PRINT VS. RADIO: A BATTLE IN THE HEARTLAND
by Robert Gelfand
American Reporter Correspondent
San Pedro, Calif
DAYTON, Ohio -- As we taxi through Dayton International Airport, the pilot points out Air force One parked nearby. This is ground zero for the presidential campaign - if President George W. Bush loses Ohio, he can probably kiss the election goodbye. If Sen, John Kerry loses Ohio, he has that much more to make up in other states. Today, President Bush is visiting the Dayton suburb of Troy, Ohio. John Kerry has been all over the state the whole month.
Sitting at a fast-food restaurant, I hear competing radio ads for the two candidates. The patrons seem largely unaffected.
Radio and newspapers talk up the subject.
All in all, this seems like a good place to consider media efforts in this political hotbed.
Checking out the AM dial, I stumble across Sean Hannity. Seemingly ubiquitous, Sean is droning on about the threat from all those protesters coming to New York City in the coming Republican Convention week. The strategic thinking behind his obsession is not all that clear, except perhaps to tar Kerry with the brush of those raging-drug-sodden hippie-lawbreakers.
Sean isn't any different in Ohio than in California or North Carolina. It's like the conservative radio version of McDonald's. The menu doesn't change much. It's nonstop, monotonous anti-Kerry, with no semblance of balance or even artistic flair.
The local radio announcers who do politics instead of country and western are like clones of Hannity, if only a bit less lovable. In southwestern Ohio, as in southern California, the radio dial is conservative territory.
The newspapers are different. As evidence, we consider the Cincinnati Enquirer, the Dayton Daily News and the Charlotte Observer (the latter because in these days of spoke-and-hub aviation, I have to get to Dayton via Charlotte, North Carolina).
To simplify matters, we'll concentrate on the opinion pages because that is where the op ed columns meet up with the letters to the editors.
The Dayton Daily News is a member of the Cox newspaper chain. In this Saturday, August 28, 2004, edition, the Daily News features columns by E.J. Dionne Jr., Charles Krauthammer and Clarence Page. The first two are distinctly conservative voices. Krauthammer is positively caustic in making fun of the Democrats. Dionne tries to make Vice President Dick Cheney sound human. The subject is gay marriage and the attempt doesn't really succeed, but you have to give him credit for trying.
The letters show a balance between the left and the right. One letter is a protest against allowing polluters to transfer the costs of cleaning their toxic wastes onto the public. Another letter includes this unoriginal but clearly-stated remark:
As a proud American who thinks our country is by far the best game in town, I will extend an open invitation to all of the Hollywood and media elite who seem to feel that America is such a vile, wicked place to feel free to move to any country of your choice.
Apparently "love it or leave it" is back in our political culture, but at least it is balanced by other voices.
The other columnist, Clarence Page, is known as a voice for African-Americans and generally would be considered to be on the liberal side.
Taken together, the Dayton Daily News editorial pages show an attempt to give voice to both sides in the presidential contest while offering essays coming from both the right and the left.
Sixty miles to the south of Dayton, Cincinnati is home to the Enquirer, a member of the Gannett newspaper chain. This Saturday's editorial pages contain a column by the generally conservative James J. Kilpatrick, on the joys of English usage. When Henry Stanley said, "Dr Livingstone, I presume," should he have said, "Dr Livingstone, I assume"? Kilpatrick and the reader have fun with this one.
Jane Eisner, a columnist from the Philadelphia Inquirer, contributes a nonpartisan discussion on how Americans seem to be able to distinguish the religious from the secular in our political life. Shiro Tanaka (not a professional columnist) writes about the virtues of allowing human embryonic cells to be used in stem cell research.
Balancing these more liberal views, a cartoon by Los Angeles Times artist Michael Ramirez communicates his usual anti-Kerry position. The Letters section is relatively nonpartisan in this Saturday's pages, with only one missive taking a sarcastic view of Republican opposition to gay marriage.
The Cincinnati Enquirer also passes the balance test.
The Charlotte Observer is part of the Knight Ridder chain. Saturday's editorial pages contain the same E.J. Dionne column as we saw in Dayton's paper. Kay McSpadden writes a nostalgic piece about being a teacher. "Teaching in a rural school district, I've learned that whenever the absentee list is surprisingly long, some hunting season has just opened."
The letters contain defenses of John Kerry's war record, attacks on Kerry's supporters and something I have never seen before or since, an attack on the memory and record of Abraham Lincoln: "Lincoln willingly presided over the killing of more than 600,000 Americans. His hotheaded rush to invade was the catalyst that caused the secession of Virginia and North Carolina, without whom the Confederacy would have quickly fizzled." You won't see writing like that in the Los Angeles Times.
A set of short contributions from readers in a section called "The Buzz" balances between opposing candidacies. "After reading Cal Thomas and Walter Williams on the same page I am leaning so far right I may have to go to a chiropractor to get back in balance."
Staunchly liberal economist Paul Krugman contributes a column on our American health insurance system. "Does this mean the American way is wrong, and we should switch to a Canadian-style system? Yes."
The Charlotte Observer joins the Dayton and Cincinnati papers in demonstrating some semblance of balance, one might say a sense of overall fairness. None of these papers offers itself up as a pure propaganda organ for the one side or the other. Readers write letters complaining that their newspaper leans too much in favor of Kerry, or whitewashes the Bush record, and in so doing they tend to undercut their own arguments.
The evidence that we obtain when we compare newspapers to talk radio overwhelmingly favors the newspapers. They are more complete, more balanced, more honest, in short more fair. One only has to listen to a talk radio host attacking the local newspaper even as he relies on it as a factual source to understand the difference between the two media.
One medium is dedicated to gathering and disseminating facts while allowing for limited editorializing. The other has evolved into an organ of pure propaganda which relies parasitically on newspapers for the facts it cannibalizes.
In practice, what comes out of this is a highly conservative radio voice working in opposition to a more varied but moderated newspaper culture. One is entitled to ask why. Why do talk radio hosts get away with slandering the accuracy and integrity of their local newspapers even as they themselves torture the facts beyond recognition? What journalistic or cultural attribute has kept newspapers more or less on the straight and narrow?
These are all interesting questions which would require more space and time than we have. For this discussion, let's consider how newspapers have come to their current condition.
Doug Epperhart is, besides being a friend and colleague, a publisher of business newspapers and quite the amateur historian. His explanation goes to the economic history of the newspaper industry.
Through the 1950s, most cities had more than one newspaper. Los Angeles had five different dailies. Even small cities often had a morning and an afternoon paper. Big cities like Chicago or the eastern seaboard cities could have a half-dozen or more.
With the advent of television and the expansion of radio news, many newspapers found themselves in financial difficulty. Some went out of business. Others merged.
The mergers were not always segregated along political lines. Conservative Republican newspapers merged with liberal Democratic newspapers. The resulting hybrids now had readerships that reflected both ideologies. The new papers learned not to offend either their liberal or conservative readers.
Thus, newspapers began to moderate their positions, to become less partisan and, to use that slightly irritating term, balanced. You could be a liberal reading the Mirror News one morning and find, on the very next, that the Mirror had folded into the more conservative Los Angeles Times. The management of the Times had to try to hold onto its new base of Mirror readers.
There are probably lots of other factors, not the least of these being the concept of journalistic integrity, but the result is that the newspapers have learned to give both sides of the story. They have become the more intellectually honest branch of the media. This is reflected in the fact that newspapers are less monolithic in support of the one candidate or the other.