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Newspapers owe it to readers to give editorial endorsements.

A FEW MONTHS AGO, David Green, my counterpart at the Regina (Saskatchewan) Leader-Post, sent a sample page to his North American colleagues with a cover letter describing his operation. I was interested partly because I landed my first job out of journalism school at the Leader-Post, 33 years ago. Among other things, Green reported:

"As the surviving amalgam of several Regina newspapers, The Leader-Post has adopted an editorial policy of political neutrality, refraining from giving endorsements in elections, but without prejudicing its ability to be critical of government or opposition."

This is not unique. Richard Harwood, former ombudsman for The Washington Post, wrote recently that an increasing number of papers have stopped endorsing candidates, especially in the contest for president.

The Baltimore Sun has not endorsed a presidential candidate since 1980. Joseph L.R. Sterne, the editorial page editor, explained to the paper's readers this year, "No one needs our guidance. People can . . . make up their own minds."

The Sun is owned by the Times-Mirror Co., whose flagship paper is the mammoth Los Angeles Times. The Times normally avoids endorsing candidates for president, governor or the U.S. Senate, although a note accompanying its 1984 list of ballot recommendations said, "We endorse in contests for open seats in Congress and in the Legislature. We also endorse the most effective of the congressional incumbents."

Closer to home, the Corvallis Gazette-Times told its readers on October 18, "There is more information available to common voters on the office of the president than for any other in this country. Therefore, it seems unnecessary for this page to recommend a candidate for president." And it didn't.

On the same day across the mountains, Bob Chandler, the crustily venerable editor of The Bulletin of Bend, told his readers in a signed column: "I wish someone were running for whom I could vote without holding my nose. I haven't discovered that candidate this year. So for the first time in more than 40 years, The Bulletin will not endorse a candidate for president of the United States. In my opinion none of the presidential candidates deserves the job."

What's going on here? Two distinct things.

In some years, such as 1988, distaste for both major party candidates is unusually strong. In those years, many papers say essentially what Chandler is saying now: A pox on both your houses. Neither of you deserves our blessing.

That's fine. I respect it as a rational decision even though at The Register-Guard we try hard to avoid non-endorsements in any races. Our feeling is that if voters are supposed to make a choice, even between undesirables, so should this institutional "citizen" of the community.

The other phenomenon involves papers purposely and regularly refraining from making recommendations on major election choices.

Some of our readers would be happy to see The Register-Guard take that route. Several call or write us with that message every election season. They are outraged that the paper would presume to "tell us what to think" about candidates and ballot measures. "Who elected you?" someone always asks.

The answer is, no one. But offering recommendations on candidates and ballot measures is a natural part of the editorial function that a traditional community newspaper performs all year round.

The purposes of editorializing are to enlighten and, if possible, persuade, through analysis and argumentation. If the analysis and argumentation are good, the editorials will be worth readers' time regardless of whether or not they agree with the views expressed.

If we of the editorial staff spend our days passing judgment on policy questions before every level of government, how can we logically turn mute on the choices of candidates who will, if elected, decide those questions? The logic is even more compelling with respect to ballot measures, which are the same as dozens of other policy questions that come up during the year except that these are being put directly to the people.

My non-endorsing brethren in Baltimore, Corvallis, Los Angeles and elsewhere have a point in noting that voters have so much information about the presidential race they really don't "need guidance" from local editors. They surely don't need it the way a person with a headache needs an aspirin.

I have always been struck by the irony of our presidential endorsement: It is the one that most people are most interested in. Yet it is undoubtedly the least influential in swaying votes, precisely because it is diluted by such a multitude of competing influences.

Nonetheless, I think it would be a mistake to opt out of presidential endorsements. Papers that have chosen to do so overlook an important aspect of election-related recommendations: They form part of the paper's editorial personality. Presidential endorsements don't just offer advice; they reveal what the editors think and where they stand on one of the most important choices all Americans of voting age are asked to make. This helps readers judge what the paper says during the 1,461 days between presidential elections. An editorial page that declines to cast a vote for president leaves a blank spot in its own self-portrait.

Not that it's always fun to make these choices. The four of us who make them at The Register-Guard today can all relate to the sentiments expressed by my predecessor, the late Bob Frazier, in a column several weeks ahead of a May primary election two decades ago: "This is the best of times because of the chance to help shape the course of human events. Personally, it can be the worst of times. Old friendships can be bruised or fractured. Is the candidate's wife a friend of your wife? A friend of yours? It's often a time for crawling into a hole and pulling the hole in after you."

Despite the disadvantages, I endorse the views of |former~ New York Times editorial page editor Jack Rosenthal, a native of Portland, who was quoted to this effect by the Post's Harwood:

"Newspapers tell readers every day what they ought to think about every issue under the sun. If they are going to assume the responsibility -- and the arrogance and ambition -- to want to call all the balls and strikes inning by inning |during a president's term~ . . . don't they have the responsibility to add it all up at election time and give the final score?"

NCEW member Don Robinson is editorial page editor of The Register-Guard in Eugene, Ore.
COPYRIGHT 1993 National Conference of Editorial Writers
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Author:Robinson, Don
Publication:The Masthead
Date:Mar 22, 1993
Next Article:Skip exercises in editorial masochism.

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