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Wisconsin newspaper recall endorsements provoke commentary more than they sway votes

<i>Milwaukee Journal Sentinel</i> editorial page editor David Haynes: 'We have our views, and we’re hoping to be persuasive.'
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel editorial page editor David Haynes: 'We have our views, and we’re hoping to be persuasive.'
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After the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel published its endorsement of Gov. Scott Walker on May 19 for the upcoming recall election, supporters of challenger Tom Barrett made their disapproval known. A "handful of readers" even threatened to cancel their subscriptions, says editorial page editor David Haynes. In response to the backlash, the paper printed a full page on May 27 of dissenting opinions and reader endorsements for Milwaukee Mayor Barrett.

In the past, newspapers often printed their editorial endorsements the Sunday immediately before the election. This Sunday, just ahead of the June 5 recall election, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel will print reader's letters on behalf of both candidates.

"Given where we were at and the special circumstances of a special election, we just thought we may as well tell people what we think now -- give our readers a chance to react to that because we knew there'd be a strong reaction," says Haynes.

Haynes says the Journal Sentinel began to solidify its opinion of Gov. Walker and the entire recall process when protests of the budget erupted in February 2011. Because the paper didn't lose readers for editorializing that Walker's budget went too far, Haynes says the editorial board didn't worry too much about alienating readers with its gubernatorial endorsement. After all, it endorsed Walker over Barrett preceding the 2010 gubernatorial election.

Newspaper endorsements do little to influence or sway voters, says James Baughman, professor of journalism at University of Wisconsin-Madison. But they do facilitate discussion of current issues and candidates in state papers and on their websites. A polarized readership places some newspapers in a tight position when it comes time to announce endorsements, says Baughman.

"I think a lot of newspapers are afraid right now in terms of making a strong, very divided statement," says Baughman. He cautions that in this digital age, "many people are looking for an excuse to drop the paper."

The Appleton Post-Crescent decided not to endorse either candidate and released a statement declaring the "Governor's race too close to call" on May 26. The editorial examined the strengths and weaknesses of Walker and Barrett, but it did not favor one over the other.

Many newspaper editorials in the state endorsed Walker because the editorial boards disapprove of the recall election in general. The Journal Sentinel, Beloit Daily News, and the Green Bay Press Gazette all released statements somewhat critical of Walker, but primarily critical of the recall. Each publication contended that recalling a state official over a policy change sets a dangerous precedent for both parties.

"I think the Journal Sentinel had a principled objection to the recall," says Baughman. "Don't think that the right wing in the state isn't going to use the same tactic four or five years from now."

The Wisconsin State Journal has not yet published an endorsement in the governor's race, but a May 20 editorial warns generally against what it considers divisiveness of recalls, declaring "Endless recalls hurt Wisconsin."

In response to a request for an interview, editorial page editor Scott Milfred emailed a statement saying that the paper's editorial board has "consistently opposed all of the many recall attempts against Democrats and Republicans over the last year. We think all of the duly elected incumbents deserve to serve out their terms."

The Capital Times did not take a big risk when it endorsed Barrett on May 30. With a Madison readership that leans left, a local endorsement for the Democrats will not prove controversial among its readers.

Bill Barth, editor of the Beloit Daily News, says that voters consider editorial endorsements among many other factors when making their decision. But according to Baughman, "A large number of readers don't even look at the editorial page or look at it very carefully."

The endorsements still serve as conversation points, though, allowing editors to convey their perspective to their publications' readers.

"I think with any recommendation there are a couple things we're trying to accomplish. One is, we have our views, and we're hoping to be persuasive," says Haynes. "More than that, and this is true of all editorials, we try to take a thoughtful position that provokes our readers to think."

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