You’d think the question of who the major Chicago newspapers would endorse in the presidential race would be a no-brainer. After all, both the Tribune and Sun-Times have been overwhelmingly favorable in their coverage of the Barack Obama, even if each has also broke the occasionally critical story about the hometown hero.
But the Sun-Times has a recent history of mysterious and disingenuous endorsements and the Tribune hasn’t endorsed a Democrat for president since, well, ever. And even if the majority of both editorial boards prefer Obama – certainly the case at the Sun-Times – each board could be overruled by either its editor or, more likely if necessary, its publisher.
Let’s try to read the tea leaves anyway.
The Sun-Times would have been an easy call under its old masters, the felons Conrad Black and David Radler. Black and Radler took the paper on a dramatically rightward turn during their time. Former editorial page editor Steve Huntley is a conservative, and now as an Op-Ed columnist for the paper is one of the few pro-McCain voices in the paper.
After Black and Radler were out of the fold, the Sun-Times tried to re-brand itself as “the progressive conscience of the city,” an about-face as drastic – and market-oriented – as the ditching of New Coke.
In fact, the paper’s sense of the market triumphed when former publisher John Cruickshank overrode the editorial board
of reformist Forrest Claypool in backing the candidate nefariously installed in a backroom maneuver by the Chicago Machine, Todd Stroger, for Cook County Board President. Cruickshank admitted he was motivated in part by the desire to court the paper’s neglected African-American base.
The paper’s gymnastics in justifying its endorsement were so tortured that it promised to put extra reporters on the county beat to make sure Stroger didn’t commit more corruption than even Chicagoans could bear.
That move reminded local news junkies of the old days when Radler overrode the wishes of the editorial board to endorse Rod Blagojevich for governor in the Democratic primary over former Chicago schools chief Paul Vallas. Blagojevich, of course, could be indicted every day for a variety of alleged abuses and is a better than even bet to become the second Illinois governor in a row sent to prison.
There is no doubt the Sun-Times editorial board prefers Obama, although this week the so-called progressive conscience – if that branding is even still operable – chose to endorse incumbent Republican congressman Mark Kirk over liberal Democratic challenger Dan Seals.
The wild card in all of this is Sun-Times publisher Cyrus Freidheim, the former CEO of Chiquita. whose political contributions are almost exclusively Republican, including donations to Mitt Romney, George W. Bush, and – in large chunks – various apparati of the GOP.
Likewise, the wild card at the Tribune is CEO Sam Zell, an avowed conservative whose favorite columnist is Charles Krauthammer. Zell did give $2,300 to Obama in 2007 (and $1,000 to McCain in 1999) and has given money to Democrats, but mostly gives to Republicans.
Tribune editorial page editor Bruce Dold is a moderate suburban Republican; the page has moderated in recent times and in 2006 encouraged Obama to run for president.
Still, the paper has stuck by its support for the war in Iraq and still pledges itself to conservative free-market principles.
Chicago Reader media critic Michael Miner speculates that this could be the year the Trib turns blue, but I have my doubts. Sure, a McCain endorsement would re-brand the paper as Granddad Trib at a time when its promoting its snazzy new design and new creative features to prove its relevance, but I’m not sure Zell would stand by while any paper in his empire tried to put a Democrat in the White House.
My prediction for awhile has been that the Tribune will find a way around the conundrum, perhaps by publishing an alternate endorsement alongside its official one.
At any rate, the Tribune is doing something new this year by soliciting the views of its readers as it deliberates. And then the paper will ignore those views and do what it wants anyway.
Editor & Publisher is tracking newspaper endorsements around the country and so far tallies 28 for Obama and 11 for McCain. It’s still early; no Illinois newspapers have yet made the list.