News Flash! 'Conservative Arizona Republic' Makes for a Catchy Headline — But It's Off Base

The Arizona Republic's endorsement of Hillary Clinton was a perfect man-bites-dog story for election season.EXPAND
The Arizona Republic's endorsement of Hillary Clinton was a perfect man-bites-dog story for election season.

It was quite a public-relations coup for that dinosaur of daily newspapers, the Arizona Republic.

Last week, it seemed as though everyone in the country was talking about how a "conservative newspaper" or a "conservative editorial board" had endorsed a Democrat for president for the first time in its 126-year history.

Never mind that the Republic's September 27 editorial, "Endorsement: Hillary Clinton is the only choice to move America ahead," expended more ink arguing why Donald Trump shouldn't be president than it did outlining why Hillary Clinton should.

"Since The Arizona Republic began publication in 1890, we have never endorsed a Democrat over a Republican for president," the editorial board proclaimed. "Never. This reflects a deep philosophical appreciation for conservative ideals and Republican principles.

"This year is different.

"The 2016 Republican candidate is not conservative and he is not qualified."

The piece was a neatly packaged man-bites-dog story, perfect for election season. And the national media sank its teeth into it like a hyena on a carcass.

"Conservative Arizona Republic editorial board backs Clinton," read a headline the following day in the Los Angeles Times"This Conservative Arizona Paper Never Endorsed a Democrat for President. Until Now," Mother Jones chimed in. National Public Radio: "Arizona Newspaper Breaks With Tradition, Backs Clinton." The New Yorker: "How a Conservative Paper Ended Up Endorsing Hillary Clinton."

You get the idea.

But is the Republic really conservative?

The paper used to be a conservative newspaper. As it proudly pointed out in a video trumpeting its first-in-a-lifetime endorsement of a Democratic presidential candidate, after all, it began life as the Arizona Republican.

But longtime readers know well that the Republic has changed over time, and that part of that change has been a drift away from conservatism.

Gone are the days when Eugene C. Pulliam, the Republic's owner and publisher from 1946 until his death in 1975 (and grandfather to former Vice President Dan Quayle), published right-wing editorials on the front page. Gone, too, is conservative "kingmaker" Duke Tully, who helped back politicians like John McCain until his fake war record was exposed in 1986.

In 2000 the Pulliam family sold out to Gannett, publisher of USA Today. Although Gannett's founder, Frank Gannett, was a conservative, the media giant is viewed as anything but. In 2006, Cliff Kincaid of the conservative watchdog group Accuracy in Media called Gannett "another important bastion of liberal media power." A Pew Research Report in 2014 found that the average USA Today reader "is more mixed" than that of the liberal New York Times "but still leaning left."

Unquestionably, the modern-day Arizona Republic has more in common with USA Today than with the Arizona Republican of old. Liberal columnists Jon Talton, E.J. Montini, and Linda Valdez are as well known as conservative writers like Robert Robb. Steve Benson, one of the most anti-conservative editorial cartoonists in the nation, has been on the Republic's payroll since 1980.

That said, the editorial board has endorsed its share of Republicans in the 21st century. (It is backing John McCain over Ann Kirkpatrick in this year's Senate race, for instance.) But it tapped Democrat Janet Napolitano for governor in 2002. And it hasn't endorsed Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio in the past three election cycles.

Speaking on background, a former editorial board member says the leftward shift became noticeable with the appointment of Keven Willey to the position of editorial-page editor in 1998. On the polarizing subject of abortion, Willey took the paper from pro-life to pro-choice. It wasn't that the board was devoid of conservatives, the former member says, but rather that the predictable conservative stance became diminished.

Willey moved on to the Dallas Morning News in the early 2000s, where she proceeded to alienate conservative Texans with the paper's award of Texan of the Year in 2007 to "The Illegal Immigrant."

Trump's mean-spirited antics and Bozo-like diplomatic demeanor caused many Republicans to disavow him, but as the Huffington Post noted, the Republic's editorial board "didn't struggle much" with its decision. A group of bona fide right-wingers would have wrestled more with what is arguably the single-biggest reason many conservatives are still sticking with Trump: the prospect of appointing U.S. Supreme Court justices in the next administration.

"We get that," the board wrote. "But we ask them to see Trump for what he is — and what he is not.

"Trump’s conversion to conservatism is recent and unconvincing. There is no guarantee he will name solid conservatives to the Supreme Court."

But it's a safe bet Trump would proffer a more conservative roster of prospective justices than Clinton would.

So what's the deal?

In his New Yorker piece last week about the Clinton endorsement, Charles Bethea quotes editorial board member Phil Boas saying that the Republic's current editorial-board lineup includes a "mix of viewpoints."

The board, notes Bethea, contains five women. Four members are people of color.

"We have conservatives, we have a libertarian, we have liberals," Boas told Bethea. "But, generally, we move in sort of a center-right way ... Although we go left in some areas, like the environment."

Boas, who happens to be Arpaio's son-in-law, is a conservative, though not hardcore. Of the other eight board members, only two other conservatives emerge: Joanna Allhands and Robert Robb. Robb's a registered Republican, according to public records, while Allhands has no party designated.

That leaves six board members.

Linda Valdez is a registered Democrat — no surprise there. (Everyone else is either "no party," or "party not designated," with the exception of the publisher, Mi-Ai Parrish, a registered Independent.)

So it seems safe to conclude Valdez is a liberal. Same goes for Benson.

Working on the assumption that you can't have a nine-member "conservative editorial board" without at least five conservatives, that leaves four people among whom to pinpoint two more conservatives.

• Mi-Ai Parrish took the reins as publisher last year. Previously, she was publisher of the Kansas City Star. New Times e-mailed Jim Fitzpatrick, a retired Star assistant city editor who now writes a blog, JimmyCSays, seeking his input. Fitzpatrick says he doesn't know Parrish's political affiliation but adds, "She inherited a liberal editorial-page editor, Miriam Pepper, and did not replace her. Miriam retired in July 2014 and was replaced by another liberal, Steve Paul, who retired earlier this year."
Guess: Leans Liberal

• Nicole Carroll, the Republic's editor, rose through the ranks during a period of intensive change, and as deputy managing editor in the early 2000s had the task of developing a project that would draw more young women readers. We have no clue about her politics. But her leadership was instrumental in creating the paper we see now.
Guess: Leans Conservative

• Elvia Diaz is the bilingual, Latina editor of the Republic's Spanish-language sister paper, La Voz. Her Twitter account, @elviadiaz1, outs her as a likely liberal.
Guess: Leans Liberal

• Abe Kwok returns 20 hits on for columns with his byline. None of them appear to tilt to the right. Two skew left: one on nasty comments by right-wingers after the mass shooting earlier this year at an Orlando nightclub, the other making a subtle complaint that not enough lower-level employees of the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office are being held accountable.
Guess: Leans Liberal

So the tally looks to be 5-4 in the liberals' favor.

Though the Republic's decision to endorse Clinton should not have come as a huge surprise, it certainly has some right-wingers up in arms — in some cases literally: Boas has said the paper lost subscribers and received at least one death threat.

Trump himself responded to the pro-Clinton column on Twitter: "The people are really smart in cancelling subscriptions to the Dallas & Arizona papers & now USA Today will lose readers! The people get it!"

The Texas reference is to the Dallas Morning News, which, like the Republicendorsed Clinton. The Dallas paper hadn't endorsed a Democrat for president since before World War II, but, much like the Republic, has shed its conservative cred in recent years. (As Willey, who's still at the Morning News, wrote in a 2011 column, she takes care to make sure to publish an equal number of liberal, conservative, and non-ideological editorial pieces each month.)

Donald Trump has garnered few, if any, endorsements from major U.S. newspapers, and the Republic could have gone the route of other papers like the Chicago Tribune and Manchester, New Hampshire's Union Leader and endorsed Libertarian Gary Johnson rather than Clinton.

But the answer to the title of Bethea's New Yorker article, "How a Conservative Paper Ended Up Endorsing Hillary Clinton," can be summed in fewer words than he used:

It's not conservative.

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