Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Newspaper Editorial Wisdom: Political Endorsements, Editorial Slant, and the Voters

A cross-disciplinary paper in support of a Master’s degree performance project focusing on newspaper archives and indices. The candidate would like to thank his defense committee and primary source interviewee in advance for their cooperation and time.


While studies show that newspaper circulation has steadily declined since the widespread arrival of television in the late 1940s, it was the explosion of cable television in the 1980s and the Internet in the 1990s that brought forth a new series of challenges and questions for the newspaper industry. Not only has newspaper circulation across the country decreased even more substantially in the twenty-first century, but many also would argue that the overall significance of news in print media format has decreased as well. What was once the only formal medium for news distribution, and a tool powerful enough to alter American foreign and domestic policy, is now the third option for modern news consumers and a medium that no longer can sway public opinion as it once did.

Of course, the idea that newspapers should be in the business of swaying public opinion is one that was left behind with the partisan press of the nineteenth century, when newspapers actually served as a mouthpiece for political parties, or the later populist press, when newspapers first focused on salacious news then became interested in social reform.[1] The distinction between the partisan press of old and what author Kenneth Rystrom considers the largely, non-ideological press of today brings up the topic at hand for this research: the editorial page.[2] While most political observers and consumers of print media understand the difference between political reporting in newspapers, which now purports to be unbiased news coverage, and editorial writing, which proudly offers opinion and point of view, few understand the editorial page mission of newspapers. Perhaps even fewer realize how the editorial slant of a newspaper affects its readers, and likewise, how the partisanship of its readers might affect the editorial page.

The political rhetoric, which is nowadays limited strictly to the editorial page, was once standard fare throughout a newspaper. As recently as 1936, Colonel Robert R. McCormick, the enthusiastically-conservative publisher of the Chicago Tribune and noted FDR-hater, so strongly chose political sides as the presidential election neared, that he not only editorialized that Roosevelt was a communist, but also ordered his switchboard operators to answer their phones with the standard line “Hello, Chicago Tribune, only 10 days left to save the American way of life.”[3] Though this type of partisanship seems to have, at the very least, shifted its biased reporting to coded words or phrases that are meant to sway opinions, strong positions and point of view are transparently alive and well on contemporary editorial pages. The debate over whether a newspaper’s obvious editorial bias trickles down into its political reporting is one which this research will confront, and one which previous research has confronted in the past. Perhaps when President Harry Truman claimed that American newspapers were a “one-party press,” following the 1952 presidential defeat of his would-be successor Adlai Stevenson, this is what he was suggesting.[4]

Editorial slant is a topic that has been addressed by previous researchers, in terms of whether or not a newspaper’s editorial position affects its political reporting, whether a paper’s corporate ownership and partisan publishers affect its editorial position, and even what affects editorial slant might have on voters. Likewise, research concerning political endorsements by newspapers – what has come to be known as the major function of the political editorial and editorial pages in general – is abundant. Until very recently, however, serious research into how the collective politics, or collective ideology, of a newspaper’s readership might affect its editorial slant has been scarce. While the new studies into this phenomenon of newspapers conforming to what its readers might like to read deals primarily with reporting rather than the editorial page, it serves the purpose well of proving that the newspaper business is, after all, a business in the most capitalistic of all capitalist nations.

Along with a general overview of the editorial page function and mission and an examination of editorial slant, this research will examine how the decision to endorse political candidates comes about in the newspaper industry; what effect these endorsements have on the newspaper’s readers; and whether or not these editorial endorsements tend to reflect the political leanings of its readers. While endorsements might play a role in swaying voters in local elections, they have little effect on voters in national elections today. Conversely, however, the collective political ideology of a community, or even that of a newspaper’s ownership, does indeed affect not only its editorial slant but also its political endorsement of a candidate. The question that ultimately arises from this examination forms a unique paradox: How does a capitalist newspaper industry that primarily takes popular editorial positions and primarily endorses candidates popular with its readers, balance itself with the free-press newspaper industry in one of the freest of all free-press nations?

And finally, this research will examine the Johnson City Press as an editorial page model. Emanating from a newspaper indexing project, in which several months of editorial columns were evaluated and indexed during the 1998 election season, the Press seems to be a capable model because it has a rich political history, an involved electorate, and a mix of political viewpoints. Moreover, the Press also serves the purpose of a model editorial page because it has recently, like so many other newspapers, transitioned from an independent, family-owned newspaper into one that is owned by a larger corporation. In 2002 the Press was sold to Sandusky Newspapers Inc., after having operated under the direction of Carl A. Jones Sr., later his son Carl A. Jones Jr., and later his four grandchildren, since its founding in 1934.[5]

Editorial Page Overview

Although the old axiom “never get into an argument with someone who buys ink by the barrel” has been attributed to Mark Twain, Oscar Wilde, and a few U.S. presidents, there is a good chance that the reference was to an editorial writer of the day. Indeed, when it comes to opinion writers of the past, the pen was often proven to be mightier than the sword. But editorial writers today, and editorial pages in general, do not seem to carry the same significance, despite the fact that the general principle behind editorials, past and present, remains the same. Although the function of news gathering and disseminating in print media has changed drastically over the years, the process and purpose of the editorial page has remained largely consistent. The editorial page process might vary depending on the newspaper, but the editorial page’s purpose is typically homogeneous within journalism. And broadly stated, that purpose seems to be to offer opinions based on argument, because argument is at the heart of editorial writing.[6]

In the 2004 edition of his work, The Why, Who and How of the Editorial Page, Rystrom argues that the editorial page can now serve as the conscience of the community and the soul of the newspaper because of the unique role it plays within a community.[7] At the 2007 National Conference of Editorial Writers’ Symposium Endorsements: Why Bother?, political science professor and guest editorialist Paul A. Harris spoke to what he considers to be the remaining importance of today’s editorial page:
Editorial pages have historically set the stage for civic dialogue, generating ideas on the direction our country should follow and endorsing candidates and the positions they should take on a variety of issues. Long gone are the days when network journalists such as the late John Chancellor at NBC would provide editorial commentary to the news. Filling that void is the editorial page. As today’s public square, the editorial page is one of the few remaining places where ideas, issues, candidates, elected officials, and policies can and should be endorsed, critically evaluated and openly debated. Let’s hope it remains so.[8]

Likewise, in explaining the editorial page mission of the Johnson City Press, what opinion page editor Robert Houk calls “offering diverse opinions” consisting of local editorials, a letters to the editor section, and syndicated editorials from both a prominent conservative and a prominent liberal, he explains that “we try to offer a variety of diverse opinions.” According to Houk, “at the turn of last century, editorial writers shouted from the mountaintops; what we do today is start discussions, start the debate. That doesn’t mean that we have all the answers, but we like to start the debate.”[9]

Regardless of what the editorial page’s specific mission might be, it is certain that politics, both on the local and national level, has usually been the central focus. In discussing his short stint as the editorial page editor of the St. Louis Globe Democrat, Professor James W. Davis of Washington University in St. Louis refers to this unique combination of political science and journalism as the “politics-press nexus.”[10] One might imagine that an interesting dynamic is felt within the newsroom because editorial writers are the only journalists who are free to offer such opinions and, in most cases, they are also the most noteworthy and well-paid writers on a newspaper’s staff. In his work, “Political Scientist as Newspaper Editor: Preparing A Daily Editorial Page,” Davis explains the distinct separation and characteristics of news and the editorial page: “The editorial page can be the ivory tower of a newspaper. If anyone associated with a paper has time to reflect, look back, and look ahead, it is the staff of the editorial page. News reporters have no such luxury.”[11]

In order to fully understand this politics-press nexus to which Davis referred one must also understand the relationship between reporting and the editorial page that exists within the newspaper industry. Ironically, that relationship is one which really does not exist at all – or should not exist. Davis even suggests that, during his time as opinion-page editor, he learned that many reporters purposely avoid reading, and even fraternizing with, the editorial page staff in order to maintain their objectivity.[12] This non-existent relationship is lectured religiously to journalism students as an impenetrable wall of separation between news and the editorial page. Though this is the norm in journalism, and even explicitly stated in the formal ethics policies of many newspapers, among them the Washington Post, which describes its wall of separation as “solemn and complete,” scholars have more recently begun to question, and conduct research into, how sturdy this wall of separation truly is – or how a newspaper’s editorial slant might trickle into its reporting.[13]

Editorial Slant

While one might think that editorial slant and political endorsements go hand-in-hand, that is not necessarily the case: examples abound of newspapers endorsing candidates from different parties during an election cycle, or even switching parties to endorse a challenger of an incumbent it had previously endorsed. For example, forty-three papers that endorsed Governor Bush in the 2000 presidential election switched to endorse his opponent, Senator John Kerry, in the 2004 election, while another eighteen papers chose not to endorse any candidate after having previously given its endorsement to Bush.[14] It is almost certain that a number of those newspapers could be described fairly as having an editorial slant favoring conservative candidates and positions. As pointed out by journalism professor David E. Boeyink in his study “Analyzing Newspaper Editorials: Are the Arguments Consistent?,” determining “a newspaper’s social and political values should be carried out at the level of argument, rather than by simply identifying the editorial’s conclusion.[15]” In other words, political endorsements are only a facet of editorial slant, but generally not as strong a determinant as the positions that a newspaper takes on the issues of the day.

As explained earlier by Houk, and even more clearly by Davis, editorials contributed by staff, the syndicated columns and cartoons that run daily, and the letters to the editor contributed by readers are typically the three sections of an editorial page and the three main responsibilities of an opinion page editor.[16] Examining these three sections, and specifically the content of staff editorials and syndicated columns, can give one a good idea of a newspaper’s editorial slant. For example, if a paper carries two syndicated columnists and both are noted conservative voices, it is a safe bet that the paper has a republican or conservative slant. If, however, a paper carries a mix of syndicated writers with different ideologies, its editorial slant might be found only by examining a good sample of the staff editorials. And, in all fairness, it should be pointed out that in many newspapers any editorial slant is virtually impossible to detect. Readers’ grumblings about a slant in these papers is most always perceived and fostered by the hyperbole of talk radio or water-cooler political talk.

While the previous explanation of editorial slant might be the self-explanatory version, recent research has chosen to presume, and prove in many cases, that editorial slant is indeed what many had feared it would become, or was already: how a newspaper’s editorial position climbs the wall of separation and trickles into its political reporting. Political science professors James N. Druckman and Michael Parkin, in their 2005 study “The Impact of Media Bias: How Editorial Slant Affects Voters,” define editorial slant as “the quantity and tone of a newspaper’s candidate coverage as influenced by its editorial position.”[17] The authors suggest that the inviolability of the wall of separation might not even be intentional when a newspaper’s candidate coverage follows its editorial stance.[18] In dissecting the newspaper coverage of candidates in two competing dailies in a single Senate campaign, and exit polling voters on their choices, Druckman and Parkin found that a number of variables influenced vote choice, including reading the paper.[19]

Arizona State University political science professors Kim Fridkin Kahn and Patrick J. Kenney conducted similar research, but instead focus on the integrity of this wall of separation in more than sixty senatorial campaigns across three election years in their 2002 work, “The Slant of the News: How Editorial Endorsements Influence Campaign Coverage and Citizen’s Views of Candidates.” The authors here incorporate editorial endorsements into their examination of editorial slant to determine how newspapers might slant their coverage of candidates whom the paper endorsed. Using the largest circulating newspaper in each state, Kahn and Kenney examined a total of eighty-four senatorial races, sixty-seven involving incumbents and seventeen with open seats. They concluded in general that endorsements shape newspaper coverage for incumbents: “For every measure of coverage, save one, endorsed incumbents receive more favorable coverage than their nonendorsed counterparts.”[20] It is worth noting that Kahn and Kenney follow Drukman and Parkin in speculating that editorial slant might not be intentional in all cases, but rather caused by the conformity of assembly line-style newsrooms. The authors suggest that news content and editorial positions might run together because the organizational structure of a newspaper causes conformity.[21]

Political Endorsements

The research performed by Kahn and Kenney opens the door to closely examine political endorsements on the editorial page, specifically the process of endorsing, why newspapers endorse candidates, what purpose they serve, and how they might affect the newspaper’s readers. While there is little historical research available that examines newspaper editorial endorsements, it is clear that these have been a part of newspaper editorial writing dating back to the partisan press of the nineteenth century when papers typically offered blanket endorsements of one party over another and of all the candidates who belonged to that party.[22] This aspect of blanket endorsements has changed over the years, as has the variety of elections that newspapers endorse for. It seems there has been a decline in presidential election endorsements, but an increase in local election endorsements: in the recent research “The Orientation of Newspaper Endorsements in U.S. Elections, 1940-2002,” Stephen Ansolabehere, Rebecca Lessem, and James M. Snyder Jr. find that there has been a steady increase in all statewide election endorsements since the 1940s and that incumbent candidates are overwhelmingly more likely to be endorsed.[23]

The process of endorsing, according to Rystrom, is very time consuming, if done right: it involves background research into the issues and where the candidates stand, interviews of the candidates, and meeting with the editorial staff for final decisions, and in most cases, this has to be done for several races in an election season.[24] This process was echoed almost verbatim both by Houk of the Johnson City Press and Davis of the St. Louis Globe Democrat. Within the newspaper industry there has been much discussion about endorsements in recent years, many taking sides that newspapers should quit the practice altogether, while others argue that it remains a vital function and helpful to readers. Allen H. Neuharth, founding editor of the USA Today, who once called endorsements an insult to readers and suggested that the political coverage of newspapers that endorse becomes suspect in the eyes of the readers, has been one of the strongest voices in opposition to endorsing.[25] Many, including Houk, disagree about the importance of newspaper’s editorial voice during an election:

One of the most important functions of a local paper’s editorial page is to be a leader in the community. That means providing readers with information about the candidates that will help them decide who to vote for on Election Day. This is particularly important for local races. If the community’s newspaper doesn’t provide this service, who will?[26]

The discussion of newspapers to endorse or not to endorse obviously leads to questions concerning the rationale behind that decision and whether or not the endorsements affect voters. Are Neuharth and other detractors correct in suggesting that a newspaper’s editorial page guiding voters to vote for certain candidates is journalistically inappropriate? Or, are the many editors who strongly believe in endorsing correct in suggesting that it is within the editorial page boundaries? While those questions are difficult to answer without adequate examination, opinion page editors are near unanimity in the idea that their endorsements are virtually meaningless in national elections, but helpful in local races where less is known about the candidates. In fact, research following the 1996 presidential election showed that many respondents had no clue which candidate their hometown paper had endorsed.[27] Somewhat of a consensus does exist, however, that endorsements play a more critical role in local elections where not much is known about the candidates.[28]

Another question that arises concerning why newspapers choose to endorse is how much of that choice is based purely on the ego of editorial writers, or what they might see as a tool of power that displays not only their knowledge of the subject, but also their civic authority.[29] Moreover, perhaps some editorial writers see endorsing as an honored rite; perhaps some writers even entered into this field with the vision of offering all-important endorsements at election time. Tim Porter, the former assistant managing editor of the San Francisco Examiner, looks at some of these questions in his article “What’s the Point? Few Voters are Swayed by Newspaper Endorsements of Presidential Candidates. So why do Editorial Pages Keep Publishing Them?” He speaks extensively with opinion page editors across the country and measures their input on the subject. Porter opines that “endorsements are, in their way, the vestigial remains of those tendentious days of journalism, an era typified even in its waning years by outrageous displays of partisanship that unabashedly sluiced from the editorial pages into all parts of the paper.”[30]

Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, in her 2000 work Everything You Think You Know About Politics and Why You’re Wrong addresses the question of whether or not newspaper endorsements affect voters’ choices. She cites much of the previous research into this topic, but also notes that most of it was conducted prior to the steep drop in newspaper readership during the 1980s and 1990s.[31] Along with the finding that endorsements matter more in local elections than they do in national elections, Jamieson points out that they have also been found to be important with low-interest voters, late deciders, independent voters, elections not tied to party, and elections with complicated ballot questions. And obviously, the overall decline in newspaper readership over the years automatically signals a decline in the influence of newspaper endorsements.[32]

Jamieson then explains further how endorsements may take on additional significance in contemporary elections, aside from swaying possible voters: that is, when the endorsement is turned into news or boasted in campaign ads. Jamieson argues that the endorsement then carries a “double-punch” of having a secondary media exposure and more people will at least be aware of it and have it on their mind when their vote is cast.[33] The 2004 presidential campaign of Senator John Kerry, after it received a key endorsement, demonstrates Jamieson’s argument: when Kerry was endorsed by the Orlando Sentinel, his campaign quickly issued a press release stating that this was the first time in nearly 40 years that the paper had endorsed a Democrat for president. No doubt, the Kerry team thought that voters in the vital southern state should be aware of the Sentinel’s opinion.[34]

Outside Forces Affecting Endorsements and Slant

Even though older research exists on how newspaper endorsements affect voters, there has, until recently, been very little research into how outside forces might affect newspapers’ decisions on endorsements and even their editorial slant. The term “outside forces” is clearly a broad one; for the purpose of clarity it is used here to mean specifically two things: the pressure of a newspaper’s publisher or corporate ownership in shaping its editorial slant and political endorsements, and the pressure of a newspaper’s readership or community in shaping its editorial slant and political endorsements. The latter is referred to as the collective ideology of a community or a paper’s readership. While no geographic location in the United States acts and votes with perfect political unanimity, there are a number of areas that so overwhelmingly speak with one political voice that this subject is well worth examination. Does a community newspaper always, or mostly, follow the political leanings of its readership in its editorial opinions and endorsements? Is a newspaper’s opinion page molded to the politics of its owner or publisher, and what happens if the editor and publisher disagree about issues?

Rather than publisher or community pressure, an appropriate first look might delve into a newspaper’s historical partisanship. University of South Alabama communications professor Arthur Emig’s 1991 research “Partisanship in Editorial Endorsements” takes a look at how historical partisanship served as a predictor for who would be endorsed by Florida newspapers. Emig examined eighteen Florida dailies and which party the winner of their endorsements belonged to in elections held between 1968 and 1986, and then predicted which candidates would get endorsements from those dailies during the 1988 elections for House, Senate and the presidency. What the research ultimately shows is that the historical pattern of endorsing candidates from one party does indeed serve as a predictor of who would get endorsements in the 1988 election, but party affiliation is much less predictable in U.S. House races than those for Senate and president.[35] That finding is very much in tune with recent history in southern elections, as the trend has been to strongly support one party (Republican) at the federal level, but support both political parties somewhat equally at the state and local level.

An anecdote relayed by Emig speaks to the question concerning editorial pressure coming from a publisher. In the 1984 presidential election, the editorial board of the Miami Herald voted nearly unanimously to endorse Fritz Mondale for president; the one vote for incumbent Ronald Reagan came from publisher Dick Capen. The Herald subsequently endorsed Reagan, but Capen allowed editor Mike Hampton to run an editorial titled “Most of us wanted Mondale.”[36] Rystrom echoes the battle that ensued at the Herald, arguing that “if an editorial should ever represent more than the views of the specific person who wrote it, that time should be during elections. But whether the editorial should be the voice of the owner (publisher), editor or a consensus of staff members is an issue being fought out in newsrooms across the country.”[37] Though the example of the Miami Herald’s 1984 presidential endorsement clearly fits the stereotype of an ideological publisher overruling the entire editorial board, Rystrom indicates that this trend seems to have lessened somewhat during the 1990s.[38]

Byron St. Dizier, a University of Alabama at Birmingham professor who has conducted extensive research into various aspects of newspaper endorsements, conducted a critical study into editorial page endorsements during the mid-1980s which spawned two separate research efforts: The first, “Republican Endorsements, Democratic Positions: An Editorial Page Contradiction,” further examines the editor-publisher relationship during endorsement season; the second, “Editorial Page Editors and Endorsements: Chain-owned vs. Independent Newspapers,” also looks at the editor-publisher relationship, but this time through the prism of endorsements in the ever-concentrating newspaper ownership era. While the former concentrates on the unique paradox of newspapers endorsing candidates whom they seem to oppose in editorial after editorial, the latter concentrates on the personal ideologies of editors and publishers at chain-owned newspapers contrasted with those at independent papers.

St. Dizier first discusses the fact that there seems to be some fairness to the charge of “liberal media bias” inasmuch as a majority of journalists and editorial page editors claim to be liberal, but newspapers have overwhelmingly endorsed republican presidential candidates throughout the twentieth century.[39] Adding to this paradox is the fact that the newspapers studied mostly took editorial positions in line with the Mondale campaign over and over again, yet they endorsed Reagan by a large margin in 1984. He refers to this as the publisher’s “four-year itch,” meaning that publishers might allow editorial freedom right up until presidential endorsement time comes and then they have the ultimate voice. He found that only 46 percent of the papers’ publishers had played an active role in their papers’ editorial positions, but that 81 percent said that they had “exercised a strong voice in determining whom their paper would endorse.”[40]

In his second work, St. Dizier defines chain newspapers as “those owned by a firm publishing two or more daily newspapers in more than one city or metropolitan area under the same person or persons.”[41] Although the numbers have changed since this 1986 research, the author explains that nearly 80 percent of the nation’s daily newspaper circulation was chain-owned by at least 155 different groups at that time.[42] The opinion page editors responding to the author’s survey – 58 percent at chain-owned papers and 42 percent at independent dailies – answered questions not only about the issues reported on previously, but also about their endorsement process and the personal politics of both editors and publishers. His findings show that, unlike Mike Hampton at the Miami Herald, the great majority were pleased with their endorsement process and unwilling to implicate their publisher as having overruled the editorial choice. Ultimately, 88 percent of editors at independent dailies said that they voted for their paper’s endorsed candidates at least three-fourths of the time, while 78 percent of editors at chain-owned dailies.[43]

Finally, an examination of how the collective political ideology of a newspaper’s readership affects its editorial positions and editorial endorsements is in order. At first thought it might come to one as an issue not worth discussion only because it seems simplistic to suggest that newspapers sometimes might be unwilling to alienate a majority of their readers or advertisers with unpopular editorials, but the combination of recent academic attention and lack of previous research makes it the central focus of this examination. While substantiation of this argument comes most easily from direct examples of massive reader revolt or even from direct agreement by editors themselves, it is the recent research conducted by University of Chicago economy professors Jesse M. Shapiro and Matthew Gentzkow, What Drives Media Slant? Evidence from U.S. Daily Newspapers, which provides the most compelling evidence.

The seminal work of Shapiro and Gentzkow takes on the use of common, but loaded, political language, or perhaps spin-words, to uncover how slant crept into the news reporting of newspapers. The authors carefully analyze over four hundred American newspapers and mine them for what they consider to be the one hundred most partisan political phrases in the 2005 Congressional Record, or ones “that would tend to sway readers to the right or to the left on political issues.”[44] Some phrases which the authors use as examples are “death tax” or “estate tax” and “the war on terror” or “the war in Iraq.”[45] The study formed an index and found that newspapers began matching the slant perceptions that they had long been suspected of – the Wall Street Journal and Washington Times conservative and the Boston Globe and San Francisco Examiner liberal, for example.

While the common perception of media critics and politicians alike has always been that journalists, editors, and publishers set a newspaper’s editorial slant, the Shapiro and Gentzkow study makes the case that the public, or readership, drives the slant. Surprisingly, the authors factored in political contributions from newspaper owners and ownership firms and found that it has no bearing on slant, meaning that the political view of a newspaper’s owner is not necessarily reflected on its editorial page. Likewise, to measure a geographic location’s political preference, the authors use the Federal Election Commission’s Individual Contribution Files to find “a noisy, but informative proxy for the political attitudes of each zip code.”[46] The big picture indicates that it is good business for newspapers to slant not only their editorial page, but also their news toward whatever the popular view might be among their readers. Shapiro and Gentzkow tend to agree with that assessment, arguing that they “show that consumer demand responds strongly to fit between a newspaper’s slant and the ideology of potential readers, implying an economic incentive for newspapers to tailor their slant to the ideological predispositions of consumers.”[47]

Concerning the endorsement of highly unpopular candidates on the editorial pages of a community newspaper, when Johnson City Press Opinion Page Editor Robert Houk was asked if he felt that such an endorsement would hurt circulation, he answered with a non-hesitant and succinct “yes.” Houk added that although he does not think it is fair to readers, a lot of the newspapers that choose not to endorse do so because “they don’t want to make enemies.”[48] The phenomenon of today’s red state-blue state political divide is not only the art of political assassination, but also the ever-decreasing lack of civility in our political discourse. To the credit of Houk and the editorial board of the Press, the newspaper of the largest city within the overwhelmingly conservative Republican Tennessee district that has not elected a Democratic U.S. representative in more than a century, it endorsed Bill Clinton for president in both 1992 and 1996 in the face of a very hostile local populace. Although it is clearly not evidence of massive reader revolt, the actual 1996 endorsement from the Johnson City Press and several letters to the editor submissions that followed it can be read in a number of letters to the editor.

Ironically, the last Democrat to hold that First Congressional District seat was Robert Love Taylor, who is not only one of Johnson City’s most famous residents, but also perhaps the most influential figure in the history of Johnson City newspapers. Best known as a congressman, senator, and three-term governor of Tennessee, and having once defeated his brother Alf in the famed “War of the Roses” election, Taylor also helped found and served as editor of Johnson City’s first daily newspaper, The Comet.[49] As was the norm of the time, almost all newspapers declared themselves to be either Republican or Democrat, and The Comet was no exception: its first daily issue, in 1891, stated “The Comet will be Democratic but not partisan and will attempt to deal fairly with all parties.”[50] However, Taylor’s idea of a non-partisan Comet, what he called “the best Democratic weekly in the state,” might be debatable.[51] His paper had a large circulation for the time and was well-known due in large part to Taylor’s highly-partisan editorials, such as one from an 1884 weekly edition of The Comet:
A huckleberry-headed, liver-lipped niggah beat Bob Ingersoll for the honor of representing the District of Columbia in the Republican convention at Chicago. Perhaps ‘Mistah Ingesall’ will give us all a lecture on ‘Some mistakes of de Republican Party.'[52]
That a newspaper or even a famed politician and lecturer of the era could be so vitriolic and partisan should not be surprising at all, but the fact that Taylor and his Comet were so steadfast to the Democratic Party in an area which, even at that time, was overwhelmingly Republican is unexpected. Perhaps The Comet laid the editorial groundwork for the Johnson City Chronicle and the Johnson City Press, the town’s two daily papers that would follow and eventually merge.[53] While the editorial slant of the Chronicle, existing from 1921-1935, is unclear, Houk indicated that the Press, under the ownership of the Jones family from the 1930s until 2002, “had a reputation as a Democratic paper and usually endorsed Democratic candidates,” despite the fact that the region was clearly a Republican pocket.[54]

Interestingly, after twice endorsing the Democratic nominee for president during the 1990s, both times against strong opposition from readers, the Press abstained from endorsing a candidate in 2000 and then, following the 2002 sale of the paper to Sandusky Newspapers Inc., endorsed the Republican, George W. Bush in 2004. Although Houk did not suggest that the 2004 presidential endorsement was the result of corporate pressure, he did indicate not only that Sandusky was a more conservative publisher, but also that there was “some disagreement” about the endorsement among the editorial board.[55] Clearly, the Johnson City Press, operating as a newspaper that usually endorsed Democratic candidates despite existing in an overwhelmingly Republican region, provides contradictory evidence to the idea that newspapers allow the collective ideology of its readership dictate their editorial slant. However, the Press, prior to its obvious editorial shift, might have existed as an anomaly in the overall picture.

Examining the sample presidential endorsement from the Johnson City Press, and the resulting letters to the editor included, gives one an idea of reader backlash against an unpopular editorial position. While the 1996 Press endorsement of Democrat Bill Clinton did not spark enough outrage to cause advertisers to withdraw support immediately, one such presidential endorsement did just that: In 2004, the Lone Star Iconoclast, a small weekly paper with a circulation of 920, on September 29, 2004, became a weekly on the verge of going under less than a week later. The Iconoclast, which happens to be the hometown paper of Crawford, Texas, also the hometown of President George W. Bush, endorsed Senator John Kerry for president. Consisting of much more than letters to the editor, the swift and harsh reader response included more than half of their subscriptions cancelled, the majority of advertisers pulling out, the harassment of reporters, and threatening phone calls.[56] According to W. Leon Smith, Editor-in-Chief of the Lone Star Iconoclast, the response “dislodged our belief that the First Amendment is impenetrable, and revealed that freedom itself is on trial in America.”[57] Within weeks, as this editorial endorsement and the backlash became national news, the Iconoclast began to receive support from outside its area and eventually reached a circulation larger than it started with.


Understanding the editorial page in a historical context is helpful to understanding the contemporary role an editorial page plays in a community. As Rystrom explains, because most all large cities had competing papers, the editorial page that “used to be” is one that was largely read by people who agreed with its political views[58] In contrast, the editorial page of today has a readership of diverse opinions, which prevents editorial writers from the same type of rhetoric that existed in the past. While the overall importance of editorials has decreased, and the ability of editorial writers to shape public opinion has decreased as well, the general purpose of the editorial page has remained virtually the same: to offer opinions separate from the news reporting that appears in the other sections of the paper.

The practice of editorial pages endorsing political candidates, and examinations into how these endorsements affect voters, lead to important questions about how impenetrable the supposed “wall of separation” is between news and editorial pages. Moreover, the practice of endorsing political candidates also leads to questions about the integrity of those who do the endorsing. Are these still the editorial writers, or editorial boards, offering an independent opinion, or are they guided by corporate interests concerned about alienating readers and advertisers? Shapiro and Gentzkow conclude that “newspaper endorsements of presidential candidates display a pattern of conformity to local political opinion.”[59] Focusing on this research that public opinion does indeed shape what appears on editorial pages, it is clear that the collective political ideology of a community, or even that of a newspaper’s ownership, affects not only its editorial slant but also its political endorsement of a candidate.

[60] Illustration, taken out for email/space constraints. Consult hard copy
[61] Illustration
[62] Illustration
[63] Illustration
[64] Illustration
[65] Illustration


[1] Kenneth Rystrom, The Why, Who and How of the Editorial Page (State College, Pa.: Strata Publishing, 1999), 38.

[2] Ibid, 37-38.

[3] Tim Porter, “What’s the Point? Few Voters are Swayed by Newspaper Endorsements of Presidential Candidates. So why do Editorial Pages Keep Publishing Them?” American Journalism Review (Oct-Nov 2004): 58. Accessed via http://www.ajr.org/Article.asp?id=3750, 22 June, 2007

[4] Rystrom, 36.

[5] Moses, Lucia, “Joneses Keeping Papers Within (a) Family.” Editor and Publisher (March 18, 2002): 5.

[6] David E. Boeyink, “Analyzing Newspaper Editorials: Are the Arguments Consistent?” Newspaper Research Journal 13/14, (Fall 1992, Winter 1993): 29.

[7] Rystrom, 52.

[8] Paul A. Harris, “Endorsements: Why Bother?” The Masthead, Spring, 2007. Accessed via http://www.ncew.org/web/2005/06/the_masthead.aspx, 22 June, 2007.

[9] Robert Houk, Johnson City Press, interview by author of research, tape recorded 12 June, 2007, Johnson City Press Office, Johnson City, TN.

[10] James W. Davis, “Political Scientist as Newspaper Editor: Preparing A Daily Editorial Page.” PS 20 (Spring 1987): 247. Accessed via http://www.jstor.org/, 22 June, 2007.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Kim Fridkin Kahn and Patrick J. Kenney, “The Slant of the News: How Editorial Endorsements Influence Campaign Coverage and Citizen’s Views of Candidates.” The American Political Science Review 96, (June 2002): 381.

[14] PBS Online NewsHour, “Experts Question Impact of Newspaper Endorsements,” accessed via http://www.pbs.org/newshour/updates/endorse_10-26-06.html , 21 July, 2007

[15] Boeyink, 33.

[16] Davis, 250.

[17] James N. Druckman and Michael Parkin, . “The Impact of Media Bias: How Editorial Slant Affects Voters.” The Journal of Politics 67, no.4 (Nov 2005): 1031.

[18] Ibid, 1032.

[19] Ibid, 1045

[20] Kahn and Kenney, 387.

[21] Ibid, 391

[22] Stephen Ansolabehere, Rebecca Lessem, and James M. Snyder Jr. “The Orientation of Newspaper Endorsements in U.S. Elections, 1940-2002.” Quarterly Journal of Political Science (Oct. 2006): 395.

[23] Ibid., 394

[24] Rystrom, 227.

[25] Porter, 60.

[26] Robert Houk, “As I See It: Endorsements sometimes lead to angry calls, but are a good way to inform.” Johnson City Press, 22 April, 2007.

[27] Porter, 58.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Ibid, 62.

[30] Ibid, 61.

[31] Kathleen Hall Jamieson, Everything You Think You Know About Politics… And Why You’re Wrong. (New York, NY: Basic Books, 2000): 155

[32] Ibid.

[33] Ibid, 159.

[34] PBS Online NewsHour, “Experts Question Impact of Newspaper Endorsements,” accessed via http://www.pbs.org/newshour/updates/endorse_10-26-06.html , 21 July, 2007.

[35] Arthur G. Emig, “Partisanship in Editorial Endorsements.” Newspaper Research Journal 12, (Spring 1991): 117.

[36] Ibid 108.

[37] Rystrom, 232.

[38] Ibid.

[39] Byron St. Dizier, “Republican Endorsements, Democratic Positions: An Editorial Page
Contradiction.” Journalism Quarterly 63, (1986): 581.

[40] Ibid, 582-583.

[41] Byron St. Dizier, “Editorial Page Editors and Endorsements: Chain-owned vs. Independent Newspapers.” Newspaper Research Journal 8, (1986): 63-64.

[42] Ibid.

[43] Ibid, 65.

[44] Matthew Aaron Gentzkow and Jesse M. Shapiro, "What Drives Media Slant? Evidence
from U.S. Daily Newspapers" University of Chicago, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc. NBER Working Papers, 2006: 3. Retrieved via http://home.uchicago.edu/~jmshapir/papers.html, 22 June, 2007.

[45] Ibid.

[46] Ibid, 10.

[47] Ibid, 43.

[48] Houk, interview.

[49] Ray Stahl. Greater Johnson City: A Pictorial History. (Norfolk, VA: The Downing Company/Publishers, 1983): 78.

[50] Joyce Cox and W. Eugene Cox. History of Washington County, Tennessee: A Contribution to the Bicentennial Celebration of Tennessee Statehood by the Washington County Historical Association, Inc., Washington County, and the City of Johnson City, Tennessee. (Johnson City, TN: Overmountain Press, 2001): 313.

[51] Alf A. Taylor, Hugh L. Taylor, and James P. Taylor. . Life and Career of Senator Robert Love Taylor (Our Bob). (Nashville, TN: The Bob Taylor Publishing Co., 1913); 146.

[52] Ibid. 142

[53] Cox, 314.

[54] Houk, interview.

[55] Ibid.

[56] Leon W. Smith, “The Endorsement that Rocked a Very Small Town,” The Masthead
(Spring, 2005): 22.

[57] Ibid.

[58] Rystrom, 7

[59] Gentzkow and Shapiro, 8

[60] Opinion, “Clinton-Gore Our Choice,” Johnson City Press, 27 October, 1996

[61] Letters to the Editor, Johnson City Press, 31 October, 1996.

[62] Letters to the Editor, Johnson City Press, 1 November, 1996

[63] Letters to the Editor, Johnson City Press, 2 November, 1996

[64] Letters to the Editor, Johnson City Press, 3 November, 1996

[65] Letters to the Editor, Johnson City Press, 4 November, 1996

Works Cited

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Davis, James W. “Political Scientist as Newspaper Editor: Preparing a Daily Editorial Page.” PS 20, (Spring 1987): 246-252.

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