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Friday, Oct. 17 at 3 p.m. ET

Election 2008: Washington Post Endorses Obama

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Fred Hiatt
Washington Post Editorial Page Editor
Friday, October 17, 2008; 3:00 PM

Washington Post editorial page editor Fred Hiatt will be online Friday, Oct. 17 at 3 p.m. ET to explain The Post's endorsement of Sen..... Barack Obama for president and the process and deliberations that went into the decision.

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Fred Hiatt: Welcome all to a chat on our endorsement today and related issues. The last time we talked was during the conventions, which seems like a couple of years ago! So I look forward to your questions.

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Columbia, S.C.: I am an Obama supporter, but why endorse at all given the fragile newspaper business? You alienate a portion of your readership, and frankly, most people pay little attention to newspaper endorsements (except in local races where the candidates usually have met with the editorial staff). Perhaps you should rethink endorsements as a 20th century holdover.

Fred Hiatt: Might as well start with the basics, and this is a good question. Even before the newspaper business was fragile, many people had questioned whether endorsements are a good idea. Some Post reporters -- who have nothing to do with the editorial board and its decisions -- wish we wouldn't, because they worry readers will impute our bias to them.

Here's why I think we should: We spend four years spouting our views on everything from A to Z, and talking about what politicians should and shouldn't do. At election time, none of us have a choice of ideals, but of two (or more) real people, flaws and all. We expect voters to make a judgment between them, and I think newspapers owe their readers the respect of making the same judgment.

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Washington: Why did you wait so long to announce your endorsement? It is clear that the editorial board believes in Democratic ideals (not that there is problem with that). But given the ideological alignment of the candidates and this editorial page why wait until so close to the election to endorse a candidate?

Fred Hiatt: I know some readers will not believe this, but we didn't start the campaign knowing where we would come out -- we watched and listened, weighed the vice presidential picks, and gradually came to the views you read today. We did not want to endorse before the last debate.

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Arlington, Va.: How much interaction is there between The Post's editorial staff and the news team? We keep hearing about a "wall" between the two groups, but earlier this year a Metro reporter was caught bragging to a D.C. official that he had "killed" and editorial critical of the Fenty administration -- a report that neither your news, editorial staff nor ombudsman has addressed adequately.

Fred Hiatt: I never heard that, and as the person who decides which editorials we publish, I can guarantee you no Metro reporter -- or national reporter, editor, etc. -- could "kill" an editorial.

We all have friends across the "wall," but they do not tell me what to do, and I do not tell them how to cover the news.

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Corvallis, Ore.: How often does The Post's endorsed candidate win the election ?

Fred Hiatt: I don't know. We've "lost" our share, that's for sure, but honestly I'm more interested in putting our best judgment out and hoping that it becomes one factor in voters' decision making process, than in being a kingmaker. Certainly for a presidential election, no single newspaper is going to be decisive.

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Providence, R.I.: What is the process for an endorsement at the post? Did Obama meet with the editorial board? Was there a vote? I know that at the small business paper I once worked at, our editorial board really didn't vote on endorsements -- in the end it was always the publisher's decision, and therefore always the Republican. I would love to know how larger papers operate when deciding to endorse candidates.

Fred Hiatt: We almost always invite candidates to come in (or at least to speak with an editorial writer, if we're facing a local election with hundreds of candidates), and I prefer to leave it to them to say whether they come in or not.

The process involves a lot of ongoing discussion with the board (I think 10 people, including our op-ed and letters editor and cartoonist), our chairman, Don Graham, and our publisher, Katharine Weymouth. In my experience, the process always has involved coming to a consensus, though I don't question a publisher's right to make such a decision unilaterally.

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Springfield, Va.: The Post's circulation has dropped by about 200,000 copies in the past decade. How much of this loss do you attribute to cultural and generational changes (i.e. Generation X prefers to get their news online) and how much is because subscribers are choosing to get news from another source that matches their liberal or conservative bias?

Fred Hiatt: Another excellent question. I think the two probably feed into each other. Our readership is actually way up, when you add washingtonpost.com readers to subscribers. But as you say, younger people (though not only) are used to getting their news online, not in print -- and this may tap into a tendency to want to go to Web sites where people know the views they read will be congenial to them.

On the other hand, I can tell from the comments that we and our columnists get that plenty of people who don't agree and still want to read diverging viewpoints.

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Kettering, Ohio: Good afternoon Mr. Hiatt and thank you for taking my comment. The Post's endorsement is not too much of a surprise, but I could have also seen your endorsement of McCain. Of the four or five "national" papers, I think The Post works the hardest to keep its editorializing on the editorial page where it belongs, and not allowing its point of view to seep into its reporting -- as the New York Times is famous or infamous for. You are not perfect as Mr. Kurtz and your ombudsman often report, but I think you are trying.

However, I think journalists don't appreciate the concern of many readers regarding bias in reporting. If more than 80 percent of journalists are going to be voting for Obama, isn't it obvious that even the perception of bias or self-interest -- a standard that attorneys must observe -- colors the credibility of the media, especially of the written media with its long history of responsible journalism? This election is troubling to me because the wall between the editorial side and the reporting side seems to be more like a screen door.

Fred Hiatt: I think it's a fair question. I don't know the 80 percent statistic you cite, but I agree that reporters and editors have a particular responsibility to be checking themselves for bias. Having been on the news side for a long time before becoming an editorial writer, I can testify that we're not always perfect at that.

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Springfield, Va.: If McCain had chosen a more ideal running mate (say for argument, a perfect running mate), would that have been enough to swing The Post's endorsement in the other direction?

Fred Hiatt: Those counterfactuals, as they say, are always impossible to assess. There's no question it would have made the choice harder.

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St. Pete, Fla.: Regardless of how I feel about the candidates personally, I'd like to comment on how well-written the endorsement was. Congrats on a superbly crafted piece. Great read!

Fred Hiatt: Thank you very much.

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Folsom, Calif.: Among those at your paper involved in the decision to endorse Obama, was there any argument that the Palin vice presidential pick wasn't irresponsible?

Fred Hiatt: I think that when the pick was announced, we were surprised, because 20 months as governor of Alaska did not seem like the kind of experience McCain had promised, given his age, etc. -- but we were prepared to be persuaded that it was a good choice. In subsequent weeks, in my view, she did not do anything to persuade voters that she had thought about foreign policy in a serious way, or was prepared herself to take on these very complicated questions -- which is not a comment on her intelligence or her ability to take on such questions, if she did prepare herself.

On that, there was no dissent on my board -- which does have lots of diverging views on most questions.

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Springfield, Va.: Is there a major newspaper that has endorsed McCain? I ask because I thought The Post's article was very well-written. I'd like to read something similar that comes to the opposite conclusion so I can see the argument from both sides to make my final decision.

Fred Hiatt: I haven't seen one yet, but I'm sure there will be. Probably we'll see a bunch on Sunday.

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Washington: "Earlier this year a Metro reporter was caught bragging to a D.C. official that he had "killed" an editorial critical of the Fenty administration" "Fred Hiatt: I never heard that..."

The Washington City Paper reported that Metro reporter David Nakamura claimed that he stopped your employee Jo-Ann E. Armao from attacking the Fenty administration. I don't know if the report was true, but I can't believe that you never even heard about the accusation.

washingtonpost.com: Access and Allies (Washington City Paper, March 5)

Fred Hiatt: I'm sorry. I try to keep up with the City Paper, which does good reporting, but I did not see that. I can tell you it is not true (and I'd be surprised if David said such a thing, but I won't speak for him).

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Silver Spring, Md.: I just wanted to compliment the editorial board for the quality of the writing in the endorsement. It was an organized, even-handed and thought-provoking essay, and it neatly covered many of the topics I wish more people would attend to in making their decisions.

Fred Hiatt: This is my favorite kind of question!

Seriously -- thank you. I appreciate that.

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Washington: For the laypeople in the readership, of whom I am one: Are Post editorials written in whole or part by contributors to the Opinion pages?

washingtonpost.com: About the Editorial Board

Fred Hiatt: The editorials are written by me and our other editorial writers, not by the syndicated columnists or guest contributors who appear on the facing op-ed page.

But just to be a bit more confusing, some of our editorial writers also write columns in their own voice and under their own name -- e.g. Jackson Diehl or Ruth Marcus.

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Arlington, Va.: It's no shock that The Post picked Obama -- I doubt they have ever picked a Republican. How does The Post decide who gets to be on the editorial board or have an op-ed column? Because it would seem this is another way the post can use its political leanings to push its liberal views. I also have noticed there are multiple op-ed writers who are liberal and have online discussions, but no conservative ones. No one ever has attempted to answer this imbalance.

Fred Hiatt: The chairman and publisher pick the editorial page editor, and I hire the other editorial writers, and (in consultation with my bosses and colleagues) select our columnists. I think we have a pretty good balance on the op-ed page -- among our conservatives I'd count George Will, Charles Krauthammer and Michael Gerson. On balance they may not appear in our online chats as much as our liberals, which is something we'd like to rectify.

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Washington: Doesn't The Post usually do presidential endorsements on Sunday? Why today instead?

Fred Hiatt: We've always done it Sunday, but our Web readership -- you all -- is much larger on weekdays than Sundays, so we decided to experiment this year.

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Gaithersburg, Md.: It is with great emotion that I read your article supporting Sen. Barack Obama for president. I grew up in a dictatorial country where elections were not held. As an American citizen now, I urge every American with the right to vote to please do so.

Fred Hiatt: Thank you for that comment. I spent some years reporting from countries that were dictatorships, or were transitioning to democracy (e.g. South Korea in the late '80s, the former Soviet Union in the early '90s) and it does give you a real appreciation for the preciousness of the vote. I share your wish that more Americans will participate.

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Washington: I have to admit to being surprised by the Post's endorsement -- your editorial stance largely has been neoconservative for the past few years. The Post has supported many of McCain's policy position, particularly regarding the war (The Post was an early and ardent supporter, despite some later mea culpas) and on international economic issues (the paper has been fervently pro-free trade, including heavily pushing the Colombia-U.S. free trade agreement, which Sen. Obama said in the debate he would not support). Can you explain how, given these positions, the paper decided to support Obama?

Fred Hiatt: As we said (or tried to say) in the editorial, we don't agree with either candidate's positions in toto, and the two you mention -- Iraq and trade -- are probably our two biggest worries about where an Obama presidency might end up. On both, I hope the logic of the correct position -- i.e. ours :) -- would lead Obama to modify his stances; inevitably, some campaign positions get reshaped by events and by necessity.

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Colorado Springs, Colo.: I believe that you are incorrect in stating that Obama agreed to accept public financing. As I understand it he had left that question to be determined at the proper time. And as The Post has reported before, McCain has had his own issues with financing and matching funds. Thank you.

Fred Hiatt: I think what he promised was to sit down with the Republican nominee and, if that person also was willing, try to work out a pact by which both would abide by the public financing regime. So technically you're right. But McCain was willing, and Obama never sat down to try to work it out, because he realized he could raise a lot more money outside the system.

And he has, and politically most people probably would say he made the right call. I hope, at least, that if he's elected he'll go back to this question and try to fix the system.

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Silver Spring, Md.: The Post's Wikipedia page states: "The paper long had a policy of not making endorsements for presidential candidates. In 2004, that policy changed with the Post's endorsement of Democratic candidate John Kerry." Is that indeed the case?

Fred Hiatt: No. The paper did take a break decades ago, but we were endorsing regularly before 2004 -- we endorsed Gore in 2000.

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Gas City, Ind.: Do you care who wins? I mean you, personally. And if so, care to divulge whom you support?

Fred Hiatt: I don't think I could ever write an editorial one way and vote another -- that would feel dishonest. Because (as I said) it's a group process, there may be a few phrases I would have written differently, or issues emphasized differently, if I were writing for myself alone. But I agree with the whole thing, and it represents how I really feel.

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Iowa: Your endorsement editorial was very well written, and cogent in its arguments. Also, I was grateful it wasn't five pages long like the one in the New Yorker last week.

Fred Hiatt: Well, you know how we writers are -- if they gave me five pages, I'd fill five pages.

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Alexandria, Va.: For the person who asked earlier, Editor and Publisher has a list of the newspapers that have endorsed each candidate.

Fred Hiatt: Thanks!

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New York: Was this an easy decision, or was there much dissent to endorsing Obama?

Fred Hiatt: Neither. Because of our respect for McCain through the years; and because -- as noted above -- we agree with him on some important issues, it couldn't be easy. But it also is true, as we wrote, that it wasn't ambivalent: by the time we came to write -- we all agreed, and we all felt wholehearted about the decision.

I won't lie and say that's true of every endorsement decision at every race; sometimes there's more dissension on the board. That's what makes this an interesting board to work with.

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Tallahassee, Fla.: There are many other reasons for newspapers to endorse candidates. Editorial boards are high-information judges who spend a lot of time researching and thinking about political issues. They have years of experience in politics and reporting. Part of an editor's job -- at least when he or she is acting as a pundit -- is to put politics in an historical context.

Most voters, no matter how committed they are to the democratic process, simply do not have the time or the ability to research the candidates the way a newspaper staff does. Therefore endorsements can (and should) influence decisions. In a way, the question of "why endorse" comes down to a question of "why have editorials at all." Editorials are a tradition of American public discourse and manifestos of free speech. News analysis is as important as raw information. As a voter in a swing state, I welcome The Post's endorsement of Barack Obama.

Fred Hiatt: Thank you. We take the responsibility seriously, on local races as much as national, because in local races not all voters may be paying as close attention as most people are, I think, to the presidential.

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Richmond, Va.: I was surprised about one thing you said about McCain: "He opposed torture." Yes, he once did, but to attract conservatives he reversed himself on March 8, 2008, and backed Bush's veto of the waterboarding ban. That reversal really shone a light on where he was willing to go to get the nomination.

Fred Hiatt: I'm not familiar with what happened on March 8, but I'm pretty sure McCain did not reverse himself on torture. I believe that unlike some senators, he never supported having the Army field manual apply to the intelligence agencies -- i.e. he favored more flexibility for them. But he wrote standards into law that he believed, and we editorially believed, should ban waterboarding for the entire government -- and he didn't go back on that.

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Virginia Beach, Va.: How do you predict Obama as president would get along with top military commanders (apparently he has not met most of them)? Who do you think top military commanders would like to see as their commander in chief?

Fred Hiatt: Interesting question. The military commanders I know best really try not to have partisan views, because they know their job will be to offer their best advice to whoever is elected, and then respond to orders.

If you look at retired generals, there are many on both sides -- many who respect McCain's record and/or agree with his views, and many who think Bush waged unnecessary wars, foolishly strained the military, etc., and think Obama would repair the damage better.

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Richmond, Va.: There is one factual error in your editorial: "Not even his fiercest critics would blame President Bush for all of these problems." See Michael Moore, Dan Froomkin and the New York Times Editorial page. On the whole, I have preferred The Post's more even-handed (and factual) approach to criticism of the administration.

Fred Hiatt: Well, he does have some pretty fierce critics, no question.

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Crestwood, N.Y.: The editorial cites "promotion of freedom abroad" as one of the initiatives by George w. Bush that you think was a good idea. Attacking Iraq and forcing regime change in order to spread democracy through the region was one of the multiple justifications for the war, but the most likely scenario for Iraq today is for a divided federation of states who loath each other, dominated by Iran -- a new Balkans for the Middle East, requiring constant monitoring by us. Does your staff still think its a great idea to attempt to impose "freedom" on foreign countries through the barrel of a gun?

Fred Hiatt: No, and that wasn't the primary reason we, or the administration, or most of the Congress, supported the war -- it was a belief that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, hadn't cooperated with U.N. demands to prove he had disarmed, etc. I confess to thinking that removing one of the century's most savage dictators would be a good thing, though.

In general I don't think anyone advocates going around the world waging war exclusively for democracy -- otherwise we would be fighting in Burma, North Korea, Uzbekistan, Zimbabwe, and a very long line of et ceteras. But I do think that most people want freedom -- it's not something that has to be "imposed" -- and that we should tilt in its favor, and on their behalf, whenever and wherever we can.

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Atlanta: You claim to have great respect for Sen. McCain. If so, why have you paid so many partisan pundits to smear his character?

Fred Hiatt: We have pundits with strong views on many sides of this thing. We try to provide a wide range of intelligent commentary -- though not, I hope, smears.

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Tallahassee, Fla.: Did the historic nature of Obama's candidacy play into the board's decision to endorse him?

Fred Hiatt: You mean that he would be our first African American president?

I would say that I think it would be a great thing for this country to have an African-American president, and that that was not in any way why we endorsed him. We endorsed him on his merits, as we viewed them.

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Washington: Interesting adaptation you made to release the endorsement on Friday rather than Sunday given online readership. It gives me hope that The Post will survive this crazy time for journalism and lead the way for newspapers in this new century. Bravo.

Fred Hiatt: Thanks! I think we'll be around for a while, though the forms and formats may keep changing. ... We depend most of all on readers and viewers like you, who want serious, fair reporting and commentary.

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Bethesda, Md.: In this election cycle, we have witnessed increased discontent among many readers of various publications about bias. American voters across the country look to resources like The Washington Post to gather information on each candidate. I am concerned that voters are losing trust in genuinely respectable and relatively even-handed publications such as The Post. More specifically, I believe that in this campaign season -- where so many falsehoods have been leveled by both presidential campaigns -- it is necessary for voters to be able to have a reliable fact-checking source. Is there any encouragement you can offer to cynical readers to help them trust in the information being reported by The Post?

Fred Hiatt: I don't know what I can say to reassure you, except that I know how hard the people on the news side are working every day to provide fair reporting, sift through rumor and make honest judgments about what's important and what's not. I think they make mistakes sometimes and mostly do a really good job.

Well, if we don't want to deliver empty editorial pages to our readers tomorrow, I better get back to my day job. Thank you so much for participating, and apologies to the questions I didn't have time to answer.

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