Since the New York Times endorsed John McCain, the newspaper was obviously not biased in reporting on his conflicts of interest.
That’s one view you won’t hear much in the raging debate over the Times article about McCain. Media insiders don’t say it, since they believe in a “wall” separating news and editorial staff. Most readers overlook it, instead focusing on the substance of the actual article. And in the bizzaro world of the paper’s insatiable conservative critics, the endorsement is cited to demonstrate a media conspiracy against McCain. “The liberal Times had endorsed McCain as the best Republican in the presidential race. Were they just setting him up for the kill?” asks Cliff Kincaid, an operative at the right-wing pressure group Accuracy in Media.
It’s enough to make you think that political endorsements, like politics, are in the eye of the beholder. But now some top journalists say that newspapers should just end endorsements altogether.
Writing in response to criticism of the McCain article, Times political editor Richard Stevenson estimated that “most” of the paper’s political reporters oppose the editorial staff picking candidates. “Endorsements inevitably create the perception among some voters that The Times is backing a candidate on an institutional level, leaving those of us on the news side to explain over and over that our coverage is not influenced by what our colleagues on the editorial page write,” he explained.
In this week’s Time magazine, managing editor Rick Stengel makes a similar argument, recommending papers stop issuing endorsements “at a time when the credibility and viability of the press are at all-time lows.” Newspapers undermine impartiality by endorsing candidates, Stengel contends, and readers are “right” to doubt whether reporters can objectively cover a candidate after their employer endorses the opponent.
Yet most journalists insist those readers are wrong. And if readers incorrectly think that editorial positions make for biased reporters, that misconception is no reason to dump editorials about policies or candidates. What about the (more credible) perception that the media are affected by advertisers? Is that a reason to restrict ads?
Or how about the obvious, larger dynamic at work here: The well-funded, famously effective, thirty-year campaign to attack all reporters for harboring a secret liberal bias? Should journalists change their work to rebut that “perception,” even as they insist it’s baseless?