Breaking From History and Tradition on the Candidate Endorsement Process

October 26th, 2010 · 1 Comment · Uncategorized

By Denise Tessier

This past Sunday, the Albuquerque Journal concluded its endorsement cycle. Pretty much all that’s left to print are the wrap-ups summarizing whom the Journal has decided to favor, the final list of which will probably run the Sunday before Election Day.

Names and specific endorsements aside, a sea change has occurred at state’s leading daily in terms of this year’s process and results.

As a former member of the Journal Editorial Board, I can attest that one of the most arduous parts of the endorsement process is the actual interviewing of candidates in contested races, and this campaign season had many contenders.

In addition to performing the regular duties of putting out a daily section, editorial board members in my experience conducted these interviews throughout the workday. Sometimes they were scheduled back-to-back. Candidates would come in early, before the morning editorial meeting; they would appear in the afternoons.

Talking to each candidate was time-consuming, but it always was considered vital to the process.

This year, some candidates visited with the editorial board and went through this process, and we at ABQJournalWatch.com have talked to some who did. But in a significant break from history and tradition, some candidates were not interviewed this year. A few told us they tried to set up appointments, yet did not receive a call back.

With its reduced staff, it’s possible the editorial board simply didn’t have time to interview everyone this year, and decided to forgo interviewing some of the incumbents they’ve talked to before. On the other hand, some of the editorial board members are new enough not to have interviewed some of these incumbents in the past. And at the least, candidates deserved a call back and an explanation. As Journal columnist Thelma Domenici routinely reminds us, manners never go out of style.

But that isn’t the only break from history and tradition.

Though not inscribed in stone, during my eight years on the editorial board (and many years before that as a reader) it became apparent that the Journal’s unwritten policy toward endorsement decisions generally was to favor the person who was most experienced in the job by virtue of the fact that they already held the office. In other words, endorsements generally favored the incumbent. Exceptions were rare and predicated on some egregious act. (A notable exception to this unwritten policy was made during my tenure in the absence of any wrongdoing:  The decision not to endorse former Albuquerque City Councilor Michael Brasher. Brasher had missed the filing deadline – he explained that it had also been his wife’s birthday – and he ran as a write-in candidate. But another unwritten policy at the time was that there would be no endorsements for write-in candidates. So, rather than endorse a write-in – even one who had served for many years – the Journal’s nod went to novice Tina Cummins, an arbitrary decision if there ever was one.)

This go-round, while the Journal did give its nod to a number of incumbents in state offices, it surprisingly went against a number of others, some of whom had received previous endorsements over the years. The “throw-them-out” message was clearest in the Congressional races, where none of the incumbents received the Journal’s approval, and in another break with tradition, endorsement paragraphs for the three challengers were prefaced with a kind of “explanatory” editorial.

In yet another break, the Journal departed from a long-standing tradition of endorsing without ever mentioning the candidate’s opponent or record. In previous campaign endorsements, opponents were never mentioned, even if the endorsement decision was based solely on rejection of that opponent and there was little to recommend the endorsee. Most readers likely would agree that giving both sides of the story is actually an improvement, giving the reader a bit more insight into the rationale behind the endorsement – if you are a reader who still thinks the endorsement process a legitimate enterprise, one that does not compromise the underlying assumption that the newspaper is unbiased.

As this endorsement season comes to a close, there is one tradition that appears intact. From comments made on social networks, it’s apparent that there’s still a disconnect between the Journal’s editorial board and many of its rank-and-file reporters. Some things never change.

Editor’s Note: For more background and history on the Journal’s endorsement process, the following are links to stories  by former Journal editorial writers Denise Tessier and David Alire Garcia, which they wrote for the New Mexico Independent during the last major election cycle, in 2008.

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