Commentary

Christensen: Political coverage has long been N&O's bailiwick

rob.christensen@newsobserver.comAugust 12, 2012 

During the 1950 Senate race between Frank Porter Graham and Willis Smith, The News and Observer had a crack political team covering the tumultuous race-baiting and red-baiting campaign that would mark a generation.

It included Simmons Fentress, who would become a star reporter for Time Magazine; Marjorie Hunter, who would break down the good ol’ boy system as Washington reporter for The New York Times; and Woodrow Price, who became managing editor of The News and Observer.

Rereading their dispatches, some of their reporting still sparkles. You can almost sniff the sweet smell of tobacco in your nostrils, visualize the candidates working country stores and hear Homer Briarhopper’s country band warm up the crowd with its rendition of Dixie.

Sixty-two years later, the setting has changed, but the dialogue hasn’t.

“Do you want socialism in Washington?” asked Smith, the conservative Democratic Raleigh lawyer, during a campaign event in Wake County. “Do you want people tell you what to do every hour of the day? My opponent has stood for everything socialistic that has been proposed in Congress for years!’’

In Wendell, Graham, the liberal Democratic Senator, retorted: “ In Grover Cleveland’s time, when they were trying to get the mail delivered to the farmer, the opponents called that socialism. Now, if you’re for rural electrification or rural telephones, somebody calls you a socialist.”

The News and Observer, as the major state capital paper, has long made political and government coverage its meat and potatoes. For most of its history, Raleigh was a company town, and the business was government – and education.

For decades, The News and Observer was one of the few newspapers in the country – maybe the only one – that ran a front page daily political gossip column, called Under the Dome. The column, a regular feature since 1934, is now run inside the local section and on the Web.

Crowing rooster

One of the first Dome items featured an account of a conversation between two waitresses – one with “drug store red hair” – about whether lobbyists or legislators give better tips. As one wag wrote a couple of years ago, the item reads like Raymond Chandler guest-blogging on Wonkette.

In 1911, Collier’s magazine offered 48 prizes of $50 each for the best article each about a newspaper in each state, and then published the winners. The winner in North Carolina was written by Dr. G.M. Cooper, a country doctor in Sampson County.

This is how he opened his article: “I read the daily ‘News and Observer’ of Raleigh, N.C. That paper is an institution. It is read by something like seventy-five thousand people, two-fifth of whom hate it like the devil, but read it just the same. Why? Because they have to. Its policies make and unmake Governors, Senators, judges and lights of lesser magnitude ...

“Ask any of the enemies why they read The News and Observer and the answer is always the same: ‘It publishes the news.’ ”

Politics and newspapers were once intertwined. Josephus Daniels bought the paper in 1894, in part, because he wanted it to be a voice for the Democratic Party. It was an era when many newspapers were closely associated with partisan viewpoints, such as Col. Robert McCormick and the Chicago Tribune with the Republican Party.

Daniels and his son Jonathan Daniels were owner/editors and writers who became political figures in their own right. Josephus was Secretary of the Navy under Woodrow Wilson and Ambassador to Mexico under Franklin Roosevelt; Jonathan was press secretary under Roosevelt and Harry Truman.

Until the 1970’s the newspaper would run a drawing of a crowing rooster, then the symbol of the Democratic Party, during Democratic sweeps on election days. The last time it ran was 1976, when Jimmy Carter was elected president and Jim Hunt was elected governor.

‘Nuisance and Disturber’

Conservatives often didn’t like the coverage, or the editorial page’s Democratic leanings, giving the paper it’s Nuisance and Disturber moniker. The paper’s editorial page didn’t back a Republican statewide candidate until 1988 and did not back a Republican candidate for governor until 2008, when it endorsed Republican Pat McCrory.

The paper also had a racist past, having been one of the major cheerleaders for the white supremacy campaigns of 1898 and 1900 under the leadership of Josephus Daniels. But by the 1940’s the paper was viewed as one of the more moderate in the South under Jonathan Daniels.

But even under Josephus Daniels the paper was considered progressive in many ways, pushing for child labor laws and more education spending, and shaking its fists at the trusts.

Among the most famous political writers on the paper was columnist Nell Battle Lewis, who began her fiery liberal columns on behalf of the unions and women’s rights in 1921 before becoming conservative in later years.

A notable lineup of journalists learned their trade at The N&O. They include Clifton Daniel, the future managing editor of The New York Times; Gene Roberts, the future managing editor of The New York Times and future editor of The Philadelphia Inquirer; Sir Harold Evans, future editor of The Sunday Times of London; James Bennet, editor of The Atlantic; and Ben Sherwood, president of ABC News. Arthur Sulzberger Jr., publisher of The New York Times, got his start on The N&O’s sister paper, The Raleigh Times.

Ink and politics

But the journalists who tended to leave more of their mark were those who stayed in North Carolina to cover politics and government over a long period of time – talented reporters such as Roy Parker, Pat Stith and Ferrel Guillory, to name just a few in a very long list. The editor who oversaw the coverage for many years was Claude Sitton, a legendary The New York Times reporter.

The N&O’s special attention to government and politics also should be seen as part of North Carolina’s traditional newspaper culture.

For most of its history, North Carolina had no large cities. But it had several small cities, which produced an unusual number of creditable newspapers, particularly the papers in Charlotte, Greensboro, Winston-Salem and Raleigh.

“North Carolina has a collection of daily newspapers which to my mind compare favorably with any other Southern or Border State’s,” wrote Neal Pierce, in his 1975 book, “The Border States,” part of a series of 10 books on American states and regions.

“Most Southern and Border States have one good paper; but with four solid dailies in the field, as Joe Doster, an old statehouse hand, put it, ‘you could never sit on a story,’ ” Pierce wrote.

Not everybody appreciated The News and Observer’s presence in the capital.

A Republican legislator once offered a motion to move the state capital to Greensboro, proposing to leave behind only the state prison, the insane asylum and The News and Observer.

Not one to let a partisan insult go unanswered, Josephus Daniels replied that those are precisely the three institutions needed to keep the Republicans honest.

Christensen: 919-829-4532

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