Bill Vickery – Republican politico and lobbyist and radio talk show hobbyist – was explaining earlier this year to a leadership class of the Greater Little Rock Chamber of Commerce that the political media in Arkansas had changed seismically since the 1980s and 1990s.
He said it had all served to advance the “small-d” democratic cause and the “big-R” Republican takeover.
Vickery spoke with some authority in the matter, although he was in his formative adolescence and young adulthood in the 1980s, conditions that he and some of his friends and foes might agree he’s not entirely left behind.
He has been directly active in Arkansas politics and media since 1994, when he worked on a campaign for a workers’ compensation ballot issue. Two years later he worked for the rising but ultimately failed Democratic U.S. senatorial campaign of Lu Hardin, and then, in a fluid pivot, ran Tim Hutchinson’s winning Republican campaign for that office in the fall.
Actually, Vickery surely set some sort of versatility record that year. He ran or consulted to … not one, not two, but three U. S. Senate campaigns in Arkansas.
Before joining Hardin in ’96 in the Democratic primary – yes, Hardin soon became a Republican himself, so it’s hard to keep up – Vickery had for a time provided services to the Democratic campaign of Sandy McMath.
And Vickery has direct media experience hosting a right-wing talk show on Sunday mornings on 103.7-FM in Little Rock that he describes, not un-aptly, as “frat boy radio.” I was, for a short while, a regular once-a-month “co-host,” though I decided – and he probably agreed, though he was too kind to say so – that our shtick had run its course after six months or so. And he does regular television commentary and Sync Weekly alternative-newspaper columns to represent the Republican point of view.
As it happened, Vickery was joined before the Chamber class that day by a 1980s-surviving media dinosaur, one who was still toiling – though less relevantly, Vickery said – in the contemporary era.
That would be . . . well, the principle character in Vickery’s explanatory narrative was the man seated beside him that day, meaning me.
NEWSPAPER WAR AND ALL THAT
In the ’80s and into the ’90s, Vickery explained, there was a thriving newspaper war, and, after that, a near-universally circulated surviving statewide newspaper. Fox News had not yet debuted on cable television. The Internet had not yet exploded with personal blogs and social media and near-universal access.
The political agenda in Arkansas was set, he said, by local newspaper columnists – John Robert Starr and Meredith Oakley and me, mainly, as complemented by alternating week-day commentary appearances by Starr and me on television station KATV, Channel 7, in Little Rock.
Coffee shop talk was driven by what we wrote. Insiders read us and leaked to us.
Largely as a result, Vickery said, the state remained a refuge of rural Democratic inertia – in part because Starr was friendly with Bill Clinton and in part because my columns came from the left, and in part because we were writing and commenting mostly on an intra-state basis and defining Arkansas politics within that parochial context.
Defining the Arkansas political agenda differently from the national one – that, in a phrase and nutshell, was what the Arkansas Democratic Party long depended on for perpetuating dominance.
But now, Vickery said, I am the lone of those three columnists still toiling, and, while people still read what I write, and consider it in dialogue and debate, they will – by the time they read the newspaper – already have watched Fox or, if they prefer, MSNBC, and they will have surfed their favorite partisan blogs and Twitter feeds and national political news sources.
That is to say the agenda has now been defined nationally before people get to what I write, Vickery said.
The result is more democratic, Vickery said, in that anyone with a Twitter feed can say his political peace in 140 or fewer characters and affix the relevant hash tag to get himself widely read and considered. It is more Republican, he said, because Arkansas people always leaned conservative, but only converted from nominal Democratic affiliation to a Republican one when the setting of the political agenda became the purview of external sources reporting in a national and often brazenly partisan context.
So you might wonder: What did I, seated beside Vickery during this presentation, say in response?
I said I still sometimes break news in the newspaper column on the Voices page of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, and that the column is still popular and influential, and that newsmakers still talk to each other in that space, and that the statewide newspaper remains invaluable in the professional organizing and in-depth and nonpartisan presentation of items, and in thoughtful op-ed essays, and that we should thank the Lord for at all of that, and for the continued vibrancy of our statewide newspaper, but that – yes, all right, I admit – Vickery was making a fairly sound analysis of the state’s dramatically changed media and political environment and its profound effect on the state’s wholly upturned politics.
As recently as 2008, I was publicly ridiculing goofy-sounding Twitter for its 140-character depth and debating a woman then employed by television KATV who was doing a story each day based on a daily reader poll by a format called “Choose Your News.”
I still think it’s inane to ask readers to choose the news, but now I tweet like a sonofagun. I consider one of my greatest career-sunset accomplishments to be runner-up status this year in the Arkansas Times’ best-of-Arkansas contest for best Twitter feed. Adapt or die, you know.
I tweet to ask questions of political newsmakers because it’s easier than calling them or going to see them. I tweet to debate news sources publicly. I tweet to link and tout my newspaper columns, and to link other relevant matters. I tweet to try to be funny, since the typical one-liner usually can be performed in 140 characters. And sometimes I do live-tweeting during Razorback football games to make fun of Bret Bielema and rile Razorback Nation and share in the Cub fan-caliber agony of lifelong Razorback football devotees.
Example: After the Toledo loss, there was a tweet asserting, “There are three kinds of tragedies – Greek, Shakespearian and Razorbackian.”
THAT TWITTER FEED
“Dare I say it?” asked Vickery, when I called him to flesh out those prior observations. And then he said it. “Your Twitter feed now sets the agenda more than your newspaper columns – because it takes place in the white-hot moment. By the time you write a column about a news development, it’s been two or three days since you tweeted your instant reaction.”
But the singularly dominant contemporary news source for Arkansas business and political insiders, Vickery said, is Roby Brock’s Talk Business & Politics – online at talkbusiness.net and also publishing this magazine and newsletters and email services and airing a weekly show of news and commentary on KATV and public radio. Vickery called it the “Politico of Arkansas.”
I spoke up for the Arkansas Times blog, also called the Arkansas Blog, where my old newspaper colleague Max Brantley, a reporter’s reporter, albeit one now fully given over to blustery liberalism, churns out a frenzied and jam-packed news feed.
Vickery agreed with that to this extent: He doesn’t think insiders depend as much on the Arkansas Times as Talk Business, because of the liberal manifesto of the Times, but he does believe that other news professionals scour and react to the Times, thus ceding it influence, because of the sheer volume of scoops that Brantley regularly produces.
I also defended the fine statewide daily newspaper that publishes my column, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Vickery acknowledged that he still loves the newsprint product and generally finds that newspaper articles – even those about news that broke on the Internet the day before – to be more comprehensive and credibly presented than what he typically sees digitally.
The daily print newspaper still has these advantages and special responsibilities: Talk Business & Politics is serving a niche, meaning business and political insiders. The Democrat-Gazette alone serves a general statewide readership. And the Arkansas Times breaks news but couches its report in political opinion, while the Democrat-Gazette is, though plenty conservative editorially, fairly vigilant in the objectivity of its news articles.
As for whether any bias shows up in the newspaper’s article selection or display – well, that’s an age-old dispute affecting all newspapers, starting with The New York Times, and a debate long preceding and transcending the Democrat-Gazette, Talk Business, the Arkansas Blog, the Internet and cable television.
The other major change in Arkansas media coverage of politics has occurred in the nature of political commentary.
There are now two Sunday-morning television shows offering segments containing opinion or analysis on state politics – the aforementioned “Talk Business & Politics” on Channel 7 and “Capitol View” on KARK-TV, Channel 4. Once there only was public television’s low-key “Arkansas Week” and, for a few years, the Channel 7 appearances by Starr and me.
As for opinion-writing: I came to a column of commentary through newspaper reporting, as did Starr and Oakley. Our opinions tended to fall left or right, Republican or Democratic, but they were not pre-designated or labeled – or constrained, much less mandated – as such.
The formal editorials provided the official views of the paper. The columnists were on their own, speaking only for themselves. That’s still the case.
I always said – and meant, and still say – that I prefer to tell the reader something he doesn’t know than tell him how I believe he should think about something we both already know.
That’s straight from an old reporter’s essence: The power is in the news and an opinion is more meaningful and effective if set up by new and relevant information.
Nowadays, most Internet political commentary comes from people emerging not from backgrounds in newspaper reporting, but in politics and partisan activism, and the resulting views are certain to advance – are, in fact, intended to advance – a Republican or Democratic cause more than independent personal thinking. Media commentators tend to be unabashed spinmeisters for the competing parties.
Talk Business’ two main online weekly columnists are John Burris, designated Republican, a former House GOP leader who was political director last year for Tom Cotton, and Jessica DeLoach Sabin, designated Democrat, an activist Democrat who is married to Democratic state Rep. Warwick Sabin.
SO WHICH IS BETTER?
Who is to say which is better – a reporter-trained columnist who tends left or right in his honest opinions, or a politics-trained columnist who writes from direct experience in the arena, even if from a transparently partisan influence and with a transparently partisan agenda?
Open political partisans writing media commentary on partisan politics is no less a conflict of interest than a newspaper columnist and magazine contributor writing about newspaper columnists and magazine contributors.
And who is to say which is better overall – a less frenetic media atmosphere in which a political agenda is set by a newspaper that reports, analyzes, comments and opinionates on what happened yesterday, or a perpetually moving news cycle in which a political agenda is set second-by-second on blogs and social media by the mad dashing of often avowed and competing partisans?
All I know is that not many other people could write about this transformation from the perspective of one writing a statewide newspaper column beginning in 1986 and continuing still, and who maintains today a hyperactive Twitter feed – and from the perspective of one who will live-tweet a college football game on his phone on a Saturday night and joyously spread out the treasure of a big newspaper or two on Sunday morning.
I also know that, as a political place, Arkansas is wholly different in 2015 from what it was in 1986, perhaps nearly as much because of the changing media as the factor most usually cited, which is that Arkansas doesn’t like Barack Obama.