Newspaper endorsements, presidential fitness and democracy

The overwhelming majority of endorsements by large American daily newspapers in the 2020 presidential race can be read as saying with urgency, ‘I told you so. Now, please listen this time before it is too late.’

What did the newspapers tell voters? The Tampa Bay Times in Florida reminded readers its endorsement of Democrat Joseph R. Biden in 2020 — that it warned in 2016, “Donald Trump is stunningly unprepared and temperamentally unfit for the presidency, and he has played upon our deepest fears and worst impulses with reckless rhetoric, wild promises and flagrant disregard for the truth” (October 8, 2020).

The term “unfit” or “fit,” questioning candidate Trump’s aptitude and decorum for the presidency, was used at least 30 times in 2016 by large daily newspapers in endorsements of his opponent, Democrat Hilary Clinton, whom the newspapers found well-suited for the position. (I had access to most but not all of the newspaper endorsements.) In 2020, the terms “unfit” or “fit” were used at least 13 times, but the smaller number does not reflect less concern about Trump’s character and temperament. In fact, there was greater concern as newspapers now had a record of his behavior as president to focus on rather than largely descriptions of his personality.

That record led 47 of the top 100 circulation newspapers to endorse Biden for president in the 2020 election. That number includes 15 newspapers which did not make an endorsement in 2016 but felt compelled to do so in 2020. Still, 47 was a decrease from the 57 that endorsed Hilary Clinton in 2016, partly because 8 newspapers in the top 100 were a part of the McClatchy chain, which did not allow endorsements unless newspapers could interview both candidates.

President Trump, who was endorsed by only two of the top 100 newspapers in 2016, saw his support among newspapers rise to 7. Another 26 newspapers did not endorse, either as a matter of principle or chose none of the candidates, compared to 31 in 2016.

In addition to their continuing frame of President Trump as unfit for the office, the newspapers favoring Biden framed the president as dangerous to democracy because of his propensity to ignore facts, spread falsehoods, and attack the press as well as his authoritarian proclivities. The words ‘misinformation’ and ‘disinformation’ did not appear in the 2016 endorsements, but appeared at least 10 times in the 2020 endorsements in reference to Trump’s loose way with words.

The Los Angeles Times was so alarmed, it endorsed Biden on September 10, much earlier than newspapers typically endorse. In the editorial Joe Biden isn’t just ‘anybody but Trump.’ He’s the right fit for our polarized time, the newspaper observed, “Nothing less than the health of our constitutional democracy is at stake,” and there was nothing the president could do to change their mind. The Philadelphia Inquirer, in Biden’s home state, assailed the president’s “nonstop assault on American democracy” in the editorial Pennsylvania needs Biden (October 11, 2020)

and the Detroit Free Press proclaimed that the president represented “an existential threat to democracy itself” in the editorial Joe Biden is the anti-toxin America needs (September 20, 2020). So concerned was USA Today for “the future of America’s democracy,” it broke tradition and for the first time in its 38-year history endorsed a presidential candidate in the editorial Elect Joe Biden. Reject Donald Trump (October 20, 2020). The newspaper accused Trump of making more than 20,000 false statements as president.

As noted, the president had the support of a number of newspapers, although not unqualified. The Las Vegas Review-Journal, one of only two large dailies that endorsed Trump in 2016, acknowledged in the editorial Endorsement: President of the United States that the president’s “impulsive and often distasteful rhetoric” can be problematic, which allowed Biden “to make this race about presidential character” (October 3, 2020). The New York Post, which did not endorse in 2016, gave the president a full-throttle endorsement in The New York Post endorses President Donald J. Trump for re-election (October 26, 2020). However, in an unenthusiastic editorial headlined With misgivings, vote Trump for president and Inslee for governor, The Spokesman-Review, in the state of Washington, called the president “a bully and a bigot” as well as a “a wretched human being” but said vote for him anyway because his “policies and instincts for helping America thrive are generally correct” (October 25, 2020). It was the only newspaper to flip from Clinton in 2016 to President Trump.

None of the endorsements supporting the president mentioned the criticism of him as a threat to democracy; rather, their sentiments were expressed by the The Las Vegas Review-Journal which stated, “For all his flaws,” vote for him anyway because he is moving the country forward “while embracing rather than destroying the principles of liberty and freedom that have made the United States a beacon for the rest of the world” (October 3, 2020).

Just moments ago on this Saturday, after four days after tense vote counting, the question of presidential fitness has been resolved and democracy restored. Maybe. Joe Biden has been declared the 46th president of the United States.