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McCain & The "Liberal Media" Endorsements

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Since the New York Times endorsed John McCain, the newspaper was obviously not biased in reporting on his conflicts of interest.

That's one view you won't hear much in the raging debate over the Times article about McCain. Media insiders don't say it, since they believe in a "wall" separating news and editorial staff. Most readers overlook it, instead focusing on the substance of the actual article. And in the bizzaro world of the paper's insatiable conservative critics, the endorsement is cited to demonstrate a media conspiracy against McCain. "The liberal Times had endorsed McCain as the best Republican in the presidential race. Were they just setting him up for the kill?" asks Cliff Kincaid, an operative at the right-wing pressure group Accuracy in Media.

It's enough to make you think that political endorsements, like politics, are in the eye of the beholder. But now some top journalists say that newspapers should just end endorsements altogether.

Writing in response to criticism of the McCain article, Times political editor Richard Stevenson estimated that "most" of the paper's political reporters oppose the editorial staff picking candidates. "Endorsements inevitably create the perception among some voters that the Times is backing a candidate on an institutional level, leaving those of us on the news side to explain over and over that our coverage is not influenced by what our colleagues on the editorial page write," he explained.

In this week's Time magazine, managing editor Rick Stengel makes a similar argument, recommending papers stop issuing endorsements "at a time when the credibility and viability of the press are at all-time lows." Newspapers undermine impartiality by endorsing candidates, Stengel contends, and readers are "right" to doubt whether reporters can objectively cover a candidate after their employer endorses the opponent.

Yet most journalists insist those readers are wrong. And if readers incorrectly think that editorial positions make for biased reporters, that misconception is no reason to dump editorials about policies or candidates. What about the (more credible) perception that the media are affected by advertisers? Is that a reason to restrict ads?

Or how about the obvious, larger dynamic at work here: The well-funded, famously effective, 30-year campaign to attack all reporters for harboring a secret liberal bias? Should journalists change their work to rebut that "perception," even as they insist it's baseless?

Consider the Bush era. At times, the press has covered the administration slavishly, repeating White House talking points after 9/11 and validating government misinformation before the Iraq War. Yet reporters have also courageously exposed massive government misconduct in the face of major political and legal pressure, breaking stories about the administration's illegal torture, warrantless surveillance, secret black sites and intelligence abuse. During this period, there have been huge shifts in public opinion on the political parties, the President and Iraq -- but not about the press. In the last seven years of Gallup polling, a steady 45 percent of Americans have said the media is "too liberal," with no change beyond the margin of error, while "too conservative" never broke 20 percent. That is a striking testament to the resilience of the manufactured "liberal media" narrative. Public opinion did not budge when the press went easy on Bush, nor when "bad news" piled up.

So cosmetic media reforms won't alter these hardened perceptions. Whether it's nixing endorsements or hiring Republican columnists who advocate the jailing of "liberal media traitors," the data show that appeasement fails, even on its own narrow terms.

The editors' motivation, however, is still understandable. In law and corporate governance, the "appearance of impropriety" is a standard measure for ethical breaches. The premise, popularized by former Senate Ethics Committee Counsel Robert Bennett, is that public institutions cannot maintain legitimacy if its conduct looks bad to the average person.

"If a reasonable, informed person -- not the most jaundiced or partisan observer -- sees impropriety, there probably is impropriety." That's how the Times explained the Bennett standard in 1990, when editorializing about the Keating Five. (In another twist for Washington's interdependent soap opera, Bennett moved on to represent McCain in his battle with the Times.) But what happens when almost half the population has been convinced that the media's inherent liberalism creates an appearance of improper bias?

That's a lot of reasonable people.

Even if excising editorial opinion did reduce public cynicism, however, it would not improve traditional journalism. If anything, more information about the views of ownership and management enhances journalistic transparency. The wild range of reaction to the McCain article demonstrates the limits of that tack, but most readers would rather know that a powerful arm of the Times backs McCain and Clinton -- or that the Wall Street Journal leans right -- than experience a patronizing blackout.

Finally, and most consequentially for the elections that sparked this debate, endorsements are constructive for democracy. Sure, many voters now ignore them -- no damage done. Yet for voters who care, endorsements are a reasoned antidote to the superficial, gossipy cacophony of today's political discourse. Stengel criticizes them as an "anachronism." Exactly. This is one throwback we can really use. In many states, people look to editorial boards for concrete, local, policy-based suggestions on who to vote for up and down the ballot. That's why campaigns still fight so hard for endorsements from local papers. Editorial boards vet candidates, even the presidential contenders, in long policy discussions off-camera. It's a rare break from soundbite-driven debates and the sanitizing fear of stumbling into a "YouTube moment." Then, when the research is over and the interviews end, newspapers do something that does merit public respect. They take a stand.

This column is from The Nation.