By: Robert Neuwirth
IF A.J. LIEBLING was right that freedom of the press belongs to those who own one, then what to make of this: While 47% of publishers contacted in the E&P/TIPP poll voted for Bob Dole in 1996, only 39% of them said their papers endorsed Dole for president.
Are publishers losing their iron grip over the editorial pages?
Dick Johnson, publisher of the 545,000-circulation Houston Chronicle, speculates that the poll results may stem from the steep decline in the number of family-owned papers.
Newspapers, he said, have “”become an institution rather than part of one family’s breakfast table.”” And, as a result, endorsements are now more of a shared responsibility. “”At my paper,”” he said, “”I frequently vote differently from what the editorial board does.””
Strangely, the poll also showed that small-paper publishers stand a bit to the left of their urban counterparts. Among small-paper publishers, 44% voted for Dole and 37% voted for Bill Clinton. In big cities, the margin was much wider: 54% for Dole and 27% for Clinton.
The poll also indicated that newspaper executives tend to be far more skeptical of Clinton than the general public.
Despite repeated national surveys showing the president’s strong approval rating, almost 59% of publishers and editors polled characterized Clinton’s recent performance as “”only fair”” or “”poor.””
And publishers were harder on the nation’s chief executive than editors. Almost 24% of publishers said Clinton did a poor job during 1997, compared with just 9.6% of editors.
In other results, America’s publishers and editors split when it comes to how their coverage has affected the president.
While better than one in four news executives say President Clinton has been hurt by their coverage, nearly as many, 22.7%, believe the press has helped Clinton. Almost 36% of the newspaper leaders who answered the poll said the press has not had any impact on the president.
“”I think the only person who’s hurt Clinton is Clinton,”” said Bill Cornwell, editor and publisher of the Brazosport Facts, which serves a string of towns along the Texas gulf.
Finally, though 90% of the newspaper execs polled recognize that the public identifies newspapers as liberal, the vast majority disagree with that perception. Only 25% of editors and 34% of publishers believe newspapers in general are liberal.
And when asked to assess changes in the industry’s political outlook over the past five years, a solid majority of execs said newspapers are moving toward the middle or the right ? not the left.
Almost 29% of editors and publishers said newspapers had become more conservative, and 44% said more moderate. Only 15% said newspapers had become more liberal.
How publishers voted in 1996 elections
vs. their newspaper endorsements
Newspapers help/hurt Clinton?
President Clinton’s 1997 performance
3.6%Not sure/no answer3.4%
Newspaper Industry Health
1997 vs. 1992
Quality of Reporting
No Answer ) [Caption]