As the November 7 election approached, Jon Tester was getting hit with the full force of Karl Rove's still considerable arsenal. The White House political czar had decided that the way to maintain Republican control of the Senate was to concentrate GOP resources on traditionally "red" states like Montana, where Tester, an organic farmer and state senator, was mounting a populist campaign against scandal-plagued Republican incumbent Conrad Burns. The airwaves filled with attack ads that savaged the Democrat for criticizing the Patriot Act and declared, "Tester is backed by radicals." Former Department of Homeland Security chief Tom Ridge described Tester's championship of civil liberties as "unfathomable, almost inexplicable." Vice President Cheney arrived to paint the Burns-Tester race as a test of "whether this government will remain strong and resolute on the war on terror or falls into confusion, doubts and indecision." President Bush, who carried Montana by twenty points in 2004, showed up to close the deal, as some pundits began to predict a Burns comeback.
Tester, a darling of liberal bloggers, was not going to be saved by flaming posts now. He needed a trusted Montana voice, or better yet a chorus of voices, to come to his defense. As election day approached, he got it. The daily newspapers of the Big Sky State came out, one after another, with endorsements of the challenger. Conrad Burns may have had the President and the Vice President singing his praises, but the Helena Independent Record, the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, the Great Falls Tribune, the Montana Standard and the Billings Gazette were telling Montana voters that Jon Tester was one of their own, and that he belonged in the Senate. The Tester camp scrambled on the last Sunday of the campaign to get the word out, sending e-mails that urged supporters to print out a hastily assembled leaflet highlighting the endorsements to pass along to friends, slip under doors and post on grocery store bulletin boards.
Two days later, Tester bested Burns by about 2,800 votes. How did Tester beat back the full-court press of the Bush White House? Before the election, a local conservative commentator had tried to argue that the newspaper endorsements were no more influential than "visits of luminaries or stars or political mucky-mucks coming in from the national scene," while a prince of the blogosphere, Daily Kos founder Markos Moulitsas, had posted his prediction that the hometown endorsements would still carry weight in Montana. Daily Kos was right. When the votes were counted, it could fairly be argued--and indeed it was--that endorsements from local papers had tipped the seat to Tester and the Senate to the Democrats.
Newspapers may be the dinosaurs of America's new-media age, hulking behemoths that cost too much to prepare and distribute and that cannot seem to attract young--or even middle-aged--readers in the numbers needed to survive. They may well have entered the death spiral that Philip Meyer, in his recent book The Vanishing Newspaper, predicts will conclude one day in 2043 as the last reader throws aside the final copy of a newspaper. But, as the Tester win illustrates, the dinosaurs still have enough life in them to guide--and perhaps even define--our politics.
Especially at the local and state levels, where the fundamental fights for control of a nation less red and blue than complexly purple play out, daily newspapers remain essential arbiters of what passes for news and what Americans think about it. For all the talk about television's dominant role in campaigns (less and less because of its importance as a source of news for most Americans, more and more because of campaign commercials) and all the new attention to the Internet, newspapers for the most part continue to establish the parameters of what gets covered and how. Moreover, neither broadcast nor digital media have developed the reporting infrastructure or the level of credibility that newspapers enjoy. So candidates for the House, the Senate and even the White House still troop into old gray buildings in Denver and Omaha, Louisville and Boston, Concord and Des Moines in search of a forum where they can talk with reporters and editors about issues and where those conversations will, they hope, be distilled into articles and editorials that set so much of the agenda for the political debate at the local, state and national levels.
Thus, while George W. Bush may say he rarely reads newspapers, he sat down in 2000 and 2004 to talk with individual newspaper publishers and editors in hopes of winning the support of publications in such battleground states as Pennsylvania and Ohio. So did Al Gore and John Kerry. And Illinois Senator Barack Obama, a newspaper junkie, is busily making the rounds as he ponders a bid for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination. The attention on news pages and support on editorial pages that newspapers can provide is even more important for candidates trying to elbow their way into the competition by raising new issues.
Former Senator John Edwards learned this three years ago, after a Des Moines Register endorsement focused on his ideas about the disturbing development of "two Americas" and ignited his campaign in Iowa's Democratic presidential caucuses. "We were talking about issues, such as poverty, that didn't necessarily lend themselves to soundbites," explained Edwards, who said his campaign, which eventually finished a solid second in the caucuses, experienced a "massive upsurge" after receiving the endorsement. "When a newspaper that people know says, 'Hey, people should be paying attention to what this guy is saying,' it makes a huge difference."
And it's not only in the heat of a campaign that newspapers help set the agenda. Consider, for example, the Chicago Tribune's relentless focus on the injustice of the death penalty, which led a Republican governor to declare a moratorium on executions in Illinois six years ago and, ultimately, to clear death row. Ground-breaking revelations regarding the disputed 2000 presidential election in Florida were uncovered by the Orlando Sentinel and the St. Petersburg Times. And while there is no question that bloggers raised the alarm about Diebold's dubious voting machines before the 2004 election, newspapers were dramatically more aggressive in picking up on concerns about paperless ballots and election abuses than TV networks or local stations during the 2006 campaign.
This is not to suggest that most newspapers do their journalism as well or as wisely as they should, nor that the role of newspapers is still as vital as it was in the 1950s, when President Dwight Eisenhower, worried about the financial difficulties of the New York Herald Tribune, personally wrote millionaire John Hay Whitney and urged him to take charge of the publication because, he argued, it had a "great and valuable function to perform for the future of America." But newspapers remain necessary, at least for now. Unfortunately, necessity does not translate to the sort of profits that contemporary newspaper owners demand--nor to any assurance of the long-term survival of journalism as we know and need it.