There’s logic behind The Herald’s lack of presidential endorsement

A week ago this morning, like any other reader, I picked up The Herald from my porch. Waiting for coffee, I did what I always do. I turned to the Opinion page.

Normally, I start with letters to the editor, which are packed with, well, plenty to think about. Anyway, on Oct. 26, the other side of the Opinion page grabbed my attention first. “Herald Endorsement Recap,” it said.

I read the list, twice. There was no endorsement by The Herald editorial board for president. I decided that maybe it was still coming, but then was certain it wasn’t. Our editorial writers are precise. “Recap” has a meaning, recapitulation — repeating briefly. You can’t repeat what you haven’t said.

No presidential endorsement? How come?

Like any other reader might be, I was curious. And that put me in a curious situation. I work in the news department, which is entirely separate from the editorial department. Even when we write about the same topics on the same days, news reporters (and columnists) are independent of the editorial staff, and vice versa.

Political endorsement decisions are made by The Herald editorial board. Its members are Herald publisher Allen Funk, editorial page editor Bob Bolerjack, editorial writer Carol MacPherson and Kim Heltne, assistant to the publisher. It’s very unusual for me to have a question for them, and rarer still for me to write about their answers. In fact, for me this is a first.

Why did I sit down in Bolerjack’s office to ask why The Herald wasn’t making a presidential endorsement this year? Because — at least this is how I see it — it’s news.

I started working here in 1981, and this newspaper has made endorsements in every presidential race between then and 2004 (when the editorial board endorsed Democratic Sen. John Kerry). I didn’t go back through a ­century-plus of Herald archives. It’s a good bet that if you spent that time, you’d find endorsements in every White House race over the past 100 years — with the exception of 2008.

“Our forte is local news,” Bolerjack said Wednesday, adding that the board met with close to 60 people before making endorsements for other offices and ballot measures this year. “We have no more access when it comes to national issues than my next door neighbor. Our mission is local, and that’s where we can do the best job,” he said.

Just as The Herald has moved toward an all-local emphasis on its front page, Bolerjack said, the editorial board now focuses on local and regional candidates and statewide issues.

Bolerjack also sees vast differences even from four years ago. “And eight years ago, for sure, there wasn’t this proliferation of opinion out there,” he said. For months, syndicated columnists on The Herald’s Opinion page have weighed in on every aspect of the presidential race.

Adding to it with an endorsement, “wasn’t the best use of our resources,” he said.

The Herald isn’t alone in not making a presidential endorsement. John Temple, editor, publisher and president of Denver’s Rocky Mountain News, wrote Oct. 18 of the newspaper’s decision to make no endorsements because of a “media landscape dramatically altered by the Internet.”

Who can forget Oprah Winfrey announcing her presidential pick? That was bigger news than any newspaper endorsement.

Funk, The Herald’s publisher, emphasized the editorial board’s face-to-face process in making its choices. “Our endorsement process is very personal. We meet personally with individual candidates, and check their backgrounds and references,” he said Friday. Funk said the board doesn’t rely on candidate interviews aired on TVW, the Washington state public affairs TV network, or other sources, as some newspapers do.

“With all our endorsements, we are speaking directly to candidates,” Funk said. With the presidential hopefuls, he said, “We don’t have that opportunity to judge character, or to ask, ‘So why are we still in Iraq?’ ”

He’s right. I haven’t seen Sens. John McCain or Barack Obama wandering around The Herald lately.

Those who read closely know that this isn’t the first mention of no presidential endorsement in The Herald. Bolerjack pointed to a Sept. 21 editorial, with the headline “An informed electorate is the root of democracy.” After explaining about endorsements, how readers can share their views, and that there is already much information about national races, the editorial has a paragraph near the bottom saying: “Consequently, we’ll be spending our time in the next month researching and writing about the races closest to home — the ones in which we can actually interview the candidates — and will leave endorsements in the presidential race to others.”

I don’t need a Herald endorsement to make up my mind for president. But like any other reader this morning, I would have liked reading my own newspaper’s view on what some are calling the most important decision voters will make in a generation.

I also wondered whether perhaps the editorial board couldn’t agree on a presidential pick. Funk and Bolerjack said that’s not the case. “I can’t tell you where that discussion would have gone,” said Bolerjack. The board never attempted to choose between McCain and Obama, he said.

“It’s traditional to expect newspapers to endorse candidates,” said Funk. “If we can’t provide that research, it’s not appropriate. I don’t feel any more informed on presidential politics than the average citizen.”

Columnist Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460 or muhlstein@heraldnet.com.

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