BROOKE GLADSTONE: As we've heard, newspapers' presidential endorsements are serious undertakings, often decided after passionate, even rancorous debate. So when they're printed, politicians quake, readers gasp, and the political earth stands still. Or-- not so much.
BOB GARFIELD: Stop the presses! The Tampa Tribune, that bulwark of Florida conservatism, has given George Bush the Barry Goldwater treatment, making him only the second Republican presidential candidate not to get the paper's endorsement in 52 years. No, really, stop the presses. Or don't even bother turning them on, because this wrenching decision, describe with palpable anguish in the Tribune's lead editorial Tuesday, is likely to have no impact on the election whatsoever. Now will the New York Times' endorsement of John Kerry, nor whatever the Columbus Dispatch decides to do. Why? Well, there are three reasons: number one is that newspaper editorial endorsements tend to be printed in the editorial pages of newspapers, where at least 80 percent of the American electorate seldom looks.
MARY ANN LINDLEY: The crossword puzzle, for God's sake, does better [LAUGHS].
BOB GARFIELD: Mary Ann Lindley is editorial page editor of the Tallahassee Democrat, which is less doctrinaire than its Tampa counterpart, but faces the same readership reality, which is that only half of adult Americans read weekday newspapers, compared to more than 80 percent in 1964, and only a fraction of them regularly turn to the opinion pages. Least of all, the undecideds who, pretty much by definition, are disengaged, disaffected, terribly confused or possibly actually comatose. Paul Maslin is a Democratic political consultant.
PAUL MASLIN: They are the last people you're going to find reading newspapers or reading a newspaper editorial. We're lucky if they're going to watch television news or listen to the radio.
BOB GARFIELD: Not that the rest of the electorate is hanging on the local editorial board's every word. Individual papers tend to keep this information proprietary, but unofficially report frequent opinion page readership ranging from 25 to 30 percent of subscribers, or, as that level of interest is often phrased, about the same as the sports pages. Whether we should be heartened that we, as a nation, are equally interested in the issues of the day and the plays of the day is one question. Another question might be -- as much readership as the sports pages? Oh, really.
LYNNEL BURKETT: Nobody wants to admit they haven't read the editorial page.
BOB GARFIELD: Lynell Burkett is editorial page editor of the San Antonio Express News and president of the National Conference of Editorial Writers.
LYNNEL BURKETT: I know there's some people who say that numbers might appear a little bit inflated because people say, oh, yes, I read the editorial page.
BOB GARFIELD: Whatever the actual readership, and here's problem number two -- Americans' reaction to opinion leaders isn't particularly compliant. Some few people do use editorials and opinion pieces to know what to think. Others -- let's say, me -- use them to learn more about issues, to understand the arguments, and to help think things through. Still others --apparently the vast majority -- use them like that little button on your gas grill -- Press here to start the flames. Lynell Burkett.
LYNNEL BURKETT: The nation is surly right now. [LAUGHS] they're, they're unhappy. They're polarized.
DON WYCLIFF: Most of the electorate are dug in on one side or the other, and those who are persuadable are really a barely tiny minority. [LAUGHS]
BOB GARFIELD: Don Wyciff, public editor of the Chicago Tribune and 15 year veteran of the editorial page, spends his day engaging readers who not only don't appreciate being enlightened, but are deeply suspicious of the motives of those doing the enlightening. Editorialists will spend hours or days chewing over an issue, only to be dismissed as biased, corrupt or dictated to by a cigar-chomping publisher with a sinister agenda. Or, as Gail Collins, editorial page editor of the New York Times so elegantly phrases it:
GAIL COLLINS: Most people are happiest reading things that reinforce opinions that they already have.
BOB GARFIELD: She knows this, because when confronted with contrary opinions, those readers rush to their computers to inform the authors what morons and fools they are, which, for conscientious journalists, can be dispiriting.
GAIL COLLINS: If you spent your entire day reading emails, you probably would want to shoot yourself.
BOB GARFIELD: But no, the ranks of the professionally opinionated soldier on, trying at least to frame the debate on issues large and small. The Chicago Tribune's Don Wyciff says it's not just a question of talking readers into a position, but to incrementally advance understanding of complicated questions and to offer a rare commodity -- a philosophy of examining issues based not on knee-jerk partisanship or show biz pyrotechnics, but on research and rigorous contemplation.
DON WYCLIFF: We may write an editorial today about some aspect of the Chicago public school system, and you know, people will not run to the barricades because of it, but over time, along with other editorials, it may cause some lights to go on and people to say, hey, you know, the Tribune has been giving us more wisdom on this than anybody else. Let's listen to what they have to day.
BOB GARFIELD: Lo and behold, every now and then, people do listen. The Des Moines Register's endorsement of dark horse John Edwards in this spring's Iowa caucuses helped propel him to a second place finish, and a spot on the Democratic ticket, and though that effect is rare in presidential politics, it's commonplace elsewhere. The Washington Post's endorsement is widely credited with electing Mayor Marion Barry in 1978, and such direct influence increases as you move down the ballot, where Sean Hannity and Paul Begala have neglected to cloud your mind. The New York Times' endorsements extend all the way down to Civil Court. Burkett's San Antonio paper vets the candidates for state and local office and asks people to take its endorsements into the voting booth. Readers of the Tallahassee Democrat evidently do just that. Mary Ann Lindley, who the rest of the year plays second fiddle to the crossword, can quantify the overlap between her page's picks and the outcomes of legislative races, referenda, school board seats and so on.
MARY ANN LINDLEY: We have about an 80 percent success rate in our endorsements. Now, some people will say well you're just in touch with your readers, but I think we are in touch with our community.
BOB GARFIELD: Which is exactly why, like its cross-state rival the Tribune, it will not be endorsing anyone for president.
MARY ANN LINDLEY: Really, I just think it wouldn't make any difference. I don't think the local newspaper would change one mind. If we did, I would be just stunned.
BOB GARFIELD: In other words, let sleeping dogs lie. But there's yet a reason number three that newspapers' presidential endorsements are of negligible importance -- a 1996 study by the Annenberg Public Policy Center asked presidential voters if they were influenced by newspaper endorsements. Only 11 percent said yes, and of them, 25 percent, when asked who the endorsement endorsed, got the answer wrong. [MUSIC]