No One for President?

Ombudsman

October 04, 1992|By ERNEST F. IMHOFF

The Sun and The Evening Sun will continue their 1984 an 1988 practice of not endorsing a presidential candidate this year, according to Joseph R.L. Sterne, editorial page editor.

I'm sorry to hear it.

Mr. Sterne, the 64-year-old veteran writer of 5,000 editorials since he took over as editorial page editor in 1972, said it was his decision not to endorse, as it was the last two elections. His publishers backed him each time.

When Mr. Sterne took over, he banished an old wishy-washy Sun practice of concluding in editorials that "the situation bears watching." It was a wise move but the Bush-Clinton-Perot race will bear more than watching by Nov. 3.

In explanation, the editor said the presidential vote is different.

"We endorsed [President Bush and Paul Tsongas] in the March primary because there are people, like Bob Kerrey, whom no one heard of and we felt we could be helpful," Mr. Sterne said.

"By the time of the presidential election, everyone well enough to turn on the TV and read the newspapers will be inundated with information. We feel no one needs our guidance then. People can and should make up their own minds on the candidate."

In the Oct. 28, 1984 editorial announcing the "no decision," Mr. Sterne posed three questions that were more rhetorical than real:

"Do our endorsements mock our day-to-day policy positions or inhibit our commentary? Is the paper's image twisted through identification with a presidential candidate or party? Do endorsements harm the credibility of our news columns?"

Clearly Mr. Sterne felt the answer was yes, though he didn't say so flatly.

"The mere posing of such questions helps explain" the new practice which "except in extraordinary circumstances" would be continued in later elections, Mr. Sterne wrote. He recalls the 1984 decision on non-decision drew more hostility than when any candidate was endorsed.

Mr. Sterne said publisher Michael J. Davies, who "has given me complete freedom in this job," is backing his decision as did the then-publisher Reg Murphy in 1984 and 1988. It was perhaps not coincidental that the nonendorsement policy in 1984 possibly saved The Sun from backing a man, President Reagan, it had criticized since 1981. By the way, the presidential endorsement at The Sun historically had been the publisher's decision.

Before his decision a few days ago, Mr. Sterne took a show of hands of the editorial writers, although "We don't vote on policies -- they evolve". Most of the writers agreed with the nonendorsement decision.

The Sun has favored Mr. Clinton on issues such as abortion and attention to cities. It liked Mr. Bush on foreign trade policies and backed him in Desert Storm (while then-Evening Sun editor Ray Jenkins opposed American policy).

The Sun's history on endorsement goes this way: After the Civil War, it went from mild to strong Democratic except to back Republicans William McKinley in 1896 and William Howard Taft in 1908. It supported Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1932, sat out 1936 because it couldn't accept the New Deal nor fully embrace the GOP. Starting in 1940, The Sun endorsed six straight Republicans, except for Lyndon Baines Johnson in 1964 and Jimmy Carter in 1980.

Most newspapers still endorse candidates. The Washington Post declined to endorse George Bush or Michael Dukakis in 1988. Newsday and the Los Angeles Times are owned by Times Mirror, as is The Baltimore Sun. Newsday stopped endorsing in any races in 1972 and gradually began endorsing again in the 1980s, backing Mr. Dukakis in 1988. The Los Angeles Times stopped endorsing for president in the 1970s.

Mr. Sterne's position has merit, but it is a bivouac that has become a permanent camp half-way up the mountain. We should endorse because:

1. Voters can't duck votes and editorial writers shouldn't duck such decisions.

2. We should tell readers who the institution thinks should be president; otherwise we're telling readers the institution doesn't know. Readers who've already decided may just want to know where the institution stands.

3. The flood of facts and charges may confuse some voters who might want help.

4. The possibility of losing image or credibility doesn't stop us from other editorial stands that may or may not need to be altered later.

A column next week will discuss the editorial process and who writes editorials here.

Ernest Imhoff is readers' representative for The Baltimore Sun.

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