The Des Moines Register's endorsement of Mitt Romney tonight is leaving many in the state and even national worlds of journalism and politics puzzled or over-celebrating. But to me it made sense quickly.
It's definitely not a Gannett corporate thing: earlier today the
Register's fellow Gannett paper the Iowa City Press-Citizen backed Obama
. No, even though it's the paper's first GOP endorsement in 40 years, it's very much an old-school endorsement -- and I'm not saying that because the Register, like Iowa, was congenitally Republican until the 1960s.
It's old-school because it's very much rooted in Register tradition.
I should note, and this is not a tangent but a launching point, that I have had a small, direct relationship to Gannett and the Register for the past three years, and a small amount of money is involved. But my indirect relationship to the state's leading paper dates back more than 20 years, to my first days in the state and my first job in journalism.
From my first visit to the Register offices, with the giant Daily Planet globe in the lobby, and the framed front pages of yesteryear in the corridors, you couldn't help but think of the glory days of Extra Extra Read All About It.
The Register, as an organization, guards the old-school traditions and rituals of politics and journalism, and as the state's dominant paper it sets standards for others. See, for example, the deadly dry late 2007 Register caucus debates, which eschewed sound bites and personality conflicts for a series of deep-wonk questions that long time Register political writer David Yepsen would have described as "pour another cup of coffee" questions.
Two decades ago, the culture of the neutral objective reporter ran deep at the Register. Yepsen religiously voted in every election until he left the state, with one exception: he never once participated in a primary. See, that would require declaring a party affiliation, even if just for a day.
Yepsen, a journalist's journalist, also chided me once for having a bumper sticker on my car, a key incident in a process that led me to abandon journalism for campaign staffing and political activism. Then technology and the media culture changed, I started this thing you're reading just for kicks and giggles, I bought a goofy hat, and here I am again, now working in a small way for Yepsen's former paper. BUT that role is explicitly, even in the title, as a guest opinion writer "From The Left."
The Register has let me write pretty much what I want, up to and including this, and has been very flexible with my day job obligations. ("So... you're a political writer. And you're telling us that the closer it gets to Election Day, the less you'll have time to write. Well, OK!") But it's worth noting that the only times they've specifically asked for my participation, it's been for politico-journalistic rituals: debates and State Of The Union speeches.
So understanding that culture, the Romney endorsement reminded me immediately of an endorsement one might think of as the polar opposite: the Register's backing of liberal Ed Fallon in his 2008 Democratic primary challenge to blue dog Leonard Boswell.
The entire Democratic party infrastructure of the state was backing Boswell, to the point of crossing the line into unfairness. And Boswell was so condescending to his opponent that he refused to offer Fallon the dignity of a debate. Ed showed up, and the hosts had an empty chair for Boswell. He did significantly better against the chair than Clint Eastwood did.
The paper had nothing to gain by backing Fallon's futile effort. But Boswell had refused to participate in one of the rituals of old-school democracy, and my theory, then
and now, is that he had offended the Register's sensibilities.
Tonight, with with my new-school sensibilities, I HAD to say SOMETHING right away. I resorted to abbreviation worthy of @ChuckGrassley to make it fit:
This piece is just a longer version of that tweet, 140 characters stretched into 837 words.
The Register headquarters are shrinking now. The paper's on-line influence is
reduced by its recent move to a paywall (that part WAS a Gannett corporate thing). I
enjoyed sparring and matching wits on the debate chats... but I kinda
missed my Twitter feed. And the ever-increasing trend
toward early voting has reduced the influence of late endorsements.
And this week, even Clark Kent gave up on print, and left the Daily Planet
. (Earlier this year The Onion
had gotten it right: "Economically Healthy 'Daily Planet' Now Most Unrealistic Part Of Superman Universe")
I'm sure we'll read tomorrow that President Obama's botched effort to declare the editorial board phone interview "off the record," the subsequent backlash, and the release of the full interview transcript by the Obama campaign, had nothing
to do with the Romney endorsement.
Maybe not. But I'll bet the beret they weren't happy about it.