Less than a month out from a midterm election that will determine the viability of America’s flailing democracy, the nation’s second-largest newspaper chain weighed in with a curious announcement: It will refrain from endorsing candidates for national and statewide office. That’s right: Alden Global Capital, the avaricious hedge fund that now controls more than 200 newspapers, has spurned the notion that it might employ its outsize market role to aid public deliberation during one of the most consequential midterm cycles in our history.
Not surprisingly, the rationale for the decision, published in a chainwide editorial, was steeped in the threadbare dogmas of stage-managed bipartisan comity. “Unfortunately, as the public discourse has become increasingly acrimonious, common ground has become a no man’s land between the clashing forces of the culture wars,” the editorial read. “At the same time, with misinformation and disinformation on the rise, readers are often confused, especially online, about the differences between news stories, opinion pieces and editorials.”
To begin with the last point first: Readerly confusion should, at the most basic level of journalistic endeavor, serve as a mandate to model and refine a public discourse that explicitly resists the lies and distortions coursing through the broader mediasphere. By no means should it be an alibi to flee the scene entirely. To act otherwise is to abdicate the most fundamental role of journalism in a democracy—to create and sustain an informed citizenry. What’s more, the general notion that readers are too disoriented by genre confusion to work through the materials of an election season is distinctly infantilizing. Of necessity, both the news and opinion stretches of the journalism world hinge on the notion that news audiences can and should take in new information and points of view that are very much not what they prefer to hear: news of corruption and amoral power-mongering, of ascendant fascism and white nationalism, together with arguments to shield both our public discourse and institutional practices from such corrosive forces.
The other guiding premise here is equally bankrupt: that it’s somehow the role of Alden-branded editorialists to occupy and defend a preordained “common ground” staked out on the battle-scarred frontiers of the culture wars. The “no man’s land” rhetoric here is especially risible, given that Alden has laid siege to local news markets on its relentless binge of media acquisition. As with all private capital concerns, Alden deploys a business model dedicated to stripping bare the properties it vacuums up so as to create more profitable chain-wide economies of scale. As Julie Reynolds has reported for The Nation, the chain laid off 70 percent of the workforce in its central news operation, Digital First, after buying it in 2012—a rate nearly double that of the rest of the industry’s coerced redundancy. The result has been a vast and spreading local news desert along the American interior—the very set of conditions that’s proven the optimal feeding ground for the bad-faith digital platforms that the Alden editorialists bemoan.
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It gets more perverse still: Alden declares that it will continue to offer endorsements of candidates in local political campaigns—even as it continues presiding over the planned depopulation of local political news coverage throughout the country. As always in the Alden sphere of influence, the principal calculation here seems to be market-driven: The chain can pick and choose its optimal points of influence in the denuded news landscapes it now administers, by heeding prevailing trends in local opinion markets. “The only way I read this is that they would rather not lose some percentage of subscribers in local races by endorsing a candidate that that percentage opposes,” says Siva Vaidhyanathan, professor of media studies and director of the Center for Media and Citizenship at the University of Virginia. “It’s an acknowledgment and a surrender, one that’s journalistically irresponsible.”
Even critics who support the Alden position on the merits—citing both the waning influence of endorsements, and their likely heightened impact in local races—note that Alden is anything but a trusted interlocutor. “If you’re going to do well-informed, useful endorsements in local races, you’ve got to be covering those races,” says Dan Kennedy, a former Boston Phoenix press columnist who now teaches journalism at Northeastern University. “If they’re giving good coverage of those races, you can say that’s sufficient, but I doubt they’re even doing that.” Kennedy further notes that other, more proven local outlets aren’t positioned to counter local endorsements from mega-chains like Alden. “Increasingly, the best independent sources of local news are nonprofit publications, and they can’t endorse, because if they do, they’ll lose their tax exemption.”
None of this is to say that candidate endorsements—one of the most reliably pompous forms of journalistic expression—are by themselves a guarantee of journalistic virtue. Endorsements tend neither to swing elections in any measurable way or to prompt undecided or otherwise dubiously committed voters to change their minds at the 11th hour. But that’s not really the point. “The obligation is not to change minds,” Vaidhyanathan says. “The duty is to start conversations. The value of endorsements is not to move voters so much as to center a conversation.”
During the 2020 Democratic presidential primaries, The New York Times inadvertently demonstrated both the broader discursive benefits of the endorsement process, and the uselessness of the Alden pretext for dispensing with it. The paper’s editorial board taped its candidate interviews for digital distribution and then released their full transcripts—providing readers with in-depth policy and political discussions that daily beat reporters could never have obtained in the daily primary-cycle scrum. “My graduate ethics class loved that,” Kennedy recalls. “They loved the fact that the whole transcript was released, but then the endorsements came out, and they said, you know, that was enough.”
Indeed, the Times’ 2020 Democratic endorsement was a self-infatuated botch that only the The New York Times could perpetrate: The paper wound up endorsing both Amy Klobuchar and Elizabeth Warren, ensuring that the whole ex cathedra announcement would have no practical impact except as a kind of elite institutional performance art. Ironically, it met the requirements of the ineffectual bothsidesism that Alden has embraced by giving an endorsement. But again, the end result may well have counted for less than the deliberative record leading up to it. “That access to an hour with a candidate, which is something that news reporters don’t usually get, was really valuable,” Vaidhyanathan says. “So the process of endorsing can generate a rich record of debate, and helpful information to readers, if the end process is presented appropriately.”
None of that is on Alden’s journalistic to-do list, needless to say. The chain very much wants to have things both ways—declaring itself a trustworthy arbiter of political opinion in the local markets where it proves most profitable to do so, while affecting a state of puzzled diffidence over the broader derangements of American public discourse. The overall moral-credibility quotient here is roughly akin to that of Trump’s famed 2016 debate taunt, “No puppet—you’re the puppet!” In both cases, informed readers are urged to consider the source.