Not Endorsed.

The Sun-Times is closing up shop for candidate endorsements. And in doing so, they’re making some pretty dramatic changes to campaigns.

Endorsements are a Very. Big. Deal. to campaigns. I remember a rather frantic process of running downtown and waiting outside the Sun-Times office to give a backup tape recorder to a communications director. I remember the monotonous and soul-crushing work of transcribing the endorsement interview. I remember running to the grocery store next to the campaign office to get the paper version of the Sun-Times when the endorsements ran, cataloguing and analyzing the minute differences. And those were the pretty inconsequential parts.

The endorsement process not only reports on information, like the Sun-Times asserts; it creates information. And that’s exactly what this op-ed overlooks.

A campaign spends hundreds of hours filling out questionnaires for endorsements and prepping for endorsement interviews. For one single item the scope of the Sun-Times questionnaire (for the primary) and interview (for the general), dozens of hours will be spent. Positions will be defined and refined, because they will be published for the general public to see. Candidates will have to answer to perceived flaws and weaknesses in their stances, policies, and campaign practices, and they have to do so on the record. This information can then be used by supporters and opponents alike to prove where a candidate stands, to demonstrate changes in opinions (aka be able to yell “flip-flop!” at an opponent), and generally stands as a fount of informative content for all candidates throughout campaign season (or over multiple seasons, as incumbents quickly learn).

The amount of press-releases, fact checks, and general arguments made by campaigns that come from the on-the-record accounts made possible and necessary by the endorsement process is staggering. Other things are on the docket before figuring out exactly how much content is from sources like that,* but I’ve experienced that as campaigns’ go-to place to make hay about an opponent’s stance.

And it’s not only that they get campaigns to produce this content, but they get them to produce it under the threat of “no endorsement if you don’t do this, do a half-hearted job, or if it rings false.” I can see where non-endorsing papers might say, “no candidates will still have to do this questionnaire and this interview, because we want to give people information.” But by reducing the threat of withholding an endorsement, the pressure to actually put down content that can be used against a candidate is minimized. (A campaign will likely decide “Maybe they think we’re wishy washy on this, but we won’t lose a specific contest like an endorsement, so wishy washy is good enough.” I would take that route any day of the week.). With the endorsement process, people actually fill out these campaigns. Even Joe Berrios, whose campaign slammed the Sun-Times (and basically all newspapers that reported on him) for how they covered his candidacy/race for Cook County Assessor, filled out one of these questionnaires, and more information is added to the pool from which journalists and campaign alike create news.

You can imagine how this would erode the level of content found in the information put out by campaigns themselves too. What will the fact checks that had this now-absent info turn when it tries to inform its supporters, the news media? It sure isn’t on a campaign’s official website—those only have tepid, poll-tested versions of candidates’ issues and stances, not detailed accounts of past decisions, votes, etc., that show their support for controversial policies. So even while the SunTimes cites its goals of improving the information environment of campaign coverage, they are likely causing (perhaps unforeseen) problems for circulating information in other arenas.

Also to ponder in the future: This change gives insight into how confused people are about the role of the news/information, what J/journalism means, and what is expected of citizens in terms of information gathering, understanding, judging, etc.

* © on the idea to go count press releases and factchecks (especially fact checks) and other campaign content to see just how much of the sourced material comes from places like endorsement info.

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