass.” In other words, sometimes it’s a good idea to keep one’s opinions quiet and avoid biting off more than he or she can chew.

I rarely listened, but it might have been good advice for the Missoulian, which is picking up the pieces today from its endorsement of congressional candidate Greg Gianforte on Sunday. The fallout over that endorsement caused a rapid backlash on social media and the cancellation of numerous subscriptions.

For the past 20 years, during each election cycle, I’ve been asked why newspapers still practice the archaic art of endorsing political candidates. My answer has always been “tradition,” one that dates back to at least 1860 when the New York Times endorsed Abraham Lincoln for president.

But in the 21st century, things are not what they were in 1860, and I’ve begun to give the question second thought. Newspapers are no longer exclusive in serving as public informants, and their opinions have become fractured in a world that’s too often based on opinion and partisanship.

I’m not alone in contemplating the practice of endorsements. A reporter with the Denver Post recently asked her own paper’s editorial page editor the same question, though the answer she received was as vague as my answer has been in previous years.

According to the reporter, her editorial page editor said:

“The idea of that tradition that if you’re going to go to the trouble to have a printing press and a newsroom and put your message out and try to cover public policy, then you also have the right as the owner of that paper to express your opinion. That’s how an editorial page got started to begin with, in trying to make arguments that would be good for society.”

I’m sure most would say they don’t need a newspaper opinion to tell them what’s good for society. One might also suggest that a consistent message would go a long way in persuasion, but the Missoulian has been far from consistent.

In fact, it’s been all over the board with its “opinion” of who should represent Montana at large.

Last November, the newspaper endorsed Denise Juneau over incumbent Ryan Zinke. In doing so, the newspaper wrote that it wasn’t “entirely satisfied with (Zinke’s) performance in Congress.” It added that it was “deeply troubled by (Zinke’s) continuing commitment to Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump.”

That last line makes the newspaper’s newfound support for Gianforte somewhat confusing, given the candidate’s own lockstep support for President Trump. What’s more, the newspaper lambasted Gianforte during his run for governor six short months ago, saying “he has not shown much interest in public service.”

“When challenged to consider opposing sides of issues outside his area of expertise, such (as) refugee resettlement, Gianforte has an unfortunate tendency to shut down discussion,” the Missoulian wrote last October. “A successful public servant must be willing to have uncomfortable conversations on controversial subjects.”

It seems that Gianforte has successfully assuaged the Missoulian’s earlier concerns, convincing it that he will now be the public servant it feared he wouldn’t be six months ago. But the Missoulian is now under new leadership, that being the corporate operators housed at the Billings Gazette which, to no surprise, also endorsed Gianforte.

But this is straying from the point, which goes back to the practice of endorsing one candidate over another. That editorial page editor at the Denver Post said, “The reason we do endorsements is because we’re trying to help people understand complicated political questions.”

The question is, does the public even care what a newspaper thinks any more than it cares about what I think in this column? According to a Pew Research Center study, the answer is no.

“In an age saturated in social media and marked by an increasingly fragmented media landscape, the role of newspaper endorsements appears to be dwindling,” the center wrote in 2007. “In fact, almost seven in 10 Americans said their local newspaper’s endorsement had no impact on who they cast their ballot for in 2008.”

According to the survey, a local newspaper’s endorsement would influence just 14 percent of its readers in a positive way, while 14 percent would be negatively influenced. In comparison, an endorsement from Bill Gates would bring similar results.

Like the editorial page editor at the Denver Post noted, it’s a newspaper’s right to make its opinions known. It’s also the right of readers to respond accordingly, even if that means severing their support for the newspaper once it makes its political preference known.

That may be the strongest opinion of them all.

Martin Kidston is a long-time Montana journalist and founder of the Missoula Current.