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Do newspaper endorsements matter anymore?

Sep 30, 2016

The Detroit News caused quite a stir this week when it endorsed Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson for president.

The newspaper, which was founded in 1873, has never endorsed anyone except a Republican for the nation’s highest office, though on three occasions, including the contest between George Bush and John Kerry in 2004, it hasn’t endorsed anyone.

But do such endorsements matter?

Traditionally, most newspapers have endorsed Republicans for president. This was especially true years ago, when papers tended to be owned by rich families who were naturally inclined to support the more business-friendly party.

But how much of an impact this had was always open to question.

Years ago, the saying in the business was that writing an editorial endorsing someone for president was like wetting your pants in a blue serge suit. It gave you a nice warm feeling, and nobody noticed.

In fact, it’s hard to imagine anyone making their presidential choice based on a newspaper editorial. But there’s another saying in the news business. If a mailman is bitten by a dog, that isn’t much of a news story, because it happens all the time.

But if a man turns around and bites a dog, now that’s news. Since the Detroit News never endorsed anyone except a Republican before, their endorsing the Libertarian this year caused heads to turn. But, there’s more to the editorial than meets the eye, however.

If you read it carefully, it is really a veiled endorsement of Hillary Clinton.

It says:

"Donald Trump is unprincipled, unstable, and quite possibly dangerous. He cannot be president."

The paper adds:

"Hillary Clinton has an impressive resume and a presidential bearing. And although we disagree with her … [on the issues] … we acknowledge that she has the temperament to be commander-in-chief and leader of both a diverse nation and a free world."

The newspaper said, however, that because of character issues, it felt compelled to endorse Johnson.

Their timing was a bit unfortunate, however. The night before it was published, Johnson, during a nationwide TV interview, was unable to come up with the name of a single foreign leader he admired. This followed his now-famous “Aleppo moment,” when he revealed that he had never heard of the city at the center of Syria’s refugee crisis.

The Libertarian candidate is not ready for prime time. But then, the nation’s newspapers seem to feel the Republican isn’t either.

Donald Trump has only been endorsed by a tiny handful of dubious papers, such as the New York Post and the National Enquirer.

Clinton, on the other hand, is being endorsed by all sorts of newspapers that haven’t endorsed a Democrat in a century, including major papers in Cincinnati, Dallas, Arizona and New Hampshire.

They all have attacked Trump’s emotional stability and fitness for office.

There seems to be an alarming consensus about him. Trump can, however, take some comfort from the fact that newspaper circulation is less than half what it once was, and the Detroit News has about a tenth of its peak readership.

And there’s this: Back in 1936, the vast majority of newspapers strongly advised their readers not to re-elect Franklin D. Roosevelt. FDR then won what still is the greatest landslide ever.

You might say it was utterly huge.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.