Opinion | Politics

Mark Trahant: Native newspapers and presidential endorsements

Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders addresses supporters on the Navajo Nation on March 17, 2016. Courtesy photo

#NativeVote16 – Feelin’ the endorsements. What newspapers say
By Mark Trahant
Trahant Reports

Over the past four decades (did I really write that?) I have spent a lot of time on the question of endorsing candidates. At large newspapers, and small ones, my colleagues and I have taken that task seriously. We invite candidates in, hear them out, read everything possible, and come to a conclusion of one kind or another.

The very idea of “endorsements” seems odd in a democracy. Why would a newspaper tell anyone how to vote? But I never looked at it that way. I always saw it as another form of commentary. We weigh, we say, and then the debate continues. Nonetheless it always made readers mad (there are always folks on the other side of the question) and the next few days I’d be on the phone explaining ourselves. At least for offices such as the presidency, the Senate, Congress, and governors. But for other offices — Judges, water commissions, zoning boards, assessors and other assorted offices — readers often called and begged us to make an endorsement. We were a cheat sheet; over time people who read us often came to understand our thinking, our judgement, and so they used our picks as a guide to vote.

Every once in a while this process gets circumvented. Occasionally a publisher would use a veto over an editorial board pick (by occasionally I mean once) and in that case we ended up writing “no endorsement.” Publishers represent the owner and have the final say.

When I was a publisher I was the one circumventing. At the Navajo Times Today, I don’t think we ever endorsed anyone for the White House, but in 1984, the day after President Ronald Reagan’s re-election, the entire editorial page was covered in black ink, except in reverse white letters were the words, “Four more years.” Now that was a statement (Reagan was popular enough to win every state in the electoral college except Minnesota.)

Two years later during a tribal election, I endorsed a candidate, writing for the paper, and surprised my colleagues. The editorial board was a mix of people who worked there. I felt it would be a difficult conversation for them because of news coverage, family ties, and a variety of complexity. So late in the day I sat down and wrote an editorial: The newspaper endorsed Peterson Zah for re-election as tribal president. He was running against Peter MacDonald. It did not go over well, not because of the pick, but because I didn’t stick to the process. But it did start a great conversation both within the newspaper walls and in the larger community of readers. I think it’s the last time the newspaper endorsed a candidate.

My point here is endorsements are tricky. It is a form of commentary, but it’s also intense. Perhaps it’s something about that “we.”

In South Dakota the Native Sun News and Lakota Country Times both weighed in with presidential endorsements for the June 7 Democratic Party primary.

The Lakota Country Times went first. On March 31, editor Brandon Ecoffey wrote: “During each election cycle those of us who have managed to land ourselves in the editor’s chair at local newspapers across the country are required by tradition to endorse a candidate for the position of President of the United States of America. In what has turned out to be one of the strangest presidential races of my lifetime, choosing a candidate to endorse has turned out to be a really simple decision.”

Ecoffey called this election “a tipping point” because so much of the horrors of climate change are starting to occur. “The time to confront climate change is right now and the only logical choice for the presidency is Bernie Sanders,” he wrote. “The status quo in Washington has led to only incremental changes in the lives of Lakota people. It is simply time to shake things up. On June 7, 2016, South Dakota will hold its democratic primary and I implore all of Lakota Country to #Feelthebern."

However the Native Sun News supports Hillary Clinton. The newspaper’s unsigned editorial (there’s that “we”) said: “There is so much baloney flying around out there about Hillary Clinton that we want to set the record straight.”

The newspaper cited Clinton’s qualifications and her track record in Indian Country. “We think it is high time to kick the old white men off of the podium and replace them with a strong, highly gifted woman,” the Native Sun News said. “With little fanfare she has visited Indian Country when she was First Lady. She has made a study of the many problems we face as Native Americans and is determined to follow in the footsteps of Obama and do something about it. In order to even have a chance at getting the land in the Black Hills returned to us (Sioux) we need Hillary.”

Should bloggers endorse? I don’t know about that, but for what I am trying to do, no. My goal is improving the discourse about Native Americans in this election and letting readers know about the variety and the quality of Indian Country’s candidates. That means stepping back, writing what I see, and staying independent.

Mark Trahant is the Charles R. Johnson Endowed Professor of Journalism at the University of North Dakota. He is an independent journalist and a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. On Twitter @TrahantReports

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