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Does the Chronicle Endorsement of a Candidate Matter?

One of the most frequent questions I get asked as a local political consultant is if the Chronicle endorsement matters.


About two weeks ago, I wrote about the Chronicle candidate forum on the day the event was set to take place and concluded that the night was more about enjoying seeing the community come together than it was a significant influential impact on the outcome of campaigns.


But that event is the newspaper objectively hosting all candidates whereas endorsements are the newspaper picking favorites. This is something different so is the outcome changed at all?


That is the question this column will explore today. Before that can be answered, though, one question should be addressed first: is it ethical for newspapers to issue endorsements?

This is unequivocally yes.


In fact, the history of print publications is rooted in being entirely partisan for particular candidates. In the first ever administration under the new Constitution, Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson hired Philip Freneau to work as a translator.


Two things made this a curious hire. The first was that Freneau did not speak any languages beyond English and French. The second was that Jefferson, having spent much of the Revolutionary War in France, was already fluent in that language.


What Freneau lacked in polyglot talents he more than made up for in the written word, particularly in a vitriolic voice. And thus Jefferson paid Freneau taxpayer funds to operate the National Gazette on the side of his “official” State Dept. translator duties as a mouthpiece for launching attacks at fellow cabinet member Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton and even President George Washington himself.


Through much of the late 1700s and all through the 1800s, the American newspaper media was highly partisan - much more so than today. This began to change as the era of yellow journalism weakened consolidated media companies owned by William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer and a niche market opened for papers to reach a wider audience through practicing a process of objective reporting ushered in by Walter Lippmann.


Fast forward several decades and you have some newspapers get gun shy about endorsements. Halifax Media, which briefly owned my hometown newspaper the Sarasota Herald-Tribune among many other dailies around Florida until they were bought by Gannett in 2015, issued a “do not endorse” order for the 2012 elections that many of its subsidiaries followed.


Gannett reversed course on this policy until just last month when the media giant issued a voluntary call to cut back on political endorsements and other divisive editorial content. Political endorsements and other partisan editorial content was a “frequently cited” reason for subscription cancellations according to Gannett.


So is this conclusive proof that readers take retributive action against newspaper editorial content?


No.


Whereas a subscription cancellation has a reverberative effect on a newspaper’s bottom line (smaller number to attract potential advertisers, classified listings etc. in addition to the lost subscription revenue) the loss of a vote due to an endorsement is an isolated incident.


When compared to what is gained with the endorsement, the negative effect is inconsequential.


Six of the 8 candidates the Chronicle endorsed won in 2020. The three local candidates the Chronicle endorsed in 2018 (Ron Kitchen, Scott Carnahan and Linda Powers) all won their seats as well.


A question of cause and effect can arise here. Did the candidates win because of the endorsement or did they win the endorsement and the election because they were the most qualified?


To answer that, let’s look at the one that went terribly wrong for the Chronicle: the 2020 Sheriff election. The Chronicle endorsed Mel Eakley, who ended up receiving about 28% of the vote to Sheriff Mike Prendergast’s 52% - not a close election by any standard.


This was likely a result of the Chronicle’s own coverage. In a recent letter, Publisher Trina Murphy said the paper had run 650 CCSO stories in the last year, far more than any other news content category. This means Sheriff Prendergast’s reelection was probably heavily influenced by Chronicle news coverage, albeit not by the opinion of the editorial board.


In conclusion, the endorsement does matter even in a Republican primary. The candidate earns far more votes than the few defiant voices who say it is a disqualification from earning their vote.


In a small stroke of hypocritical humor, the paper is still influencing how the defiant person thinks even if their statement is meant to be one of intellectual independence from the newspaper.


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