Since I moved to L.A., my D.C. friends have been asking if I’ve spotted anybody famous yet.
Fittingly, my first celebrity sighting was pretty D.C.-esque, when Bernie Sanders showed up at the Times building in March to speak with the L.A. Times’ Editorial Board. Hillary Clinton spoke to the Editorial Board at later date, over the phone.
I didn’t think much of these interviews at the time, beyond them being high-profile conversations with presidential candidates. But today was the California primary, and it came to my attention that The Times endorsed Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination.
That would explain some of the more critical responses we’ve gotten after our recent piece on Bernie Sanders’ donors ran in last Saturday’s edition. Even though the article was more of an immense data-dive into Sanders supporters rather than a partisan piece (plus Bernie himself had nice things say), a lot of people asked variations of the question:
“How can you guys cover Bernie fairly, if you support Hillary?”
I’m not sure I have a complete answer. But I’ve learned a lot about what it means for The Times, or any newspaper for that matter, to endorse a candidate or to express a viewpoint.
First, it’s technically The Times’ Editorial Board that endorses Clinton.
The Editorial Board authors pieces every day expressing opinions on a range of topics, beyond just political campaigns. These have included a criticism of the Gates Foundation’s U.S. education agenda and a call for Congress to fully fund airport security.
Second, the Editorial Board operates independently from the newsroom. This is an important distinction that was much more easily understood when newspapers existed only in paper form. Think of it as akin to content that appears in the Opinion section. Clearly, that material is editorially separated from the rest of the news.
Of course, an article signed “The Times Editorial Board” arguably carries more weight than one signed with the name of just any columnist or contributor.
Which brings me to my third point: the Editorial Board is not (as I’d originally thought) a collection of the section editors. Actually, it’s a separate team entirely. The L.A. Times has 10 people on its board; the New York Times has 16; the Washington Post has 9. Board members meet and debate topics regularly, before they determine what they want to say. (I’d love to be a fly on the wall during one of those!)
Though the terminology is confusing as heck, it makes perfect sense that there would be a divide between the editors and the editoral board. As the Post puts it: “News reporters and editors never contribute to editorial board discussions, and editorial board members don’t have any role in news coverage.”
All of this is to say that the whole point of the Editorial Board is to express institutional viewpoints, and to offer political endorsements, not to cover the news. I understand this now, and I don’t doubt newspaper political endorsements matter, especially in local elections.
Ultimately, though, I still find it hard to reconcile the fact that the Editorial Board gives the newspaper’s opinion, and yet has no bearing on the newspaper’s story coverage.