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Newspapers’ Political Endorsements Becoming Vestige of Past

By Bruce Frassinelli

Once not very long ago, politicians wanted their local newspaper to endorse their candidacies. It was important, often got them votes, and in a close election was sometimes the difference between winning and losing.

That’s rarely the case anymore.

We had a major gubernatorial race in 2022 in which incumbent Democrat Kathy Hochul, 64, of Erie County and a graduate of Syracuse University, defeated Republican challenger, U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin, 43, of East Meadow (Suffolk County), with Hochul getting 52.9% of the vote to Zeldin’s 47.1%.

It was the closest gubernatorial election since 1994 and the closest Democratic victory since 1982. Hochul’s victory was historic in the sense that it was the first time that a woman has been elected governor. She was completing the unexpired term of former Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who was in the midst of a third four-year term when he resigned in August 2021 after facing sexual harassment charges from several women.

(The ’94 election was the one in which Republican George Pataki pulled a major upset, defeating incumbent Democrat Mario Cuomo, who was seeking a fourth four-year term.)

To show the disconnect in political views between the state’s major cities and its rural areas, 50 counties gave Zeldin more votes, in some cases overwhelmingly so. While Democrat Hochul won just 12 of the state’s 62 counties, most in major metropolitan areas including Onondaga (home to Syracuse), Monroe (home to Rochester), Erie (home to Buffalo) and Albany (home to the state capital), Zeldin was outpacing her in rural and many suburban areas.

The margins of victory by Hochul included: Onondaga, 7%, Monroe, 8%, Erie, 6% and Albany, 18%.

Zeldin prevailed in these local counties by the indicated percentages: Oswego, 35%, Cayuga, 25%, Cortland, 16%, Herkimer, 49%, Jefferson, 43%, Lewis, 65%, Madison, 23%, Oneida, 33% and Wayne, 38%.

While the state’s major newspapers, including The New York Times, continue to endorse candidates, many of the smaller publications discontinued the practice years ago. Several major newspaper companies — including hedge fund Alden Global Capital, publisher of the New York Daily News — announced that starting with the 2022 mid-terms, their papers would no longer endorse candidates for president, congress or governor.

Alden announced the decision in an editorial. “Unfortunately, as the public discourse has become increasingly acrimonious, common ground has become a no man’s land between the clashing forces of the culture wars,’’ the newspaper company said. “At the same time, with misinformation and disinformation on the rise, readers are often confused, especially online, about the differences between news stories, opinion pieces and editorials.’’

Alden Global Capital owns about 200 newspapers in the United States, including The Daily News and The Daily Freeman in Kingston, New York.

Three Alden newspapers — The Baltimore Sun, The Chicago Tribune and The Denver Post — were allowed to continue with their endorsements during the mid-terms because of how far along in the process they were, but all three announced after the election that 2022 was the last year of political endorsements.

In recent months, two of the other largest newspaper groups — Gannett and Lee Enterprises — announced that they will no longer endorse national and statewide candidates. In 2022, as many as 70 of the top 100 papers did not endorse a candidate for congress, governor or statewide races.

Newspapers including The New York Times, have a long tradition of endorsing candidates, but in recent years, some have reconsidered, saying that it has limited value and tends to anger readers instead of providing a public service of information.

The Times endorsed Hochul, but political observers said that even a newspaper of the Times’ stature did not carry anywhere near the weight and impact that it once did as evidenced by the better Republican showing statewide in 2022.

With declining circulation throughout the newspaper industry, the last thing local publishers want to do is alienate any reader. They almost all agree that a sure way to foster this alienation is to endorse a candidate whom the reader does not support. As a result, most newspapers attempt to provide a balanced news report in an effort to let prospective voters make their own choices.

Most newspaper publishers agree that political endorsements have outlived their usefulness, especially during this bitter political atmosphere that has gripped the country in the 21st century.

Even the candidates themselves do not see the newspaper’s endorsement as a necessarily positive step forward in a campaign. This polarization and skepticism that has crept into readers’ views of the entire news industry is also part of the issue.

You need look only at the 2016 presidential election when 57 of the nation’s largest newspapers endorsed Chappaqua resident, Democrat Hillary Clinton, while just two chose Donald Trump. In what is now considered one of the country’s most shocking upsets in U.S. political history, Trump defeated Clinton by amassing 304 electoral votes to Clinton’s 227, although Clinton had 65.8 million popular votes to Trump’s 62.9 million.

By 2020, endorsements among major newspapers were still fairly common. Among those endorsing President Joe Biden were The New York Times, The Daily News (New York City), Newsday (Long Island), Buffalo News, The Post Standard (Syracuse) and Times Union (Albany).

Endorsing Trump was the New York Post (New York City).

Among major New York state dailies which did not endorse in 2020 was the Democrat and Chronicle (Rochester).

Biden won the 2020 election with 306 electoral votes to Trump’s 232. Biden had 81.3 million popular votes to Trump’s 74.2 million.

BRUCE FRASSINELLI is the former publisher of The Palladium-Times. He served as a governor of the Rotary Club District 7150 (Central NY) from July 2001 to June 2002.