Why the Sun-Times stopped endorsing judges years ago

As the March primary election approaches, sadly we'll have one less place to look for thoughtful endorsements of political candidates. The Sun-Times announced last month that it has decided to stop endorsing candidates.

Some years ago, the Sun-Times had already stopped endorsing judges--possibly the most useful endorsements that the Sun-Times or Tribune made because so many candidates are unknown to the voting public. I was on the Sun-Times editorial board then, and I made the recommendation, quite regretfully, that we don't endorse in all the judicial races.

The decision, adopted by the board, was roundly criticized and was another blemish on the struggling newspaper that had gone through seemingly countless ownership and management changes. But, I believed that in good conscience we could not make the judicial endorsements. I had been assigned that year to recommend our preferences to the full board for its final decision. I could have taken the easy way out--rely on the bar association recommendations. With the short staff that had been imposed on the paper by ownership, interviewing all the candidates and doing the necessary research was impossible. After coming in on weekends to try to do the necessary preparations, I concluded that--without trying to sound overdramatic--the newspaper would be engaged in a deception if we tried to portray our endorsements as independent, thorough and sound.

I know nothing of why the Sun-Times now has decided to halt all endorsements other than its own explanation:

We have come to doubt the value of candidate endorsements by this newspaper or any newspaper, especially in a day when a multitude of information sources allow even a casual voter to be better informed than ever before.

I believe this is the reason, especially since the paper said it would continue to interview candidates and post their questionnaires on line, a process that requires a lot of time and effort. People who criticize as if they know what goes on behind the scene usually don't know how political endorsements are a long, tedious and costly process, one that they should be thankful for. Even for larger editorial boards (the Tribune's always was larger--sometimes twice as large--as the Sun-Times) the job is taxing. The men and women who do it are, in my opinion, unsung heroes--akin to the copyeditors and other grinders without bylines.

I'm telling this story now because there has been a lot of nonsense written about the Sun-Times editorial boards since Marshall Field sold the paper in 1984. A bunch of troglodytes. Hard right-wingnuts. Blah and blah.

When the editorial board quit en masse, new management had to  field an entire new team. I joined it a few years after the sale--as a liberal. My views morphed over the years to the conservative I have become, thanks to my own reasoning and not because of any pressure by publishers, editors or fellow board members. In fact, the editorial board was populated with liberals, including Mary Gallaghan, Cindy Richards, Leslie Baldacci and Carole Ashkinaze. (After Ashkinaze left the board, she crowed that she was the only pro-choice woman on the board, which, of course, was bullshit.)

The editorial positions that we took were not dictated by some maniacal reactionary, as it was sometimes popularly portrayed. They were hashed out in our daily meetings, issue-by-issue and the results fell all over the political spectrum.  To suggest that Mary, Cindy and Leslie would sell their beliefs down the road is utterly unimaginable. Under the circumstances, I think we did a great job.

I wish that the Sun-Times still endorsed all candidates, judges included. But I respect its decision and wish it luck in pursuing the mission that it has selected.

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    Chicago Tribune contributing op-ed columnist and author of forthcoming historical novel, "Madness: The War of 1812." Reporter, editor and columnist for Chicago Sun-Times and Chicago Daily News. Freelance writer and editor.

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