As Election Day looms, it’s ugly out there—uglier, in fact, than anyone can remember as reliably Republican newspapers absorb readers’ abuse, vitriol and even vows of violence for endorsing Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump.
The Arizona Republic, which broke with 126 years of tradition to support Clinton for president instead of the GOP nominee, might be unique in having to grapple with death threats from apparently enraged Trumpkins—a circumstance that has attracted international media as well serious attention from law enforcement authorities—but it’s hardly unique in fielding curses, insults and foul language from a mob wielding the internet equivalent of torches and pitchforks.
Indeed, in mid-September, after The Dallas Morning News recommended Clinton—and slammed Trump for “an astounding absence of preparedness” and “exploiting base instincts of xenophobia, racism and misogyny”—top editor Mike Wilson found himself confronting a crowd of angry, screaming Trump supporters who had marched on the paper’s headquarters across from Dealey Plaza.
“For the first couple of minutes, it was a CNN shoutfest out there,” Wilson told The Daily Beast. “But I wasn’t participating except to be a pin-cushion. There were a lot of anti-Dallas Morning News signs and pro-Donald Trump signs that our First Amendment protects—and good for them. After a couple of minutes they were asking me some good questions, and I said ‘give me a chance to answer them.’ It became a little more of a conversation.”
As of this writing, around 40 traditionally Republican-supporting dailies nationwide have endorsed former secretary of state Clinton (among her 226 daily newspaper endorsements), while a mere eight dailies are backing the loose-lipped ex-Apprentice star.
Few of the Republican papers’ Clinton endorsements have been especially enthusiastic; most express deep misgivings about her use of a private email server, the appearances of conflicts at the Clinton Foundation, her penchant for obfuscation and calculation and other flaws—but, still, an improvement over the dangerous, scary, disastrous potential of a Trump presidency.
A Daily Beast survey of six Clinton-backing Republican dailies in Texas, Michigan, Arizona and Ohio—all states, except Texas, in which various public opinion polls have indicated a close race between the major-party contenders—suggests a season of unprecedented rage.
“In this era, you get used to people’s lack of restraint or incivility,” said Peter Bhatia, top editor of the Cincinnati Enquirer, which endorsed Clinton in late September. “But certainly our endorsement has brought out the worst in a lot of people.”
Bhatia, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, added: “This election has provoked passions of a sort unlike any other I’ve seen in the 40 years I’ve been doing this…Curse words, really nasty personal comments, wishing ill on either the institution or members of the editorial board or me personally.
“One of my favorites is ‘You’re going to end up as a Walmart greeter.’ And I’m thinking, yes, I might end up as a greeter in Walmart! There are no guarantees in life, and I’ve given up my dream of being a golf pro.”
Phil Boas, editorial page editor of the Arizona Republic—which noted in its Clinton endorsement that “we have never endorsed a Democrat over a Republican for president. Never”—said of the death threats, “We took some measures to protect our employees. We’ve had detectives in here interviewing some of our folks who got the phone calls.”
The Phoenix-based daily—like the Cincinnati Enquirer, part of the Gannett chain—takes menacing warnings seriously because of its history of violence. Boas recalled that once, years ago, after threats were made on Pulitzer Prize-winner Steve Benson, a take-no-prisoners political cartoonist, the cops checked Benson’s automobile for explosive devices. (Benson didn’t return a call seeking comment.)
In June 1976, Republic investigative reporter Don Bolles—who was pursuing leads about Mafia involvement in various real estate transactions—was killed by a remote-controlled bomb planted in his late-model Datsun.
John Harvey Adamson was convicted in 1977 of the contract murder, but many details surrounding Bolles’s death remain mysterious.
“My dad was a doctor at St. Joseph’s hospital when Bolles was brought in,” Boas said, “and I remember him having inside knowledge of what was happening with Bolles”—who died of his injuries 12 days after being admitted—“and telling me about it when I was a teenage boy. I still remember the front page of the Republic. It’s stuck in my mind forever.”
Boas said that after the Clinton endorsement, “the phones were ringing off the hook with angry callers. One of the death threats was harkening back to Bolles, and blowing up things. How unusual it is in America to have journalists killed. Right across the border in Mexico, it’s so common that dozens are dying every year.”
In a heartfelt response to the endorsement backlash, Arizona Republic president Mi-Ai Parrish wrote of “the anonymous caller who invoked the name of Don Bolles…and threatened that more of our reporters would be blown up because of the endorsement”; of people “who said we should be shut down, burned down, who said they hoped we would cease to exist under a new presidential administration”; of others “who have spit on, threatened with violence, screamed at and bullied the young people going door-to-door selling subscriptions.”
Not surprisingly, Trump himself couldn’t resist going on Twitter to complain about the Dallas Morning News and Arizona Republic endorsements of his opponent, along with USA Today’s anyone-but-Trump editorial: “The people are really smart in cancelling subscriptions to the Dallas & Arizona papers & now USA Today will lose readers! The people get it!”
A reader engagement employee at the Republican-leaning Grand Rapids Press meanwhile, has coped with more than 100 nasty letters, phone calls and emails since the paper’s print edition endorsed Clinton this past Sunday and on Oct. 27 on the web, where Clinton was also the choice of its seven sister papers in the MLive Media Group (a subsidiary of the Newhouse family’s Advance Publications, which also owns Vanity Fair, Vogue, The New Yorker and more than a dozen other glossy magazines).
“A lot of it is anonymous, with the endorsement editorial marked up with words like ‘baby killer’ and talking points like ‘WikiLeaks,’ ‘Benghazi,’ the ‘Clinton Foundation,’ ‘Bill Clinton and sexual assault,’ and things like that,” said the employee, who asked not to be named because he was not authorized to speak for the 126-year-old Press, which serves a largely conservative readership in Western Michigan. “One lady just called me five minutes ago and said ‘Trump’s all about the Bible, we’re a Bible community, and Hillary’s all against the Bible.”
So far only one response to the Clinton endorsement—which was signed apparently by a real person—caused the employee enough concern to alert top MLive Media Groups executives. “Fuck you, Murderer!” the letter advised.
By contrast, Jeff Cohen, opinion editor of the Republican-leaning Houston Chronicle, offered a rare sliver of hope for civil discourse this election cycle, saying that the reaction to the paper’s Clinton endorsement “was mostly positive…There was very little blowback.”
Among the reasons is that Houston is a polyglot and socially tolerant metropolis—local politician Annise Danette Parker was the first openly gay mayor in the country—in which polite Republican behavior takes its cues from such leading citizens as George Herbert Walker Bush and James Addison Baker III.
“This is a place where Yellow Dog Democrats have coexisted peacefully with Bush-Baker Republicans for decades,” Cohen said.
Another reason is that the Chronicle published its endorsement in early August, temperate times compared to today’s category 5 political hurricane.
Timothy Kelly, editor of the Beaumont Enterprise east of Houston, likened the negative response to his paper’s Clinton endorsement to talk radio—“maybe just fewer people being louder and more strident. The volume control is broken. Many of them were objecting to the fact of the endorsement. They hadn’t actually read the editorial. That kind of alarmed me a little bit. I have no problem if you disagree with me, but at least know what you’re disagreeing with.”
Phil Boas, of the Arizona Republic, said he was encouraged by the support shown by other media outlets, even those from foreign countries.
“International media are constantly showing up here. It’s unreal,” he said. “We’ve had journalists from Ireland, England, a Swedish film crew, TV crews and a newspaper from Japan, a reporter from Germany.
“I think there’s a universal concern about Trump, a real fear of him. Some reporters have said privately that they’re worried. One of the Japanese reporters said, ‘You have military bases all over Japan—so your foreign policy is our foreign policy. That’s why we’re so worried about him, because he’s so erratic.’”
Boas hardly needed to add: “We’re all going to need a breather after this.”