Death to unsigned editorials

A lot has been said about newspaper endorsements just prior to Monday’s federal election.

As we now know, the Globe and Mail bizarrely endorsed the Conservative Party of Canada but not its leader, leading to mockery online. And Postmedia, my employer, ordered its newspapers to write editorials endorsing the Conservatives. That decision led to spiking an Andrew Coyne column that would have argued differently, and Coyne resigning as comment page editor for the National Post.

Despite what the editorials in question say, there are some serious questions that can be asked about why so many mainstream media outlets are openly calling for the re-election of a government that has been so hostile and unhelpful toward the media during its last mandate.

But even then, it doesn’t bother me so much that newspapers endorsed the Conservatives. (They’ve been doing that for a few election cycles now.) What bothers me is that the endorsements happened under the cover of anonymity.

It wasn’t until the Globe and Mail got Postmedia CEO Paul Godfrey to confirm it that it was clear the order came from up top, that the editorials represented the positions not of the individual papers’ editors-in-chief, or publishers, or editorial boards, or collective of journalists, but of executive management of the parent corporation. The fact that each newspaper wrote their own editorial (except the Sun Media papers, which ran a common one) seemed, frankly, deceiving.

Even I didn’t know who made the call on this. And I work there.

And it’s not just Postmedia. Last year, the Globe and Mail overruled its own editorial board, switching an endorsement from the Ontario Liberals to one of the Progressive Conservatives.

If the editorials had carried the boss’s byline, or a line that said the endorsements were the position of executive management, at least it would have been clear. Everyone would have had all the information needed to evaluate the endorsements’ value. And they would be evaluated based on their content and source, not the process used to get them published.

Without that information, we’re left with opinions whose sources are unclear. We are in effect granting anonymity to the source of an opinion piece, one with the power of the newspapers’ reputations behind it.

I’m not outraged, but I am disappointed. Despite all the challenges, despite all the changes that have caused quality to suffer, despite all the decisions made that I’ve disagreed with, I remain proud of the work I and my colleagues do at the Montreal Gazette, and will continue to defend it against those who say it’s worthless. And the Globe and Mail’s reputation remains excellent, as do many other papers caught up in this.

Because I know this isn’t about “evil corporate media”. It’s a lot more complicated than that. While there was outrage over front-page advertisements that banked on newspapers’ reputations to try to sway the election (The Gazette wasn’t one of those papers, it had a Linen Chest wrap that day), Postmedia has taken steps to make it clearer to readers how advertisers are influencing their content. Advertorial content is clearly disclosed, and generally uses a different layout style and fonts than editorial content. Where there’s a possibility of confusion, there’s a note saying the story was written by the advertising department instead of the newsroom.

Newspaper election endorsements are such a silly issue to me. When was the last time your mind was changed on something because of an unsigned newspaper editorial? And yet it seems to be the only time when upper management at Postmedia, the Globe and other papers seem to care enough to impose their will on editorial boards.

So I say death to unsigned editorials in newspapers. If the CEO or publisher or whomever wants to veto an editorial board’s decision and issue an election endorsement, let that person have the courage to put his or her own name on it.

And that goes for all other editorials, too. If it’s a collective decision of the editorial board, list their names. If it’s the publisher, put the publisher’s photo next to it and email address underneath. That would also have the effect of better shielding journalists from the public’s blame for those editorials.

“As far as we’re concerned, if you’re the editor, you support the editorial position of the newspaper,” Godfrey is quoted as saying in the Globe and Mail article.

I’m with Coyne on this. It’s not wrong for colleagues to disagree on things. It’s not wrong for the media to publish opinions they disagree with. In fact, these things should be encouraged. Because employer-enforced groupthink isn’t how society progresses.

But this isn’t the hill I’m going to die on. Because I can work for people I disagree with.

16 thoughts on “Death to unsigned editorials

  1. David Pinto

    Why do newspapers endorse candidates at all?
    Think about it for a moment.
    Back when newspapers first began publishing, in the late 1700s and early 1800s, it made sense to endorse candidates, because most of the population was uneducated.
    But that was then.
    Now this is no longer true.
    Yet newspapers continue to endorse candidates.
    Do they really think that readers enjoy being told that they are a bunch of dumb clucks and that only the editorial board of a newspaper can be trusted to pick who to vote for?

      1. Michael Black

        It’s hardly unique to newspapers.

        The Ottawa Freenet has an AGM and in recent years some candidates have
        received a certain endorsement.

        MEC has an AGM, and a few years back felt a need to endorse certain candidates,
        a transition from a co-op where someone has to take the job to a fairly large
        business where they feel the board should bring certain skills. Not that it hasn’t
        been more like a business in a long time.

        The Westmount Municipal Association has endorsed candidates over the years,
        though I’m not sure if that still happens, we used to read about it in The
        Westmount Examiner, now it’s in The Westmount Independent.

        Lots of organizations will endorse a party or candidate, presumably because
        there would be benefit for the organization.

        So really, this should be about why endorse some rather than others, rather than
        “why do newspapers give endorsements?”.


    1. Fagstein Post author

      I guess we will be seeing fewer federal government ads in the Gazette.

      Doubtful, except for Economic Action Plan ads that the Conservatives were so keen on and the Liberals have promised to quash, but that was more of a TV thing anyway. There aren’t too many newspaper advertisements that come from the federal government that the political side would have much control over.

  2. Broadcasting Guru

    In my opinion, any kind of media – whether or not it is print or broadcast media has absolutely no business endorsing any political parties and / or their leaders. Media should be unbiased allowing people to make their own decisions on who to vote for. The media should only encourage people to go out and vote as well as the importance of eligible voters casting their democratic rights and vote – period! The top brass in their “ivory towers” should allow people who write articles for their respective media outlets the freedom of expressing their political points of views providing concise, as well as accurate information to their readers, viewers, or listeners. Political views in all media companies from the top have absolutely no place in forcing their employees to endorse political parties along with their leaders.

    1. Fagstein Post author

      In my opinion, any kind of media – whether or not it is print or broadcast media has absolutely no business endorsing any political parties and / or their leaders.

      What about editorials on other subjects?

      1. Broadcasting Guru

        Of course columnists and editorialists should have the ability to write their point of views on all editorials not just political ones without any influence or pressures from people from the top.

    1. Marc

      Freely throwing around the word “fascist” or “fascism” (as far too many people do) accomplishes nothing. Fascism is a very specific thing; it’s the joining together of government and corporate interests. Or as Mussolini put it, “a union of state and corporate powers.”

  3. Mario D

    I understand and appreciate your ethical questioning about the issue and agree that if someone wants to openly make a statement it should be identifiable to an individual and state with the usual formula that his or her opinion does not involve his employer and so on… Although the situation does make you uneasy you must know that even if that unsigned strategy is not being used, the readers are well aware of political views of a newspaper and even of it`s individual employees.
    Personnaly it does not change my views that a writer has different political preferences . What bothers me is when they do not touch important issues that everyone else is dealing with when it involves well known friends… This type of hypocritical actions ,under the table financing ,future favors are much more dangerous for our democracy than openly expressed opinions.

    It all has to do with the rotten political ambiance we have been involved in for far too long on every level of government. Hopefully the changes on every level will also bring a new way of doing things. Let`s just say that those that are gone from the political portrait will not be missed…

    1. Fagstein Post author

      you must know that even if that unsigned strategy is not being used, the readers are well aware of political views of a newspaper and even of it`s individual employees.

      Why would they be “well aware” of these views? My experience is that they think they know how a journalist or media organization feels, and they’re often wrong.

  4. Frank Schwimmer

    Mercifully Canadians gave a rat´s ass for media endorsements, they are as relevant as an 8-track casette


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *