The New York Times has turned its usually staid and secretive presidential endorsement process into a kind of reality TV show. On Sunday, Jan. 19, during a special edition of “The Weekly,” the FX network’s docuseries about the Times, the newspaper’s editorial board will make its big reveal: One Democrat among nine hopefuls will get the Times’ official seal of approval.
The semi-theatrical presentation is unusual, to say the least, for an institution known as the Gray Lady. The Times has been endorsing presidential candidates since 1860, when it went for the Republican candidate, Abraham Lincoln. (It has tended to back Democrats ever since.) But until this year, the process was like a papal conclave: solemn, secretive and far from public view. Candidates trouped to the Times’s conference room, made their pitches off the record, and then — voilà! — the Times named its preferred candidate in ink and pixels.
Now, in the name of transparency (and maybe some TV ratings), the Times is letting viewers see how this particular sausage is made.
The newspaper invited all of the major-party candidates, including President Trump, to field questions from the 15-member editorial board that determines its endorsements. Each of the 90-minute candidate interviews was recorded by TV cameras. Transcripts of the interviews have been posted on the Times’s website, along with excerpted videos. The full-length recordings will be posted after the “winner” is revealed on Sunday night’s program.
“We knew we wanted the process to be more transparent,” said Kathleen Kingsbury, the Times’s deputy editorial page editor who oversaw the board’s deliberations. “We knew that putting the interviews and transcripts on the record would provide value to our readers even if they didn’t agree with our endorsement.”
She added, “There’s a misunderstanding about endorsements. We’re not backing a candidate as much as we’re trying to inform voters about their own decision. . . . We want to give people our opinion, but at the end of day we want to inform them. It’s more of an exercise in adding context, to give voters more information as they decide.”
Kingsbury, 40, was drafted to run the editorial meetings in the absence of her boss, James Bennet, the Times’s editorial page editor. (Bennet recused himself because his brother, Colorado Sen. Michael F. Bennet, is a candidate.) She’s also the chief decision-maker; Kingsbury made the selection after the board voted on its top two candidates this week. Naturally, she’s not saying whom she chose, deferring to Sunday’s program.
The path to an endorsement will probably look smooth when the FX program airs. But there were hiccups along the way. Scheduling the interviews around the demands of the campaign trail was tricky, and not all of the candidates bought in. Trump — no fan of what he has called the “failing New York Times” — didn’t respond to the newspaper’s invitation to present his case. (In the end, the Times decided not to endorse in the limited Republican primary.) Others (Tulsi Gabbard, Julián Castro) sent regrets. Kamala Harris (like Castro and Cory Booker, no longer in the race) canceled at the last minute.
The oddest response may have come from Mike Bloomberg, the former New York mayor. Bloomberg’s campaign scheduled an interview with the Times but pulled out early last month, saying he hadn’t developed enough positions on the issues to participate, Kingsbury said.
Ultimately, the Times got nine Democrats to its boardroom: Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Tom Steyer, Booker, Elizabeth Warren, Andrew Yang, Amy Klobuchar, Pete Buttigieg and Deval Patrick.
Many Times readers have applauded the paper’s effort to shed light on itself, but a minority have griped about its TV self-aggrandizement. “I wish you weren’t creating yet one more reality game show out of this,” complained one Twitter user.
Kingsbury, a Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial writer, acknowledges that submitting the whole process to TV cameras risked creating some unintended consequences. “I did have a little problem with that,” she said, noting that the candidates may have been reluctant to speak more freely, knowing they were on the record. “The reality is when you bring TV cameras into any meeting, people’s behavior changes. I’m still wondering if we should have done this on TV or if we should have just released the transcripts.”
To try to nudge the candidates off script, Kingsbury asked each of them the same question: Can you give an example of a person who’s broken your heart?
Booker gave perhaps the most moving response, telling a story about a young neighbor in Newark, Hassan Washington, who was murdered. At the man’s funeral, Booker, then the newly elected mayor of Newark, said he felt a “feeling of suffocation,” as if the mourners were “chained together in grief, moaning and crying and wailing at what is [an] everyday reality in America is another boy in a box. And I ran back to a new mayor’s office and I sat on that couch and I wept because we were all there for his death, but we weren’t there for his life.”
Sanders’s answer may have been the most surprising. After a long pause, he declined to answer. “No. I won’t [respond],” he said. “Even candidates for president of the United States have a limited amount of privacy.”
The Sunday TV special could be a warm-up act for the main event later this year. Stay tuned: The Times plans to make another endorsement in the general election in the fall.