My first reaction was to think, well of course, doing endorsements right is hard work and the Sun-Times doesn’t have the staff for it any longer. But the editorial promised to keep up the grunt work: “We will post candidate questionnaires online. We will interview candidates in person and post the videos online…
“What we will not do is endorse candidates.”
On Tuesday the Tribune published an editorial pledging that it would “keep doing endorsements.” The Tribune explained, “It would be an abdication to say what we think should be done on an array of issues every day—and then take a vow of silence about who is most likely to advance those goals.”
There's no right or wrong here. Each paper makes a strong argument for itself. And each paper swathes its history in nobility. The Tribune proudly recalls that in 1860 it championed Abraham Lincoln for president. The Sun-Times recalls that it was founded in 1941 by Marshall Field III because somebody “had to stand up and counter the isolationist and anti-Roosevelt fulminations of Col. Robert McCormick and his Chicago Tribune.”
It was actually a Sun-Times predecessor, the Chicago Sun, that Field founded in 1941. Whatever. Over the years both papers have published endorsements that did them proud and endorsements that disgraced them. These endorsements have given me plenty to write about.
The Tribune was so taken by Lincoln and what he stood for that it apparently decided every Republican stood for the same things—they did not endorse a Democrat for president until 2008. This historic endorsement of Barack Obama was mildly tarnished, alas, because at the time the paper was in the grip of buffoons who turned the endorsement process into a sort of game designed to suck up to readers. “As we think about that choice, we want to hear from you,” the Tribune announced. “Do you support Barack Obama? Do you support John McCain?... If you were writing an endorsement, what would you say?"
I called the actual editorial endorsing Obama “good, sober, intelligent.” But it was compromised by the impossibility just then of saying the same about the newspaper making it.
In 2000 I wrote that the endorsements of the Sun-Times (and all the other papers in the Sun-Times Media Group) “couldn’t be taken seriously” because they were dictated by the opportunistic publisher, David Radler, whose disdain for principle at the expense of the main chance would lead to his admitting to business fraud a few years later and going to prison.
It was largely to fumigate the place after the right-wing Radler and his partner in crime, Conrad Black, had been sent packing that in 2007 the Sun-Times editorial page notified readers that "we are returning to our liberal, working-class roots.” This exaggerated those roots. As I noted at the time, while the Tribune was steadfastly Republican the Sun-Times was erratically Democratic—“Under Fields IV and V, the Sun-Times endorsed Richard Nixon twice for vice president and three times for president.”
The decision to drop the endorsements altogether suggests a recognition by the paper that they've never been taken seriously by anybody—not as a guide to voters and not as an expression of institutional values.
Also, there’s this… When a new group of investors took control of Sun-Times Media last month I described them as “ white, male, North Shore Republican types.” Whatever their reasons for signing on, they surely don’t include a sentimental attachment to working-class liberalism. Better the papers endorse no one than endorse candidates who will offend either the owners or the readers.
The following may not be the best analogy in the world, but it's honest. I like to vote and I like to make pies, and my first thought when I’d read the two editorials was of the time I went into Trader Joe’s and asked if they carried Crisco. The answer came with a sneer. Of course not, I was told. For that, there’s Jewel.
The Sun-Times, which more closely resembles a 7-Eleven, would love to be thought of as the Trader Joe’s of newspapers, a place that carries limited goods but is proud of everything on its shelves. The Tribune is our Jewel, Chicago’s full-service newspaper supermarket.
Chicago absolutely needs a full-service newspaper. And again, not to force the comparison, but on election day I’m lost in the booth without a tear sheet that gets me through the more obscure offices and the judges. I need those Tribune endorsements. And I need lard.