Discover more from Eric Zorn: The Picayune Sentinel
The Picayune Sentinel endorses the end of endorsements
... actually it's just me
10-13-2022 (issue No. 57)
Eric Zorn is a former opinion columnist for the Chicago Tribune. Find a longer bio and contact information here. This issue exceeds in size the maximum length for a standard email. To read the entire issue in your browser, click on the headline link above.
Songs of Good Cheer — Where we are in the planning phase
Land of Linkin’ — Where I tell readers where to go
Re:Tweets — Featuring the winner of the visual tweets poll and this week’s finalists
Tune of the Week — Offered by special guest Charlie Meyerson
Last week’s winning tweet
My boss calls me "The computer. "Not because of my calculation skills but because I go to sleep when left unattended for 15 minutes. — of unknown origin.
The twilight of newspaper endorsements
The ‘institutional voice’ conceit should sunset as well
Tuesday morning, the Chicago Tribune endorsed Gov. JB Pritzker for reelection in what is likely to be the final time in the newspaper’s 177-year history that it makes formal endorsement in such a major race.
Alden Global Capital, the hedge fund that owns the Tribune along with about 200 other newspapers, announced last week that the company’s publications will stop endorsing candidates in presidential, U.S. Senate and gubernatorial elections.
The announcement posted in many Alden papers said in part:
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. 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.
I’m certainly aware from my years as one of the public faces of the Tribune that some readers are, in fact, confused by political endorsements.
What does it mean when you read or hear that the Chicago Tribune has endorsed JB Pritzker, or any other candidate?
There are always at least a few readers who are under the impression that the endorsement reflects the consensus view of the journalists in the newsroom — the reporters and editors and photographers and designers who follow current events closely and who may lay a plausible claim on having an opinion with more weight, more importance, more insight behind it that, say, a similarly sized group of employees at Sears or Baxter or Boeing.
So occasionally people will impute to the reporting staff a political bias that aligns with the endorsements. “Oh, you write for the pro-Pritzker paper, so of course your story is slanted in his favor,” and like that.
The accusation isn’t true. Not at the Tribune nor ay any other conventional American newspaper. Endorsements, like the opinions expressed in the unsigned editorials, are the work of a discrete and ever smaller group of experienced journalists who comprise the Editorial Board. The accurate way to put it would be “The Chicago Tribune Editorial Board endorsed JB Pritzker,” but that’s simply not common shorthand, even in news reports.
These boards — so small at many newspapers that it’s just an opinionated publisher or owner — operate independently of the newsroom, and every so often their views infuriate or vex the rank-and-file journalists in the newsroom.
The idea — the conceit — is that “the institution” of the newspaper is the voice of editorials and that the writers are merely channeling that voice. In the case of the Tribune, that “institution” believes in:
The traditional principles of limited government; maximum individual responsibility; and minimum restriction of personal liberty, opportunity and enterprise. It believes in free markets, free will and freedom of expression. … (The Tribune) is committed to Midwestern values and concerns … (and it) encourages constructive change in the light of tradition and the lessons of history.
But why? Aside from tradition rooted in the days of the partisan press, why should a general audience newspaper have a set of beliefs and principles that goes beyond the core journalistic mission of finding the facts, telling the truth, exposing misdeeds and corruption, and putting the news of the day into context, in part through the publication of responsible opinion essays?
After all, that’s a fair summation of exactly what respected newsrooms do. Why add an agenda on top of the basics of good journalism? Why should these particular “institutions” presume to promote, say, “limited government” in their disembodied voices? Nonpartisan TV and radio stations don’t do it. Newsmagazines don’t do it. Universities don’t do it. Other “institutions” filled with smart, well-informed people don’t do it.
A Tribune editorial explainer on the endorsement process declared, “It would be an abdication to say what we think should be done on an array of issues every day — and then remain silent about who is most likely to advance those goals.”
Before I unpack that, I want to note that individual columnists at the Tribune — those of us who also regularly said what we thought should be done on an array of issues — were forbidden to offer explicit endorsements. Even though we were simply speaking for ourselves, not clothing ourselves in the mantle of “the institution.”
Why this prohibition was not considered an abdication of our roles was never explained to me. We were allowed and even encouraged to write strong opinion pieces about candidates that stopped short of actual endorsements, and I suppose the fear was that the institutional endorsement might get drowned out in a cacophony of individual endorsements.
Let’s circle back to the “we” in that explanation — the Editorial Board. What does that mean? Does that mean that the endorsement reflects a majority vote by the members of the Editorial Board?
My sense is that most people think so. They imagine a Supreme Court-like deliberative panel that weighs all the factors and comes up with a decision based on a vote. But take a close look at the Tribune’s explanation:
After all of our research, reporting and interviews, the editorial board meets to discuss candidates for major endorsements. It’s often a spirited conversation, as every member brings a unique perspective. The final decision rests with the editorial page editor.
That last sentence does a lot of heavy lifting. It means, and certainly has meant, that the newspaper will endorse a candidate even though the majority of the members of the board opposes that candidate. The editorial page editor or, at some publications, the publisher or the owner all by his or her lonesome, has the final decision about which candidate the “institution” is supporting.
And the reader is never supposed to know about the deliberations, if any.
The reader is never supposed to know that, for instance, the Tribune’s most famous — or infamous — endorsement, the 2016 endorsement of libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson, did not reflect the majority opinion on the board. I wasn’t part of that meeting or any endorsement meeting ever, but through reliable sources, I know the consensus was that the paper should get behind the candidacy of Democrat Hillary Clinton.
The Gary Johnson endorsement exposed the paper to ridicule that endures to this day because it was widely seen as a punt — an abdication, if you will, of the paper’s assumed duty to provide useful guidance to those who might want to cast a meaningful as opposed to utterly symbolic protest vote.
A thoughtful analysis of the 2016 presidential race could have discussed the strengths and weaknesses of all the candidates on the ballot and expressed strong disagreements with both major party candidates without concluding with a specific recommendation.
Many editorials, like many columns, can identify middle ground compromises through the rhetorical devices of “yes and…” and “no but however” that embrace, explore and expand on the ambiguities of many situations.
Endorsement editorials seldom do that. They are blunt instruments. Because aside from the very rare “none of the above” endorsement, one candidate gets the nod and the other candidates get the raspberry. No matter how nuanced or ambivalent the editorial is, news reports and political commercials feature the raw summary: “The Tribune endorses JB Pritzker.”
More from the Alden Global Capital statement:
Endorsing candidates for elected offices inherently means picking one party over another. At this stage of our nation’s history, that partisan selection is counterproductive to achieving the essential goal of facilitating healthy public debate and building trust in our journalistic enterprise. … We recognize that picking a candidate may alienate more readers than it persuades.
And with likely little effect.
A 2007 Pew Research Center study found that 70 percent of people didn't feel influenced by newspaper endorsements in major races, and the remaining 30% were evenly split on whether a newspaper's support would make them more or less likely to vote for the candidate.
A headline this month in Nieman Lab read: “‘Every four years we shoot ourselves in the foot’: Should news outlets still endorse political candidates? — Interviewing 64 U.S. political journalists, we found that many of them have come to view their outlets’ political endorsements as a liability.”
Some — including me — have pointed to the Sun-Times’ early endorsement of then-long-shot Chicago mayoral candidate Lori Lightfoot in February 2019 as playing a major role in catapulting her to victory. But I’m told that just six people were involved in making that decision. Six smart, experienced people, to be sure, but just six people. The recommendation of a six-person think tank or group of political scientists wouldn’t carry a lot of weight. But six people assuming to wield the reputation and credibility of an entire newspaper … well!
Last week, a Vanity Fair headline asked “Is the newspaper endorsement dying?”
(Gannett, the nation’s largest newspaper chain) has scaled back political endorsements as part of a broader downsizing and reimagining of their editorial and opinion pages. … A committee of editors from Gannett newsrooms nationwide reportedly recommended the company’s papers avoid making endorsements in presidential, House, and Senate races during an internal presentation to the company in April. “Readers don’t want us to tell them what to think” and (they) “perceive us as having a biased agenda,” the committee said during the presentation, citing editorials and opinion columns as not only “among our least read content” but a “frequently cited” reason for canceled subscriptions.
In 2016, John McCormick, then deputy editor of the Tribune’s Editorial Board, told the Columbia Journalism Review, “Swaying votes is only one reason for endorsing, and arguably not the most important. Every few years, endorsements bring a publication to full stop. They explain to the world what that publication is, what it advocates, how it thinks, what principles it holds dear.”
But that begs the question of why a newspaper’s journalism — its news reports, its coverage decisions, its mix of opinions in staff and guest columns — doesn’t suffice to reflect the values that the entire paper holds dear, the paper that exists today, not one rooted in a founding dogma or, at some papers, the whims of an owner or publisher.
To be clear, I’m all in favor of opinion content in newspapers, and, as I wrote Tuesday, I’m very glad that the Editorial Board at the Tribune saw past Pritzker’s churlish, childish refusal to participate in an endorsement interview and chose him anyway. But one voice — a voice presuming to speak for an “institution” — ought not be heard as coming from on high.
Mainstream newspapers perform a valuable service when they pit the best arguments against one another so readers can evaluate them and decide for themselves which side, which philosophy, which candidate makes the better case.
In my experience, the members of that Gannett committee were correct — readers don’t like to be told what to think. They like to hear what you think and why you think it, and then test that against the best arguments for a contrasting position and decide for themselves what they think.
And though Alden Global Capital expressed willingness to continue to publish editorial endorsements in smaller races — “city councils, school boards, local initiatives, referendums and other such matters” — and readers do tell me they tend to find those endorsements more valuable than the major endorsements, the philosophical case against them still applies.
A click poll at Capitol Fax taken last Friday found 59% of nearly 500 readers of Illinois’ preeminent blog on state government and politics saying Alden newspapers should stop all endorsements, with another 9 percent backing the proposition that papers should make endorsements only in smaller, local races.
But taking that point to its logical conclusion, it’s an outmoded concept for newspapers to have an unsigned editorial “voice” that attempts to leverage the credibility of its journalists to put a thumb on the scale not just of elections, but of public policy debates in general.
I’ve tried to present a persuasive argument today that Alden, for all my extreme reservations about its flinty stewardship of the Tribune and other newspapers, has made the right call here.
But I’m eager to post dissenting views and hope to do so next Thursday, lest I be accused of simply telling you what to think.
Even though I am right.
With the addition of Jim Wynton to the Songs of Good Cheer cast, I’m losing my spot as the tallest Cheerio, the last designation I held. Jim will be leading “Early On One Christmas Morn,” our opening number, and “The Christmas Song” (that’s the song that begins “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire…”). Barbie Silverman is working up a new Hanukkah song, “Al Hanisim.” I’m taking the lead on “While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks By Night” (the rowdier version), and Fred Campeau is reviving his take on Joe Newberry's exquisite "On This Christmas Day," which many people told me was their favorite number in the 2019 show (as it was mine).
The program is still taking shape, but so far it’s looking like one of the best song lineups we’ve had in all 24 years of this winter-holiday program at the Old Town School of Folk Music. Come sing with us!
Friday, Dec. 9, 7:30 p.m.
Saturday, Dec. 10, 3 p.m.
Saturday, Dec. 10, 7:30 p.m.
Sunday, Dec. 11, 4 p.m.
Call 773-728-6000, go online or visit the box office in person at 4544 N. Lincoln Ave. A portion of proceeds benefits the McCormick Foundation Communities Fund.
Tickets are $50 for the general public and $48 for Old Town School members, and they tend to sell out quickly.
Land of Linkin’
Don’t tell the Republican alarmists, but Bloomberg reports,“Texas Bail Reform Reduced Jail Time and Crime, New Study Says — Ending cash payments for most low-level offenses is working for Greater Houston, research shows.”
Axios reports that Democrats are also playing at the “fake newspaper” game. “Each follows a similar template: aggregated local news content and short write-ups about local sports teams and attractions — interspersed with heavily slanted political news aimed at boosting Democratic midterm candidates and attacking Republican opponents.” Republican operative Dan Proft, who is behind a similar group of right-wing papers, tagged me in a tweet linking to the Axios story saying he is looking “forward to hearing from all of the titans of journalistic ethics in the Chicago press corps about this.” No need for him to wait! As one of the titans, I have previously endorsed the concept as “repellently brilliant.”
In the era of diversity, equity and inclusion, should orchestras continue to conduct “blind” auditions where those trying out play behind a curtain? Black intellectuals John McWhorter and Glenn Loury say yes in this discussion.
“I just learned I only have months to live. This is what I want to say.” a powerful June 2021 essay by Boston Globe journalist Jack Thomas, who died Oct. 2 at 83.
Reader Steve H. went down the “Unabomer/Unabomber” spelling rabbit hole last week and emerged with this William Safire column from 1996.
Simon Owens’ Media Newsletter this week explores the “open podcast ecosystem” that, thankfully, seems to be resisting efforts to move podcasts onto exclusive channels. “Luminary, a podcast startup built on the idea of (making shows available only to paid subscribers to) its premium app, (has) struggled to gain traction and recently began distributing its content on other platforms.” I wrote about the launch of Luminary in the spring of 2019.
One of the entries in the last Tweet of the Week contest was “Rick Springfield (now middle-aged): I wish that I had Jessie's grill,” a tweet whose original author I couldn’t determine. It’s a riff on Springfield’s 1981 hit “Jessie’s Girl” (he’s now 73, which is a bit beyond middle-aged), and a reader called my attention to a spot-on parody by Ric Seaberg: “I wish that I had Jessie's grill / I wish that I had Jessie's grill / Where can I find a Weber like that?”
By an 84% to 16% margin, nearly 600 Picayune Sentinel readers have voted that I am not a crank for objecting to the delirious clubhouse celebrations by teams who have made incremental advances early in the playoff process.
The Picayune Sentinel on the air: On Thursdays at 4:30 p.m., WCPT-AM 820 host Joan Esposito and I chat about ideas raised in the new issue. The listen-live link is here.
The Picayune Sentinel preview: Tuesday at 11:30 a.m. I talk with WGN-AM 720 host John Williams about what’s making news and likely to be grist for the PS mill. The WGN listen-live link is here.
Hijab as a ‘personal choice.’
More than three weeks after the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Ahmini for disobeying Iran’s strict laws, which make it compulsory for women to wear the hijab — or Islamic headscarf — protests continue to rage on the streets of all major cities. … The popular chant, “woman, life, freedom” … has become the slogan of the protests. …
It is estimated that 185 people, including at least 19 children, have been killed since news of Amini’s death emerged on September 16. It has been reported that 14 members of Iran’s security forces have also been killed.
Several readers chided me for not at least in part challenging the assertion of Ahmed Rehab — executive director of the Chicago Office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) and CAIR’s national strategic communications director — in our recent online dialogue regarding the symbolism of the hijab that in countries without mandatory female modesty laws, it is "a personal choice" for Muslim women to wear the hijab. These readers said I failed to counter that male family members often put a great deal of pressure on women to cover their hair and that to gloss over such nonlegal coercion as simply a "personal choice" is to misrepresent the situation and therefore to misrepresent the symbolism of the hijab for such women.
Rehab did not respond to several requests for a response to this, but I’d be glad to include responses from others in the Zmail feature next Tuesday.
There are times, I confess, when I decide to pass on writing another column on how degenerate the Republican Party is. What else is there to say? It’s not as if the entire media class isn’t saying it every hour of every day. … I am not saying that the Democrats are not also corrupted by rank tribalism. At their worst, they are (corrupted), as I often point out. I am saying that they do not compare with the current GOP in its hollowness and depravity and madness. — Andrew Sullivan
A notable aspect of private health insurance is the absence of any reason for it to exist. It does not contain costs, expand coverage, or expedite care—it makes those all worse. Its sole function is to profit as a rent-seeking middleman between patients and providers. — Max Kennerly
Heather Cherone of WTTW-TV, Austin Berg of the Illinois Policy Institute and Brandon Pope of WCIU-TV and, now, WBEZ-FM joined me and host John Williams for this week’s episode of “The Mincing Rascals.” Topics included newspaper endorsements, crime reporting and Democratic messaging about the SAFE-T Act, the arrival of the 3,000th asylum -seeking migrant in Chicago, Brandon’s new podcast-hosting adventure. Subscribe to us wherever you get your podcasts. Or bookmark this page. If you’re not a podcast listener, you can now hear an edited version of the show at 8 p.m. most Saturday evenings on WGN-AM 720.
In Tuesday’s editions, I present my favorite tweets that rely on visual humor and so can’t be included in the classic Tweet of the Week contest in which the template for the poll does not allow the use of images. Subscribers vote for their favorite, and I post the winner here every Thursday:
I posted this tweet by Chicagoan Andrew Nadeau to Facebook and just about every respondent agreed:
The new nominees for Tweet of the Week:
Birds are UFOs if you are not a birdwatcher. — @dumbbeezie
They're called your "golden years" because you get soft and easily dented. — @lloydrang
It’s weird that we use the phrase “like taking candy from a baby” to mean something easy instead of something disturbingly psychopathic. — @TheAndrewNadeau
[Dog trial] D.A.: Who's a good boy? Dog: *wags tail* D.A.: Then how do you explain the scattered trash? Dog: *ears droop* Jury: *gasps* — @JohnLyonTweets
Making fun of someone's age is like mocking them for getting hit by a train because you're standing a little further down the tracks. — @bazecraze
No one has ever had sex after saying “Anywho.” — @Jake_Vig
I think we can all agree that hairdressers are the unsung heroes for looking at the pictures of celebrity hair we want and not laughing in our faces. — @IHideFromMyKids
I've opened a can of worms. They just sit there, the worms. Hardly the chaos that's been advertised. — @Contwixt
Can we normalize hissing at people when we want them to stop talking? — @AnnietheNanny1
Winnie-the-Pooh is in the top 1% on OnlyShirts — @meantomyself
The thread under the candy-from-a-baby tweet included such comments as “Babies shouldn’t have candy. I’m a hero in this.” “Always thought the same with shooting fish in a barrel. Like use a net you moron. They have nowhere to hide. You’re ruining the fish.” And the suggestion for an alternative, “It’ll be as easy as pushing grandma down the stairs.”
How do you know when a joke has become a dad joke? When it becomes apparent. -- @AmishSuperModel
Termites are like, don't talk to me before I’ve had my coffee table. — @jackcorrbit
Just got fired from my job as a set designer. I left without making a scene. — (various sources)
When I lost my job as a Dracula impersonator, I was told it was no reflection on me. — @AllanForsyth
My mind. You just read my mind — @RickAaron
French prosecutors relax in the J’Accuzzi. — @RickAaron
Return of the Jedi is not possible without the receipt of the Jedi. — @bornmiserable
I want the record for running the most red lights and I'll stop at nothing to get it. — @RickAaron
I won a chocolate bunny at the carnival but it was a hollow victory. —@JohnLyonTweets
At the end of the day, it’s 11:59 p.m. — @TheTweetOfGod.
For instructions and guidelines regarding the polls, click here.
Tune of the Week
As we move into the second year of the Picayune Sentinel, I intend to begin broadening the Tune of the Week feature by asking special guests to suggest a song they think you’ll like.
As I explained in the Aug. 25 issue, I take inspiration for this from my experience in the summer of 2002, when I was one of many local media figures invited to fill in for then-WXRT-FM morning news anchor Mary Dixon for one day while she was on maternity leave. Every Mary for a Day got to chat on the air with then-morning host Lin Brehmer, read newscasts and play one song for the musically sophisticated XRT audience. So I will be asking contributors for the one song they would play for a radio audience that would tell people more about who they are.
My first guest is, fittingingly, former WXRT-FM newsman Charlie Meyerson. Meyerson not only worked closely with me when we were both at the Tribune and has been generous in linking to the Sentinel in his daily online news roundup Chicago Public Square, but also we frequently jam together at the Oak Park Farmers Market on Saturday mornings.
So here’s Charlie:
My go-to song — for good cheer, for energy (like, um, working out, if I ever get back to that again) — is New Radicals’ 1998 song “You Get What You Give.” During some challenging professional times a decade or so ago, it spoke to me — and it keeps speaking to me. When the band reunited to perform it for Joe Biden’s inaugural, it felt like a signal that, to quote the song, this world is gonna pull through.
A band from Los Angeles, New Radicals, made their debut with their one and only album from a brief two-year career. It was called “Maybe You've Been Brainwashed, Too.” And although almost every song on the album holds up wonderfully to my ear, this song topped the charts in Canada and New Zealand and had some modest success here in the U.S. … It hit No. 30 on Billboard's Hot 100 airplay in January of ’99.
— Charlie Meyerson
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