The New York Times has created a spectacle around one of the stodgiest features of presidential primary season: the newspaper endorsement. In years past, the Times has simply splashed the name of the chosen one across its editorial page a week or so before the Iowa caucuses, with a few bromides about “experience” and “temperament.” In the last two competitive Democratic primaries, the Times endorsed the establishment favorite, Hillary Clinton, revealing both the Times’ own establishment leanings and the depths of its influence on actual voters.
This cycle, the Times has turned the selection into a weeklong affair, a mix between Donald Trump’s The Apprentice and LeBron James’s “The Decision.” The editorial board sat down for lengthy interviews with the candidates: Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Pete Buttigieg, Andrew Yang, Tom Steyer, Amy Klobuchar, Cory Booker (who dropped out of the race the day the interview was published), and even Deval Patrick (but not Michael Bloomberg, who skipped the interview rather than be asked about the racist policing policies he oversaw as mayor of New York City).
On Sunday, the editorial page undermined the whole charade—and, really, the whole point of an endorsement—by choosing two diametrically opposed candidates: Warren and Klobuchar. While nearly everyone else in the world of Democratic politics seems to have made up their mind, the board needs more time to choose between a more radical approach to fixing America’s many ills (represented by Warren) and a more conventional one (Klobuchar). The Times editorial page has taken its reputation for careful, sober decision-making to the point of paralysis—calling into question all the ostensible reasons for opening up the endorsement process in the first place.
In announcing the change earlier this month, Kathleen Kingsbury, the deputy editor of the editorial page, said the board aimed to make it “our most transparent endorsement process to date.” Transparency has become something of a theme for the Times, with Executive Editor Dean Baquet telling Meet the Press last year that it was crucial for shoring up the institution’s credibility in an era of fake news. “We went through generations of just assuming everybody believed us,” he said. “What I think we’re going to have to get very aggressive at is to be really transparent, to assume nothing, and to make sure people know where we are, how we do our work, to show our work more aggressively.”
There are, of course, commercial considerations, too. The endorsement, which was announced on The Weekly, was meant to drum up interest in a show that has largely been met with indifference. Taking readers behind the scenes has been a wildly successful formula for the podcast The Daily. In the name of building trust with readers, the Times’ reporters must perform journalism to millions of subscribers peering into the glass offices of the newspaper’s Eighth Avenue high-rise. It’s not enough to break a story about, say, Trump’s decision to take out Qassem Soleimani. Now you also have to talk to Michael Barbaro for 30 minutes about it.
The editorial board’s great reveal also has the air of performance, showing the ways in which this notoriously opaque organization—which no longer has a public editor and often remains aloof to outside criticism—is still closed off to the reading public.
At the very least, the on-record interviews fail to meet one of the editorial board’s stated goals of helping voters make an informed decision. One problem with a never-ending presidential campaign is that we already have a very good sense of where the candidates stand on just about every issue. Joe Biden continued to make the case that he is the most electable candidate in the field and that he will magically change the GOP into a rational party. Bernie Sanders was cantankerous and impatiently dismissed concerns that his proposals were too ambitious to see the light of day.
If there were few newsworthy moments, there were some meme-able ones. Pressed by Times editorial board member Binyamin Appelbaum about his work for a Canadian grocery chain that was fixing bread prices, Buttigieg was defensive in a way he hasn’t been for much of the campaign, uttering a swear (“bullshit”). Appelbaum’s dead-voiced rejoinder—“You worked for a company that was fixing bread prices”—forced Buttigieg to make the distinction that he merely consulted for the company and never, you know, actually fixed the prices.
It was a glimpse of a more combative and interesting approach—a shrewder version of the shit-stirring that takes place at presidential debates. It also made for good television. In another compelling moment, Andrew Yang expressed his disappointment in Barack Obama for failing to fulfill his promise. “I still admire him a great deal, but I think we could have done a lot more, and I don’t think opportunities like that come along very often,” Yang said. Unfortunately there was no follow-up—you never got to hear what exactly Obama should have done differently, an answer that could have revealed a great deal about Yang’s own approach to the presidency.
For the most part these interviews trod well-worn territory, as far as the candidates were concerned. The potential for new insight really came from the other side of the table, so to speak—from an editorial board that had promised to peel back the curtain. In the end, we learned very little about the board’s beliefs, about politics, or journalism, other than that it is able to recognize the demands of the moment but doesn’t quite have the courage to meet them. In fact, the person who has the greatest say over the board’s direction, editorial page editor James Bennet, didn’t even participate because his brother, Michael Bennet, is running a blink-and-you’ll-miss-him centrist campaign for president.
James Bennet has come under heavy criticism for introducing race science into the editorial section and has been forced to answer embarrassing questions about whether op-ed columns receive basic editing and fact-checking. The Times editorial board’s transparency-heavy approach to the endorsement, in this respect, can be read as an advertisement for the seriousness and thoroughness of its work—a contrast to another tossed-off, sketchily sourced column from Bret Stephens. But if the editorial board wants to be genuinely transparent, and if it wants to regain the trust of its readership, it will have to do more than have the presidential candidates jump through the same old hoops.