Monday, November 02, 2009

The Blade's non-endorsement for Toledo mayor

Yesterday, the local daily paper, The Toledo Blade, decided to 'sit out' the race for Toledo mayor by not endorsing either candidate.

First, let me say that this is one of the single best things that could happen in Toledo politics. For too long, politicians have asked 'how high' when the paper has said 'jump' and not always has it been the in the best interests of Toledo. Just look at all the politicians who jumped on board the Blade's position regarding the United Way, or their advocacy of a socialist bill of rights. Even when it comes to taxes, or smoking bans or a myriad of other issues, once the editorial is published, many of our elected officials suddenly make up their minds. And all because they want to remain on the good side of the paper for endorsements.

I've been the recipient of Blade endorsements, so I know the expectations as well as the consequences when you fail to 'play along.'

So for the next mayor to not have the specter of the publisher and editorial board claiming credit for a win - and expecting subservience as a result - means that whomever wins this race won't have to worry as much about upsetting those people.

Granted, taking into consideration all aspects of a decision, including what the local media will say about it, is just good strategy, but only in planning potential responses to opposing positions - not as guidance for what needs to be done.

When I first entered politics I was told that a Blade endorsement could count for roughly 10,000 votes. But the joke was that you just never knew if the votes were FOR you because of the Blade endorsement or AGAINST you as people did opposite of what the paper recommended. However, the end result was somewhere around the 10,000 in agreement with the publisher's recommendation.

But that was in the early to mid 1990s. Today, a Blade endorsement might result in a couple thousand votes from some who are still undecided. And while every vote is valuable, the influence of an endorsement is not what it once was.

As for the actual endorsement, let's start with the final paragraph of the editorial:

"And so we reluctantly defer to the electorate, hoping that they will turn out in large numbers to make their wishes known on Tuesday."

First, don't they always hope for large turnout and for voters to make their wishes known? Isn't that the way it's supposed to be?

And they 'reluctantly defer to the electorate'???? Perhaps they don't realize it, but they always have to defer to the electorate because we're the only ones who get to vote. The Blade doesn't get a vote, though its employees do. And the publisher, John Robinson Block, lives in Pittsburgh and doesn't get a vote.

So why are they reluctant? Are they admitting their lack of influence? Are they under some strange perception that voters actually do what they tell them without thinking independently?

And no matter how many people turn out to actually vote, those who do will make their wishes known. Why is this a bad thing, as implied by this last sentence?

But there's more to this non-endorsement than meets the eye.

I have no idea whether or not Mike Bell or Keith Wilkowski sat down with Block to discuss their candidacy. I know that in the news pages, Wilkowski has certainly received more favorable treatment - from headlines to choice of words used to describe his ideas and positions. Wilkowski's ideas are closer to the positions of the publisher and those taken on the editorial pages, especially when it comes to the role of government, green jobs, etc...

But Block, it is rumored, is not particularly fond of Wilkowski and that may play a big role in the decision. If Wilkowski is as organized as some seem to think, based upon what he learned with President Barack Obama's campaign and get-out-the-vote (GOTV) effort on election day last year, he may not need the endorsement.

Rumor also has it that Mark Luetke, owner the firm Bell's campaign hired, has long been on the outs with the publisher. As a result, he may not have pushed Bell to solidify Block's support.

So with neither candidate actively - aggressively - seeking the endorsement, could the non-support be a direct reaction? Sort of a 'If you don't want my support, fine! You won't get it' type of position?

That's what some are speculating.

Another interesting aspect is that, as far as I can tell, The Blade did not commission any polls on the race. I don't remember the last time the paper failed to do a poll in a high profile election in Toledo. This is probably due to lack of funds for a comprehensive one, but it appears they didn't even do a flash poll, even for internal reference.

I spoke with someone familiar with the paper's endorsement process and the general opinion was that the non-endorsement is dramatic - and sad. The perspective (paraphrased):

This signals the end of the political influence of The Blade forever. With its circulation so low now, this really was the last chance for it to throw its weight around. Choosing not to do so is sort of like the punch-drunk fighter who is too weak to fight back but too proud to simply fall to the mat. They just stand there and take punch after punch until there is nothing left. Then they will land with a huge thud.

Does Block understand and/or share this perspective? Probably not, for if he believed his influence was waning, he'd probably push harder for what he wants.

Will this prove to be The Blade's last hurrah when it comes to their political influence? If so, will they regret 'taking a pass' on the mayoral endorsement?

Only time will tell. But there may come a day when we look back and say this non-endorsement was the beginning of the end.


Tim Higgins said...


Considering the candidates that the Block family and the Blade have endorsed since Toledo went to the strong mayor format, we should perhaps be glad that they have stayed out of the fray.

That being said, I believe that the assessment that the Blade is finished in influencing Toledo politics may be premature. While it's true that they have circulation concerns to deal with, much of media in Toledo still takes its leads from the Blade, basing much of their reporting either based on its stories or attempting to debunk them.

While the Block family is an absentee landlord, they still have some influence on the condition of the building. It would be a mistake to take the Blade too lightly, too soon.

Maggie Thurber said...

Tim - I don't believe that the paper is finished in influencing Toledo politics, but that this may mark the beginning of that end...

While they can certainly 'dictate,' there are fewer individuals accepting the dictates and following them.

If you look at the United Way and the YMCA, you see the beginnings of a rejection of those dictates, even though politicians are still happy to carry the mantle espoused on the editorial pages.

But that may not last as long as the paper hopes.

Every journey starts with a single step. I think this is one of those first steps toward independence for our city...

Tim Higgins said...


I believe that you are correct about first steps. Unfortunately, these are the last steps for the newspaper industry as a whole.

While grateful that the abuse committed by the industry in general, and the Block family and Blade in particular is coming to an end, I am sad to see the end of the line for the daily newspaper.

With your education in journalism, I believe that you too see the potential for harm in the path that we find ourselves on.

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