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October 19th, 2017

Insight

Recalling a time when a newspaper publisher refused political advertisements

Dan K. Thomasson

By Dan K. Thomasson

Published Nov. 4, 2014

Recalling a time when a newspaper publisher refused political advertisements Edward Willis (E. W.) Scripps

More than 100 years ago, publishing titan E. W. Scripps wrote a memo to the editors and general managers of his many newspapers. It was a simple, one-paragraph order that said from that day forward they were to accept no more political advertising.

The "major stockholder," as he called himself, in the command had a simple motive. Fiercely independent, he wanted no questions raised about political bias in his publications. And he was willing to eschew not an inconsiderable amount of money to make sure that didn't happen.

How realistic or practical his approach would be today is obvious. Not very. Media buys are the driving force behind a growing mountain of cash poured into the nation's electoral process, a mountain estimated to be nearly $4 billion in 2014's midterm alone, with much more expected the next two years during the prolonged presidential selection process.

It should be noted here that E.W. Scripps Co. television properties, like those of media conglomerates across the country, now earn a very sizable amount of money every two years from selling advertising time to those hungry for election or re-election. In fact, the elections have kept more than a few TV properties in the black despite the onslaught of the Internet. How the "old man" would react to all this is anyone's guess, but "whirling in his grave" might be an apt description.

One can be fairly certain, however, that the whirling part of that assessment is shared by millions of Americans whose televisions spew out a barrage of negative allegations and unrealistic promises every few minutes as voting day approaches. All this, of course, is punctuated by interruption of the supper time hours by an incessant ringing of the telephone from "unavailable" or "anonymous" callers seeking one's vote. Answer at your own peril.

That tortuous approach to modern electioneering has now been supplemented by a flood of online fund raising that inundates us daily. It is aimed at those of us who risk our sanity by opening our email accounts to wade through the day's normal trash, trivia and solicitations and find the task prolonged by dozens of financial pleas from the nation's leading political figures. It's really a hoot.

Here are the president of the United States and the leaders of both political parties and a mass of lesser lights begging in the most familiar fashion for your dough. They are flatteringly personal in their "old friend" appeal. The last time I got a note from the "president of the United States" I ended up in the Army.

When one considers that a huge amount of what is being expended for all this is being provided by a handful of billionaires and corporate interests from both parties with ideological and self serving motives it's easy to see that government by and for the people may be an extinct notion. Freed to do their worse by the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision, the amount of hubris abroad in the land is at an all time high.

If you as a voter don't believe the generosity of those seemingly willing to support "a noble cause" is tainted, I have this property at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., I will lease you at a super-low price, beginning in 2016. Better get your bid in now because beginning this January or February, the cost will rise to astronomical sums. No one spends the kind of money these guys lay out without expecting something in return and that isn't always for the welfare of the downtrodden as they would have you believe.

Don't misunderstand. I believe in capitalism and I'm nave enough to think it can function nicely with democracy (a chancy form at best saved by the fact there is nothing better). My concern is excess. Money buys power and too much money buys too much power to paraphrase an old saying about corruption. The question, it seems to me, we all should be asking, is whether there is a better way to elect those who represent us without auctioning off our birthright and in the process driving us all crazy.

Old E.W. Scripps had the right idea. His voice wasn't for sale to anyone. A candidate got no endorsement from him based on how much they had kicked in to his coffers and to prove it, he refused to take their money. That might not be practical today, but it was honest.

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Dan Thomasson is an op-ed columnist for McClatchy-Tribune and a former vice president of Scripps Howard Newspapers.

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