Imagine my surprise when I learned that Fox News reported The Billings Gazette had pulled its 2008 endorsement of Barack Obama.
That was news to me and every other editorial board member.
Historically, The Gazette has endorsed political candidates of both parties. Endorsing candidates is something that's been going on for a long time and will probably continue as long as we have a page that says "Opinion." Case in point: The Gazette endorsed Mitt Romney for President in 2012.
What hasn't been done — to our knowledge — is rescinding an endorsement.
And, it didn't happen most recently when The Gazette published an editorial about Obama's abysmal approval ratings, which dipped below that of his predecessor, George W. Bush.
It is not surprising that calling out Obama got people talking or reading. The opinion was decried by folks on both sides of the political spectrum.
But no part of the editorial referenced the 2008 election and nary a word was spoken about an endorsement. Those issues were created by Fox News and other bloggers.
We simply said we were greatly disappointed by Obama and listed our reasons.
One conservative wrote, "You spikey haired liberal punks endorsed this socialist and influenced a lot of people. You should have researched this 'community organizer' instead of being 'cool' and endorsing the first 'black' president. I hope you are out of business soon!"
One liberal caller said the editorial's writer should be committed to the "Dick Cheney Home for the Mentally Deranged."
What's interesting about the editorial is not only that it stayed in the top 10 most read items on our website for more than 100 hours when most items enter and exit the list in a matter of a few hours. Instead, some of the questions and calls I took were genuinely interested in why The Gazette would choose to criticize Obama like this.
For the record: The Gazette endorsed Barack Obama's presidency bid in 2008. Even though The Gazette gave him the go-ahead, many points in the editorial were simply a recapitulation of what the board had already said. In other words, you can find editorials in which The Billings Gazette railed on Obama for his secrecy, or our concerns with the VA, or even the ham-handed approach to health care. It wasn't like The Gazette was passing out kudos like candy. And, it's not like this was the first criticism of the president we'd ever expressed.
Instead, the sum of The Gazette's opinion seemed to be greater than any of its parts.
Many readers seemed to think it was a bold step — that we had somehow invalidated our endorsement. But, that would be a misunderstanding of how the process works.
Editorial endorsements are something the paper has done for decades. Most of the endorsements The Billings Gazette issues are local races, because those affect the readers in our coverage area. However, every four years, we also weigh in, like many papers, on presidential elections. An endorsement is simply an assessment: Any newspaper editorial means that a paper believes one candidate would be a better fit for office than the other. It doesn't mean that they're perfect, or that the other candidate is incompetent. An endorsement is not a pledge to say only nice things. It's also not a promise of support for future policies.
Several callers who wanted to chat about the endorsement wondered if this meant our news coverage would change. Some even wondered if the endorsement was a mea culpa for covering up Obama's incompetence, as if we had been holding out or hiding information all along.
Neither of those are true. Our news coverage, including our selection of what national and international stories, is based upon our best news judgment of the day and what stories are available, credible and complete. Our journalistic responsibility is to report the news to the best of our ability, not to line it up with our editorial endorsements.
And, readers shouldn't confuse our doubts about Obama as a confession of conspiracy. Every job has challenges and tough aspects native to that profession. In news, it means that we have to shelve our personal biases and do a fair job of reporting. We don't hide or cover stories just because we don't like them. If that were the case, there are plenty of crime stories that would never see the light of day because they deal with topics much more disturbing than some politician's bumbling. If anything, I hope that the criticism of Obama would be taken more seriously because we have supported him. We aren't the same tired critics.
In one very real way, publishing the editorial put The Gazette in a no-win position.
Had we stifled our criticism and not said anything, we could have been and should have been rightfully accused of carrying out some kind of liberal agenda.
If we level harsh criticism at Obama, then The Gazette is seen as admitting a liberal conspiracy rather than lamenting a failure of leadership, period.
Instead, the truth is simplest to explain: We, like so many, couldn't continue to ignore the mounting number of failures during Obama's presidency.