US Democratic Party candidate for president Barack Obama, whom US tracking polls say is leading Republican Party candidate John McCain by anywhere from seven to three points, is way ahead of his rival in newspaper endorsements.

As of Wednesday this week, 231 US newspapers from Alabama to Wisconsin had endorsed Obama compared to 102 for McCain. According to Editor and Publisher, a US journal that covers the publishing industry, the combined circulation of the Obama newspaper endorsers is 21 million readers, compared to seven million for the newspapers that have expressed support for McCain.

Editor and Publisher says the Obama lead in endorsements contrasts sharply with that of Democratic Party presidential candidate John Kerry in the 2004 US presidential elections. Kerry then led re-electionist George W. Bush in newspaper endorsements by a slim 213 to 205. Forty-six of the newspapers that have endorsed Obama this year supported Bush in 2004.

Only four went over to McCain from endorsing John Kerry in 2004, while several that endorsed Bush that year decided not to endorse anyone this year, among them the Indianapolis Star in key swing state Indiana. The Chicago Tribune, which usually backed Republican candidates in the past, this time endorsed Obama. Three leading dailies in the die-hard Republican state of Texas (Bush’s turf) also went from Bush in 2004 to Obama this year.

I don’t know if Obama’s two-to-one lead in newspaper endorsements will help him win on November 4 (Wednesday next week in the Philippines) as the first black president of the United States. Much of the US electorate–ruled by an anti-intellectual prejudice that regards liberals as only a notch above communists–distrusts the US media as liberal strongholds, and in addition looks at them as the domain of college boy intellectuals who think themselves superior to ordinary working folk. A newspaper endorsement could be a kiss of death rather than a bonanza, and so far the Obama camp has not made much of them.

In any event, while newspaper endorsements are normal during US elections, their absence has characterized Philippine polls since 1992, when the first presidential elections were held after the overthrow of the Marcos dictatorship and its replacement by the Aquino government.

And yet it’s actually been done before in the Philippine media. Before the declaration of martial law in 1972, the Manila Times, the Manila Chronicle and ABS-CBN among others used to endorse candidates. If memory serves, these media organizations last endorsed candidates in 1969, when they expressed support for Ferdinand Marcos and his running mate, Fernando Lopez, practically on the eve of election day. (For those with short memories–or who weren’t around then–Fernando Lopez was from the very same family that brings you Meralco electricity and ABS-CBN reports. The Lopezes used to be a Marcos ally but had a falling out with him before the declaration of martial law–but that’s another story. )

While many media practitioners as well as ordinary citizens don’t seem to favor it, a newspaper’s or a broadcast station’s endorsing candidates did not particularly surprise or shock people before the martial law period. It seemed natural to expect that organizations engaged in the dissemination and discussion of public issues should take a stand not only on the issues, but also on who, in their view, were most capable of addressing the country’s problems and the public’s concerns.

That it’s not happening today is mostly due to the media’s belief that they have to nurture the myth that they’re “objective” and neutral, while some practitioners also feel that it would affect their credibility. And yet too many media organizations and practitioners are far from neutral–and consciously so–in their coverage, and thus mislead readers/viewers/listeners into believing that what they’re getting are disinterested reports and comments.

In contrast, a media endorsement forewarns the public what to expect from the coverage if made at the start of the campaign, or puts the coverage in perspective if made on the eve of an election. Endorsements also endow the public with a perspective from which to evaluate the media organization’s coverage not only of the elections, but of other issues. It helps explain why the media organization is focused on this or that issue, why it covered it the way it did, why it’s giving this candidate so much air time and another less, etc.

The explanation for the endorsement can also serve to educate the public–explaining why a media organization is endorsing a candidate has to be reasoned and credible, and should involve looking at what the candidates stand for that it thinks best serves public and national interest. This is what happened among those US newspapers that have endorsed either Obama or McCain. They did explain why, and in the most convincing and rational terms they could muster.

The Philippine media shouldn’t do it because the US media are doing it, or even because the Philippine media used to do it. Rather should they do it for the sake of transparency. Like the US media, the Philippine media are controlled by various political and business interests, and an endorsement could give the public a sense of how those interests help shape their coverage. A newspaper endorsement can also add to the public’s knowledge and appreciation of the issues. The media could have helped voters better understand in 2007 why it should vote for the opposition, since Congressional control by the Arroyo government would embolden it in its effort to crush dissent. That the media did not do so helped the regime retain control of the House, to the detriment of the principle of checks and balances that’s supposed to keep executive abuse of power at bay.

Filipinos will go to the polls in 2010, an event that could be pivotal to this country’s future. Some honesty on the part of the media to admit (although perhaps only to themselves) that they do have preferences because of their individual and/or owners’ interests should lead to their re-adopting the practice of endorsing candidates during elections. It would be an opportunity to help voters decide who could best be president–or, for that matter, senator, congressman, governor, and so on down the line. It could help educate the electorate, and would certainly be more honest.

Portions of this column were adapted from an interview with the author by Newsbreak magazine’s Miriam Grace Go.

Prof. Luis V. Teodoro is a former dean of the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication, where he used to teach journalism. He writes political commentary for BusinessWorld.

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