Leadership Strategy

A New Show Reveals The Surprising Process Behind A New York Times Endorsement

This week, The Weekly, a new documentary series produced by and about The New York Times, showed the sausage-making process of a political endorsement. Like sausage itself, the process was interesting, but not pretty. For the ever time in history, the paper endorsed not one, but two candidates for the Democratic nomination. Neither candidate is leading in the polls.

The series, which premieres Sunday nights on FX followed the next day on Hulu, is an often interesting and sometimes laudable look at the process that The Gray Lady undergoes to develop the stories that are featured in the paper of record. At a time when the charge of “fake news” is rampant and print publications are under pressure to develop new ways to reach an audience, The Weekly is a welcome entrant in the effort to provide more transparency about the process of deciding what news stories citizens should focus on. This week’s entrant gives us a behind-the-scenes look at the first-ever dual endorsement by the paper.

The Times endorsed senators Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar as the Democratic candidates worthy of the editorial board’s imprimatur. The choice seems bold and brave on the surface. But after watching the story behind the story of the endorsement via the candidate interview process depicted in The Weekly, the Times’ bold decision seems far less considered and far more capricious. The editorial meetings shown in the film have a lot more in common with a high school lunch table than a gathering of great minds. Sometimes, it’s better just to see the sausage, not the factory.

As the owner of a film production company, I’m always in favor of using the power of filmmaking to shine a line on a subject. And there is much to laud about this production. Seeing the candidates bound into the building without handlers makes the viewer remember that these are real people, who open doors, wear warm overcoats (Bernie Sanders is so fun to watch, buried beneath a giant parka) and interact with the building staff just like you and me. Joe Biden’s segment is especially revealing. While the other candidates seem only to pay attention to the editorial staff themselves, Biden connects powerfully with the African American elevator operator, who is starstruck to the point of gushing in Biden’s presence. His warm smile and insistence on getting a picture with her speaks more about his political skills than the contentious interview that follows with the Times staff, and may explain his staying power in the polls far more accurately than his interview, which seemed to underwhelm the editors.

Biden’s is not the only interview that becomes testy. Pete Buttigieg seems to rub several of the members the wrong way in a tense exchange that the film editors chose to play out for maximum effect. Others fare better in the star chamber. Andrew Yang is on-brand as smart, energetic and fun; Liz Warren is capable and friendly; Amy Klobuchar is slightly plodding, but earnest; Cory Booker is studiously inspirational. Bernie is just…Bernie—full of sweeping gestures and generalizations that bring smiles and exasperation to the board members.

There is a youthful bent to the edited film.

The board itself is surprisingly diverse. There appear to be 13 members—five women and eight men—with a mix of ethnicities. There is a youthful bent to the edited film. Though six of the men appear to be in their 60s or older; the narrative is driven mostly by younger women. The final newspaper editorial is written by Kathleen Kingsbury, a 40ish Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, who joined the Times editorial board in 2017.

Steve Jobs made a famous comment about a revelation that changed the way he looked at the world: “Everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you.” People are fallible, vain, and can be persuaded. The deliberation process by the Times editorial board makes his point powerfully. Each candidate is discussed by the group after their interview. The discussions are surprisingly subjective. Midwesterners are drawn to the midwestern message of Klobuchar. Older staffers seem to resonate to Bernie’s message. A younger staffer is tough on Pete.

There are no spreadsheets with categories designed to calculate scientifically how each candidate will solve the key problems that the nation faces. Back to the high school analogy, there’s more discussion of feelings than facts. Pete feels too young. Yang feels too inexperienced. Biden feels too old. Bernie feels too gruff.

When you pull the curtain back on The Wizard, sometimes you don’t get the great Oz.

The Endorsement is compelling, but not because the film details a reverential process that seems beyond day-to-day pettiness. Rather, it shows that whenever a group of human beings gets together, no matter how lofty their titles, awards or mission, they bring prejudices, disappointments, and limitations to a process that can easily run afoul of groupthink or demagoguery. When you pull the curtain back on The Wizard, sometimes you don’t get the great Oz, but just a guy from the midwest with some smoke and mirrors.

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