In the wake of the New York Times’ rather confusing dual endorsement of Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar, I spoke with business columnist Josh Barro and political columnist Eric Levitz about whether the grand old tradition of news organizations selecting their preferred candidates makes much sense.
Ben: The New York Times had the politics world buzzing — well, mostly just complaining — about its presidential endorsement, which it rolled out over the weekend. Not only was its choice announced at the end of an hour-long TV spectacle that had the feeling of a reality show, but the paper couldn’t settle on one candidate, instead picking both Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar. The whole tortuous process also had some questioning the wisdom of newspaper endorsements in the first place. Journalist Peter Hamby, for instance, recently opined that readers have a hard time differentiating between news and opinion sides of a paper, and do not need guidance for such a highly visible contest. So, do these things still make any sense in 2020?
Josh: No, and I’m not sure they ever made sense. I’m not sure that unsigned editorials on any topic make sense. Someone commented to me when I was in college that writing unsigned editorials is like pissing in a dark suit — it gives you a nice, warm feeling and nobody notices. I don’t know what the particular expertise of the New York Times editorial board is supposed to be that gives these endorsements weight. They’re a bunch of well-informed liberals. But the people to whom this endorsement is directed largely are also well-informed liberals. They’re positioned to draw their own conclusions.
Eric: I think the Times’ endorsements are a useful institution in the context of state and local races/ballot referenda — low salience, low visibility elections where a significant segment of the (low turnout) electorate might both want and heed the guidance of well-informed liberals.
Josh: Yeah. I think these sorts of editorials can be useful when they are about obscure offices where the readers are genuinely much less informed than the writers. A voter might want guidance about how to vote in elections for water boards or port authorities and the like, where they’re unlikely to have actually taken the time to understand the differences between the candidates.
Josh: But that’s the Times’ role as a local paper, not as a national paper.
Eric: And on those things, the subject-area expertise of certain board members is helpful.
Josh: But with the presidential endorsement, they just seemed to be hashing out the same questions that everyone has been for months. And I think the choice to not even pick a single candidate underscores how silly the process is. What we learned here is that the Times editorial board consists of people who have diverse preferences, like the electorate itself.
Eric: Right. Maybe in the Bad Old Days when these editorial boards were more uniformly white, male, and Ivy League or what have you, they collectively represented a coherent ideology, worldview, or ethos. But today’s Times board is a semi-random assortment of left-of-center journalists and experts who have no reason to share a consensus take on the 2020 presidential race, and manifestly don’t.
Josh: But they manage to be diverse and still unrepresentative of the electorate. If they are progressives, they prefer Warren’s technocratic approach to progressive change and are deeply skeptical of Bernie Sanders’s tone and style.
If they are moderates, they’re put off by Biden’s age and don’t really get why he’s so popular. (“Mr. Biden maintains a lead in national polls, but that may be a measure of familiarity as much as voter intention.”)
Eric: Yeah, well, by its nature, the board can’t not be a collection of “extremely high-information, professional class” voters, and the Democratic primary electorate is not uniformly those things.
Josh: Obviously the Times doesn’t have an obligation to endorse the winner, but the editorial gives the sense that they haven’t even processed why Biden is leading and Sanders is second.
Ben: To that point — the video of an NYT security guard who was thrilled to meet Biden, and which was included in the endorsement broadcast, got quite a bit of attention for, in some people’s eyes, being representative of the paper’s out-of-touchness vis-à-vis why Biden is winning.
Regardless of whether it should exist, do you think the Times endorsement actually matters?
Eric: I’m not sure. But it seems like whatever effect it could have had is diluted by the paper’s indecision. I could maybe see an emphatic Warren endorsement moving some undecided liberals away from Pete or Amy and toward her.
Josh: I think the endorsement would have been unimportant even if it had gone to just one candidate and it’s even less important since it is split, and split among two candidates who are, generously, No. 3 and No. 5 in odds of winning the nomination
Eric: Seems right.
Josh: A Warren endorsement also would have mattered little because it is to type: The Times is the sort of paper that would endorse Warren, it doesn’t have the surprise factor that an endorsement of Biden or Sanders (or a sole endorsement of Klobuchar) would have had, maybe getting some people who think of themselves as in line with the NYT to rethink their choice. To be clear, I still think it would have mattered little if they had done that, but it would have been more likely to matter.
Eric: A Trump endorsement might have been #impactful.
Ben: Do you see any chance or hope that this practice will die out soon? Or is the practice too ingrained for it to go anywhere anytime in the near future?
Eric: I think the latter. Whatever you want to say about this year’s Times endorsement, it was a genuinely impressive marketing and PR achievement. They demonstrated that it’s still possible to make a newspaper endorsement in a hotly contested presidential election a bona fide “thing”/news event.
Josh: I am skeptical that unsigned editorials are a profitable business practice. They don’t drive traffic like op-ed columns can. I think they tend to be a vanity outlet for newspaper publishers and owners — it makes them feel like they are a powerful voice that needs to be courted. I think it’s the illusion of influence that keeps papers doing this, though I’d note The Wall Street Journal has a long tradition of not endorsing presidential candidates, which I think is and has been wise. If they weren’t doing an endorsement, would all the presidential candidates come meet with the Times ed board? Maybe that is the value — it helps them develop deeper relationships with the candidates that improves their other editorial writing on the race. But I’m still skeptical.