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It's time for newspapers to stop endorsing presidential candidates

It's time for newspapers to stop endorsing presidential candidates
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With the presidential polls tightening, the candidates are looking for every little bit of support they can get.  

Last week the Los Angeles Times endorsed Democratic nominee Joe BidenJoe BidenMcCarthy says he told Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene he disagreed with her impeachment articles against Biden Biden, Trudeau agree to meet next month Fauci infuriated by threats to family MORE. Most of that newspaper’s readers were likely not surprised given that Biden’s running mate, Kamala HarrisKamala HarrisSenators introduce bill to award Officer Goodman the Congressional Gold Medal An ally in the White House is good for abortion access, but not enough LeBron James says 'it would be great' for champion Lakers to visit Biden White House MORE, is a U.S. senator from California. Still, it was useful to read the opinion of the L.A. Times editorial board that Biden “practices civility, champions compromise and seeks unity in a country Trump has divided with a cacophony of culture-war distractions.” 

But as endorsement season begins, there’s an important question to consider: Do such endorsements matter at the presidential level, and should they even happen anymore?

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Newspaper endorsements used to mean a lot more when readership was high and competition was great between newspapers. Back in the 1850s, Abraham Lincoln literally bought a German newspaper to garner votes and endorsements. (Lincoln purchased the Illinois Staats-Anzeiger, demanding it endorse the Republican Party in the 1860 election.)

A century later, the vast majority of newspapers backed Richard Nixon's reelection bid in the 1972 presidential contest. Only 7 percent of papers that year picked George McGovern, the Democratic nominee. 

Three decades later, the information space has changed enormously with a steadily growing portion of Americans getting news through social media, and the number of digital news outlets having grown exponentially.

Newspaper endorsements are not only less impactful now, but they can sometimes confuse matters. Many were critical of the New York Times last year when it seemingly could not decide which candidate to endorse in the 2020 Democratic primary and ended up breaking tradition by endorsing two people: Sens. Amy KlobucharAmy KlobucharDemocrats seek answers on impact of Russian cyberattack on Justice Department, Courts A Day in Photos: The Biden Inauguration Senators vet Buttigieg to run Transportation Department MORE (D-Minn.) and Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenOVERNIGHT ENERGY: Biden's Interior Department temporarily blocks new drilling on public lands | Group of GOP senators seeks to block Biden moves on Paris, Keystone | Judge grants preliminary approval for 0M Flint water crisis settlement Senate approves waiver for Biden's Pentagon nominee House approves waiver for Biden's Pentagon nominee MORE (D-Mass.) — neither of whom broke out of the pack. 

Most research suggests that endorsements have greater importance with local races and local issues than at the national level. And newspapers endorsements don’t seem to help very much. When Donald TrumpDonald TrumpMcCarthy says he told Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene he disagreed with her impeachment articles against Biden Biden, Trudeau agree to meet next month Trump planned to oust acting AG to overturn Georgia election results: report MORE was the Republican presidential nominee in 2016, he received fewer endorsements from the editorial boards of the nation's largest newspapers than any major-party presidential candidate in history. He won.

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Among the top 100 largest newspapers in America, just a few – including The Las Vegas Review-Journal and the Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville – endorsed Trump. Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton received endorsements from 57 newspaper editorial boards across the country, including papers that had typically backed Republicans, such as the Dallas Morning News, the Arizona Republic and the San Diego Union-Tribune. Four newspapers last election took the unusual step of explicitly advising readers to vote against Trump, even if they could not bring themselves to recommend Clinton. Trump's “reckless ignorance is more informed by disturbing Internet conspiracy theories than evidence, wisdom or reason,” the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel wrote, adding that Clinton “suffers from an inflated sense of entitlement and a well-earned lack of trust.” But, the paper concluded: “Job One: Reject Trump.”

Given the public’s lack of trust in the media, it might be time for newspapers to take a break from editorial endorsements. The risk of alienating news consumers is too high at a time when information is splintered. With the potential for violence and civil unrest in this election season, and the priority of public health guidance, this is a good time to let the voters, not the editors, decide. Keeping the media out of politics and in the business of covering news might put us back on track to building confidence in journalism.

Tara D. Sonenshine is former U.S. under secretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs. She is a fellow at George Washington University’s School of Media and Public Affairs.