No endorsements: Sun-Times move casts voters adrift

After 30 years at the Chicago Sun-Times — including the last four as editorial page editor — Tom McNamee’s job just became a lot more complicated.

In an editorial Monday signed by McNamee and publisher John Barron, the Sun-Times announced that it no longer would be endorsing candidates in any election. “We have come to doubt the value of candidate endorsements by this newspaper or any newspaper, especially in a day when a multitude of information sources allow even a casual voter to be better informed than ever before,” they wrote.

No matter whose words they were, there can be little doubt the orders came from the new owners of the Sun-Times parent company, who took over just after Christmas. If the other publications owned by Chicago-based Wrapports follow suit, we’ll know it for sure. (Wrapports CEO Timothy Knight previously was publisher of Newsday, which, incidentally, still endorses candidates.)

“Research on the matter suggests that editorial endorsements don’t change many votes, especially in higher profile races,” the Sun-Times asserted. “Another school of thought, however — often expressed by readers — is that candidate endorsements, more so than all other views on an editorial page, promote the perception of a hidden bias by a newspaper, from Page One to the Sports pages.”

For many readers, including some at the Chicago Tribune, the reasons cited for opting out rang hollow. “I think endorsements are at the heart of what an editorial board does,” Tribune editorial page editor Bruce Dold told blogger Jim Romenesko. “I don’t think it makes sense for us to recommend how to have better government but avoid recommending who is best to lead that change.” Even if voters are adequately informed about top-of-the-ballot races (which itself is debatable), that’s hardly the case for lower positions or judicial candidates. And isn’t one of the jobs of a newspaper to influence public opinion?

Reaction was mostly negative among those who commented on the Sun-Times website Monday, with many questioning the real motivation for the sudden about-face. Adding intrigue to the speculation, McNamee and Barron were declining all interview requests on the matter.  “We’ve agreed to let the editorial speak for itself,” McNamee told me.

Knowing McNamee as long as I have — as a respected Sun-Times colleague and a former WLS-AM (890) talk show host — I assume it must have been tough for him to keep his thoughts to himself. Come to think of it, it may have been the first time the guy didn’t share his opinions with me whether I asked for them or not.

Others at the Sun-Times confirmed that the decision to pull the plug on endorsements came several weeks after McNamee and the editorial board had begun the process of interviewing candidates for endorsements.

On the same day the editorial was published, candidates were sent a letter (signed by McNamee and Barron) apologizing for changing the game in midstream and offering not to post online the videotaped interviews that had already been conducted. No word yet on whether any of the candidates chose to have their interviews withdrawn from public view.

The challenge for the editorial board now will be to persuade candidates to continue to fill out detailed questionnaires and submit to lengthy interviews even though they won’t be vying for the newspaper’s coveted endorsement anymore. Without that seal of approval as a prize, some may figure, why bother?

It’s even more disappointing for readers who relied on the collective wisdom and judgment of the conscientious professionals at the Sun-Times for guidance at the polls. After today, they’re pretty much on their own.

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Laura Baginski, Editor (@TimeOutChicago)