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Being a pinko-liberal raised in the rubble of the Little Rock newspaper wars, I’d been left with the idea that Democrat-Gazette owner and publisher Walter Hussman was something like a cross between a bridge-dwelling troll and Mr. Burns from “The Simpsons” — one of those Master of the Universe types with a Ronald Reagan tattoo on his chest and pair of genuine illegal-immigrant-hide boots propped on the corner of his desk. While I couldn’t see many craggy spires over there at the Dem-Gaz HQ, I was sure there had to be one, with Hussman in a sooty room at the very top, playing poker with his flying monkeys and glancing up every so often to make sure a house didn’t fall on him.
The truth, however, is that I left my first conversation with Hussman with the distinct impression that he — like most of the people over at the Dem-Gaz that I’ve spoken with over the years — is probably a decent fella. While we don’t agree on a lot of social issues, he’s passionate about the things that stir him, and not afraid to use his paper’s editorial page as a soapbox for change. In an era of increasingly timid, milquetoast journalism, you’ve got to respect that, no matter which side of the political fence you’re on.
Hussman said that he has voted for both Republicans and Democrats over the years, adding that — at age 59 — he has never made a political contribution in his life. In terms of the big picture, Hussman said he supports the expansion of democracy worldwide, free markets, free trade and free enterprise. “Those probably sound a little bit generic and general,” he said, “but those are the kind of things that, over time, generally end up in the greatest benefit to the greatest number of people.”
Just because he doesn’t financially support politicians, however, doesn’t mean he isn’t political. Areas of interest to Hussman in recent years have been his ongoing efforts to try “new things” in public schools, including vouchers and merit pay. (“To pour more money in, to continue to reduce class size, to continue to get more teachers with master’s degrees — if it hasn’t helped in the last 50 years, maybe its not going to help in the future.”) In the latest election, he took a stand apart from the rest of the Little Rock business establishment against Pulaski County on the jail tax. (“It just seemed to us there are resources available for the jail, and we didn’t need to increase sales taxes again — that increasing taxes would do more long-term damage to the economic growth of the community than not providing more money to Pulaski County.”)
Though the Dem-Gaz sometimes gets accused of the seepage of its right-hand editorial twist onto the news side (both by me and others), Hussman said that the newspaper tries to maintain a strict delineation between news and editorial policy. “We believe that even though it’s probably not possible in an imperfect world to be completely, totally objective,” Hussman said, “it’s something we strive for.”
As for the editorial side, Hussman takes an active role in setting the paper’s editorial opinion. With increasingly fragmented “ownership” of most newspapers, he said that kind of hands-on publisher has become rare.
“It’s pretty difficult for someone to say, ‘I’m the CEO of Gannett, and I’m going to set the editorial policy.’ I think they’re kind of scared that it might retard their acquisition possibilities if investors felt like one person was controlling too many newspapers’ editorial policies.” The result, he said, is that the editorial policies of many U.S. newspapers have become more bland, while papers have become less willing to take a stand on controversial positions.
Though he could banish all viewpoints that don’t agree with his own from the editorial page, Hussman said that it is important to him that all his papers carry a mixture of viewpoints. He said that in the 1970s, the Arkansas Gazette didn’t have any conservative columnists on its staff. (However, Robert McCord, who now contributes a column to this paper, joined the Gazette in the early 1970s to diversify opinions on the op-ed page.) “Not to be critical of the Gazette, because at the time there really wasn’t a great need,” Hussman said. “There were still two newspapers in town, often with contrasting points of view… but I feel like it’s an obligation to offer [the other viewpoint] if you have the only newspaper in town.”
Hussman himself has no full-time employees writing for the op-ed page from a liberal point of view. Gene Lyons, and to a lesser degree, Pat Lynch, contribute what could be called liberal viewpoints once a week, but they supply those columns on a contract basis. Hussman has even taken pains to make sure that Lyons is NOT identified as an Arkansas Democrat-Gazette employee.
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