How We Endorse, and Why

By Fred Hiatt
Monday, September 11, 2006

Some newspapers do not endorse political candidates, and I can understand why. But I think it's one of our most important responsibilities -- one we take very seriously.

Why do some papers abstain? One reason is that endorsements by the editorial page can make life difficult for our colleagues who report and edit the news, though in fact we operate totally independently from each other. Leonard Downie, the executive editor, has no input into our endorsements -- he doesn't even know when they are coming -- and our editorial endorsements have no influence on how Downie and his staff cover campaigns. Downie oversees the news staff, I oversee the editorial and op-ed pages, and neither of us reports to the other. But some readers and campaign workers will always be skeptical of that separation, and the doubts can be a burden on Post political reporters.

A second argument against endorsing is the temptation to sugarcoat. We take pride on this editorial page in being honest with readers -- in never shading our opinions for tactical reasons. If we like a proposal, we say so, even if we dislike the proposer; if we admire a politician, we nonetheless won't hesitate to criticize when criticism is called for.

This principle is tested when we're endorsing, and especially when we're endorsing candidates who don't fill us with enthusiasm. We seek to be candid about their drawbacks, but not sound so lukewarm as to make the endorsement sound foolish. I don't think we pull any punches on behalf of candidates we endorse, but I recognize the temptation.

Finally, some editors recoil at what they see as the arrogance of the process: Who are we to tell you whom to vote for? I understand that one, too, but I've come to believe it would be more arrogant to remain haughtily above the fray.

Here's why: We spend all of our time in between elections telling officials what to do, advocating for the ideal, arguing for what we think is right. But then, on Election Day, the ideal isn't on the ballot. Instead, there's a concrete choice between two or more flawed human beings. Generally, none of them agrees with us on every issue, but that's true for most voters, too; yet we urge voters to do their civic duty and make their best choices. I think we ought to go on record and do the same -- and be prepared to live with the consequences.

In so doing, we're not expecting to make or break candidates. Voters will base their choices on many considerations; we hope our endorsement -- if it's well reported and persuasively argued -- will be one of them. Particularly in races that are vital but potentially confusing -- take the 46 candidates on the ballot for the reconstituted Prince George's County Board of Education, for example -- we hope that the sifting we do may help some voters who don't have the time to do their own.

So how do we sift? First, an admission: There are about 800 candidates on ballots in Washington and its Maryland suburbs tomorrow, and we haven't met with them all.

As an editorial board, we do meet with many candidates, particularly for top posts. That means that a half-dozen editorial writers, our cartoonist, and an editor or two sit down with a candidate and talk about his or her accomplishments, positions and post-election plans. Other candidates meet with one, two or three members of our editorial board: in the District, usually with Colbert I. King, deputy editorial page editor; in Maryland, with editorial writers Lee Hockstader, Jo-Ann Armao or Bob Asher. They report back to the rest of us.

The interviews are just one factor; we consider candidates' records, their campaigns and campaign literature, and the views of others we respect. Stands on issues matter a lot, of course, but so do character, integrity and suitability for the job. We disagreed with D.C. Councilman Adrian Fenty on the baseball stadium, for example, but we respected the reasons for his stance; the disagreement didn't outweigh our broader conclusion that he was the best candidate for mayor.

After we report, we discuss, and sometimes argue. We keep Publisher Boisfeuillet Jones Jr. and Post Chairman Donald E. Graham in the loop. In my view, they're both more than entitled to weigh in, but they are invariably respectful of where our reporting takes us.

I won't be voting in the primaries tomorrow, because I don't think the editorial page editor should affiliate with one political party or the other. But I'll be watching the results with avid interest. Like everyone else, we'll win some, we'll lose some -- and some of the ones we win, we may come to wish we'd lost. But that won't stop us from weighing in again next time around.

fredhiatt@washpost.com


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