Sunday Essay: It’s about Time

Isolde D. Amante
·4 min read

FOR the first time in nearly 100 years of publishing, the U.S. edition of TIME magazine appears without its name. The cover carries another four-letter word instead: VOTE.

Traditional news media houses never tell its readers what to do, at least not in their news pages. Consider the difference between “Vote early, Comelec suggests” and, simply, “VOTE.” Writers, editors, and nosy columnists have long been telling readers what to do—who to vote for, what new legislative proposal to support or oppose, what new cosmetic to buy, or what diet fad to follow—but that used to happen only in the op-ed and lifestyle pages.

Never in the news.

So much depends on the results of the U.S. elections on Nov. 3 that the editors and other decision-makers of TIME felt it was worth breaking tradition for. “It is a decision,” wrote their national political correspondent Molly Ball, “not about what policy proposals to pursue but about what reality we collectively decide to inhabit.”

The cover’s actual message, however, is not controversial at all. If you’re eligible, vote. That’s all it says.

Getting people interested in public life, and interested enough to express their views, run for office, or at least vote, is on the list of what news and public affairs media organizations are expected to do.

Add to that list uncovering what keeps people from the full exercise of their rights. That’s a huge challenge in the United States, which has no single system for casting or counting votes. This year, the pandemic has created a new set of complications, from a fewer-than-usual number of polling stations to a reported shortage of poll workers.

To their credit, many of the mainstream media organizations in the U.S. are doing a thorough job of covering the 2020 campaign. One of the most recent examples took place in last Thursday’s final debate between Donald Trump and Joe Biden, when CNN fact-checker Daniel Dale listed every misleading or false thing that either candidate had said. (Trump’s list was longer.)

Dale pointed out that Trump was misleading when he said that the virus was “going away.” It was, Dale said, the 38th time the United States president had made that claim between February and October. And yet the morning after the debate, NBC reported a record for the highest number of new Covid-19 cases in a day: 77,640 individuals, the highest since July 29.

In election years, the political choices media organizations make become more visible. Engaged readers examine every mistake, real or imagined, and partisans explain on social media why they agree or disagree with political commentators. That’s all helpful. Noisy, but helpful.

Yet there is a level of transparency some American media organizations practice that we have yet to see here at home. They openly endorse parties or candidates.

This year, The Washington Post appealed to undecided voters to support the Democratic candidate. “We would simply ask you,” they wrote, “to weigh your concerns about the unknowns of a Biden presidency against the certain dangers of a second Trump term.” That’s not a surprising choice: the Post, like The New York Times, tends to endorse Democrats for the presidential election, while The Wall Street Journal tends to lean Republican.

In the Philippines, nearly all mainstream media houses refrain from openly endorsing parties or candidates. It’s about time they reconsidered that choice. There is no way of knowing whether that transparency will restore some of the trust that mainstream media, among other institutions, have lost.

Yet transparency is what the times demand.

It will be a difficult change for the organizations that decide to attempt it. Imagine if the editorial and business sides can’t come to an agreement on whom to endorse! They would have to reexamine what they stand for, revisit their core values and principles, and choose the candidate who best aligns with those. Tough choice.

Without this transparency, however, media houses will stay stuck in the pretense that all of its decisions emerge free of any political or business interests and choices. And it’s about time the communities they serve got a better deal than that.