Congressmen David Obey (D-WI) and John Dingell (D-MI) on May 11 asked the inspector general of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting to investigate CPB Chairman Ken Tomlinson, a Republican, for his “disturbing” and “extremely troubling” suggestions that PBS should try to increase its national audience by adding a conservative perspective to its TV reporting. Instead of being shocked, argues Human Events commentator Mike Thompson, conservatives should recognize that liberals historically have believed they have a natural right to control America’s news and views.
Less than 30 minutes after the last test of the last class of the last day of my last year at the University of Miami (in 1961), I was working at a full-time job, starting a career in journalism–I thought. I had worked full time every summer and every Saturday for four years as a copy editor for The Miami News, part of the deal I had worked out with Sigma Delta Chi, the professional journalistic fraternity, when it had awarded me a full scholarship to UM upon graduation from Miami Jackson High School in 1957.
Having a job waiting for me as soon as I finished college (and could drive from UM’s campus in Coral Gables to the Miami News Tower overlooking Biscayne Bay) obviously was a rapid transition into “The Real World.” I also had been offered a job by Life magazine in New York City, but turned down the slot because my college sweetheart (whom I would marry five months after our graduation) told me she wouldn’t go “back north”; a native of snowy Rochester, New York, she had found paradise in Miami.
I loved print journalism–not as a reporter or photographer, but as an editor, one who tries to shape raw words and pictures into a compelling, attractive product. It didn’t take long, however, to discover that while I loved journalism, I did not like most journalists. The disconnect with colleagues apparently was because I was both politically and socially conservative. As editor of the award-winning Hurricane (named in 1959 the “Best College Newspaper in the South” by Sigma Delta Chi), I had editorially supported Richard Nixon for President and even traveled to Cuba to expose the early communization of its youth by liberal-acclaimed Fidel Castro (a three-part series distributed world wide by the Associated Press). On the personal side, I was a committed Christian, married and faithful to my wife, wore a tie to work, and devoid of the rampant and toxic cynicism I saw in the newsroom.
In effect, I was a freak at The Miami News. Its controlling Cox-family owner, James M. Cox Jr., was son of the losing 1920 Democrat nominee for President, whose running mate was a lad named Franklin Delano Roosevelt. All Cox newspapers, from Ohio to Florida, were (and remain) doctrinaire liberal and partisan Democrat, which accounted for the attitudes of most Cox employees.
By November 22, 1963, I had been a Miami News employee part-time and full-time for six and a half years. That particular day, at age 24, I was already a full news editor, that is, I selected what stories would appear in print, determined their length and prominence, laid out (designed) the front page and inside pages of the first (main news) section of each edition, and supervised the final assembly of each page (type and photo engravings) in the composing room. The Final Home edition had been put to bed and the high-speed rotary presses were ready to roll when a bulletin erupted in the Teletype room, with bells and buzzers generating a cacophony that demanded the entire newsroom’s attention. Within seconds, a copy boy had ripped off the first printouts and rushed them to the newsroom, shouting, “The President has been shot in Dallas!”
While pandemonium claimed many normally stoic newsroom veterans, I was required by my responsibilities to remain calm, methodically redesign the front page, and cooperate with the managing editor and others to produce as quickly as possible a comprehensive first account of the assassination attempt on President John F. Kennedy, which soon transformed into an actual assassination.
My conservative Republicanism was well known in the newsroom. After all, people always talk and socialize in their workplace, and as journalists devoted to the news of the day, it would have been quite odd if I, and the others, in normal conversation did not air our political likes and dislikes. Yet, most of us attempted not to stamp our biases on work product. The standard which reigned in those quaint newspapering days and was even taught as a first principle in journalism schools was called “objectivity.”
I was devastated when the dreaded bulletin emerged from the Teletype room, that JFK had been pronounced dead. As heavily pressured as I was to complete my emergency assignment and produce The Miami News version of an historic page one, I quietly bowed my head for a few seconds at the news desk and silently asked God to bless America and the President’s family. When I resumed working, with tears, business reporter Larry Birger was storming toward my desk with both hands fisted and vibrating in the air with rage. “I hope you’re happy now, Mike!” he screamed. “Your people killed Kennedy!”
Several reporters surrounded and restrained Larry. Meanwhile, my heart pounded, my head ached, and I worked as fast as possible to finish my job and get out of there. It already was two hours past my normal time to quit. In the drive home, I alternated between listening to radio coverage from Dallas and thinking about what else I could do with my life. That hateful moment of Larry Birger’s unfair, unfounded, uncivilized accusation, combined with the fact that none of my colleagues tried to console me for suffering the outrage, made me realize I no longer wanted to be a journalist. I reluctantly continued at the News two and a half years–until a new door opened.
From 5 o’clock in the morning to 1:30 p.m., I did my very best every workday at the newspaper for the next year. Shortly after Labor Day in 1964, I began to spend late-afternoon, early-evening “free time” foot-soldiering my precinct for Barry Goldwater’s presidential campaign. Because of that, I met many other Young Republicans, and soon developed a taste for politics beyond the trenches.
In late 1965, I was asked by several YRs to meet with them at an unmarked office in South Miami the following Saturday morning. Intrigued, I showed up and was given a tour of two rooms filled with boxes of voter-information cards and several pre-Computer Age, hand-cranked “ditto” machines for processing the rudimentary information. “This,” proudly announced Bob Crecelius, “is PEP Inc.” In his late 30s, Bob recently had been elected Dade County’s Republican state committeeman–but Precinct Education Program Inc. was his private political organization, designed to operate outside the Republican Party so that in the event of an intra-party contest between a conservative and a liberal, PEP Inc. could jump in and provide the conservative candidate an organizational edge.
Bob was accompanied by about half a dozen of his PEP Inc. activists. After the tour he asked me to sit down at a conference table for “a little talk.” Beer-bellied, Indiana-born Bob had a wonderful country accent and matching folksiness that didn’t synchronize with his very urban, very slick political grasp. He rattled off statistics on voting patterns that quickly swamped my novice-level comprehension of politics. Other YRs would jump in and interrupt Bob to spell out some detail he had not noted yet.
After an hour of the dog-and-pony show, Bob popped the question: “We’re looking for someone to run against Congressman Dante Fascell in 1966. We will do everything possible to get you elected. You interested, Mike?”
I told them I would think about it, after talking with my wife, Pat. I knew immediately, however, that I would have four things going for me: 1) I was age 25, legally just old enough, according to the Constitution, to hold a congressional seat; 2) I already had a committed group of savvy young volunteers to run a campaign; 3) I had a devoted wife who would continue teaching school and support me through the election, and 4) I was deeply motivated by virtue of wanting to get the hell out of newspapering.
Shortly before I made it official, in January 1966, The News promoted me to Sunday editor, with a staff of 20 for producing a 40-page weekly tabloid magazine. I also was awarded a 25% payraise–to $100 a week. Those were the days! It was tempting to stay with The News, but I had already committed to PEP Inc.–and myself. Although defeating Fascell wouldn’t be easy, hot issues of inflation, LBJ’s unpopularity, and Vietnam War bloodletting fanned GOP hopes for capturing Congress.
I gave a 90-day resignation notice to Managing Editor Ed Pierce and offered to quit sooner if the announcement of my partisan plans appeared to conflict with my job as Sunday editor. Ed told me that, no, I could stay for the 90 days, in view of the fact that the content of the Sunday magazine dealt only with real estate, entertainment, the arts, gardening, and other nonpolitical subjects. “Unless you discover a Republican way to work in the garden,” Ed warned jokingly, “the job is yours until April.”
One day, shortly before I left, the newspaper editor’s secretary buzzed and told me to come over to Mr. Baggs’ office “right now to meet someone important.” A Georgia liberal whose full, Confederacy-rich name was William Calhoun Baggs, he had driven many Miamians crazy with his “fact-finding” trip to war-torn Hanoi and multiple columns extolling his Communist North Vietnamese hero, Ho Chi Minh. Thousands of readers canceled subscriptions and many advertisers bailed out. (Eventually, the ultraliberal, anemic afternoon Miami News would be forced to 1] drop its Sunday edition, 2] merge advertising sales with the competing Miami Herald operation, 3] move into smaller digs on part of a floor rented from the Knight family’s “moderately” liberal, behemoth morning newspaper, and 4] finally fold, suspending all operations as Miami’s first daily newspaper, which had started as the Miami Metropolis when the city was incorporated in 1896.)
When I arrived at Baggs’ office door, he had his feet on the desk and was talking. He waved me to come inside. I quickly recognized the “someone important” he wanted me to meet: Ralph McGill, courtly editor of another Cox newspaper, the robust cash-flow champ of the chain, the Atlanta Constitution. As devoutly liberal as Baggs but too smart to embrace a Commie like “Uncle Ho,” McGill was a very sober journalist, as opposed to puckish, in-your-face, country-boy Billy Calhoun Baggs. When I saw the start of a smirk on his ruddy face, I knew that impish Baggs was getting ready to set up pompous McGill.
“Ralph,” said Baggs, “this is the young man I just told you about. Say hello to Mike Thompson. He’s the one who’s running for Congress.”
McGill stood up, extended a gentlemanly hand, and grasped mine warmly. “It’s my pleasure to meet you, Mike,” he intoned with great Southern sincerity. He pulled out a chair from the corner of the room and asked me, please, to be seated. “I’m happy to meet a young candidate like you. God knows, we Democrats in the South–although I don’t really consider Miami and South Florida to be part of the real South–certainly need some fine, young-blooded liberals in Congress.”
Before I could respond, Baggs interjected: “Uh, Ralph, Mike isn’t a Democrat. He’s a Republican. A very conservative Republican. He even voted for Goldwater.”
McGill’s face flushed. “No mind,” he blurted. “I still wish you luck, son.” Although I stifled it, I was amused both by Baggs’ little trap and McGill’s unguarded partisanship. “Mr. McGill,” I asked, “are you wishing me good luck–or bad luck?”
As “luck” would have it, I tasted the bad variety, if “bad” is defined as losing. Congressman Fascell, who eventually served four decades in the House, beat me by about 56 to 44% in 1966 and by the same margin in a ’68 rematch, although in all his years no other GOP opponent ever came close to my record-high vote totals. The real lesson that I learned 40 years ago, however, is that political campaigns are not often decided by the two ostensible opponents, but rather by the gray forces of camouflaged influence who sit and rule by “Divine Right” (really “Left”) from the sidelines: The Liberal News Media, which include, of course, the government’s own “Public” Broadcasting System.
To underscore the defiant death wish of such liberal control, consider the unique proviso included by hoary Pulitzer Inc. (yes, that Pulitzer), in its recent sale of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch for $1.46 billion to a new publisher. The “reliably Democratic or liberal” newspaper, according to the authoritative Editor & Publisher, demanded that its successor keep the publication’s “liberal editorial slant for at least the next five years.”
Such a blatant left-wing policy imposed on the new owner, however, is not remotely in the best interest of the Post-Dispatch. Why? Coincidental with the first term of President Clinton, the Missouri journalistic icon lost more circulation in that four-year stretch than any other daily newspaper in America, and has continued to plunge in readership (a 12.5% dive since 1990). Furthermore, when the Pulitzer paper in 1996 assembled an in-house focus group of former readers to determine why the paper was in a deadly tailspin, they cited “negative and biased content” as a major reason for canceling their subscriptions. Ex-readers also, according to the summer 2000 issue of the National Research Journal, scored the Post-Dispatch for “a liberal bias . . . among political stories” with “conservative political stories . . . either absent or buried.”
Finally, shortly after the demise of the Miami News, its also reliably Democratic or liberal last editor, Howard Kleinberg, was asked by a TV reporter if anything could have been done to save the paper. “Yes,” said Kleinberg, in a remarkable burst of candor. “We could have changed our editorial policy from liberal to conservative.”