Facts we can endorse

August 10, 1998|By Andrew Ratner

IN the weeks before the Sept. 15 primary and the general election on Nov. 3, The Sun will publish endorsements for political candidates on the editorial page.

It is one of the most essential missions the editorial page undertakes -- and perhaps the one least understood.

The practice is rooted in the original mission of this newspaper, which Arunah S. Abell described for readers who paid a penny to buy his first edition on May 17, 1837: "On political principles, and questions involving the interest or honor of the whole country, [the newspaper] will be free, firm and temperate. Our object will be the common good, without regard to that of sects, factions, or parties."

Like newspapers across the country, The Sun makes political endorsements for the same reason it publishes any information: to inform its readers.

The editorial page does not endorse for the purpose of "picking winners," or to skew the outcome, although a recommendation from a publication that circulates 320,000 copies daily and up to 500,000 on Sundays obviously helps someone striving to get his or her name and accomplishments known to voters.

Some candidates seem happy not to receive The Sun's nod, since no endorsement enhances their image as a foe of the "establishment" or "liberal press." On the other hand, there are candidates who don't receive our support, but in advertisements claim they did by excerpting something nice we said about them while endorsing their opponent or by republishing an endorsement from years earlier, before we changed our minds.

How it works

This is how the process works: Writers and editors who comprise the editorial board are assigned various races for statewide and local office in the Baltimore metropolitan area. We send questionnaires to candidates in July after they file to appear on the ballot.

We seek their positions on matters relevant to the office they're seeking. We interview dozens of people in person, hundreds more by telephone. We aim to assess nearly 400 candidates in four weeks. Making distinctions is arduous, although, fortunately, many names are familiar.

We have no "litmus test," though we're not inclined toward extremism on either end of the spectrum. We seek a sense not simply of a person's stand on an issue, but how informed they seem to be in reaching their conclusions. For example, years ago, when a candidate for Congress, which deals with foreign policy, seemed as if she'd never heard of Bosnia, it gave us pause.

The writers make their recommendations to the entire board of 13 members. Decisions are reached by consensus. Editorial Page Editor Jacqueline Thomas and Publisher Michael E. Waller have final say.

Like human beings, however, the process is imperfect.

It produced a farsighted endorsement in 1978 of Harry R. Hughes, who insiders had dismissed as a "lost ball in tall grass"; he went on to win two terms as governor.

It also yielded a recommendation for Larry Young, who became the first state senator expelled in two centuries for ethical wrongdoing.

More writers

The Sun devotes more writers to the effort than in past decades to give more scrutiny to county races.

The logic for making endorsements may be stronger now than ever, too, as citizens have become increasingly cynical about politicians and half those registered to vote routinely don't exercise that power. Fueled by shenanigans in Annapolis and the Monica Lewinsky circus in Washington, such disillusionment is understandable. But, long-term, it threatens the country's well-being.

Democracy is not merely about a community's ability to appoint its leaders, but on its having access to information to make that choice.

If you're certain of those you wish to represent you, our endorsement isn't meant as a slight on your preference. If you need more sources of information, however, our endorsement aims to provide one.

Andrew Ratner is director of suburban editorials for The Sun.

Pub Date: 8/10/98

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