The News-Gazette has always been Right — right-wing Republican, and in its smug self-righteousness, right.
The paper presents itself as “respectable Republican,” as representing the values of “proper,” polite society. It abhors what is impolitic, impolite.
That the News-Gazette is politically conservative is a truism, something everybody can agree on.
By this is generally meant that the news sections report the news, and the editorial page editorializes, that they are separate and different. Later, I will argue that this is, in fact, not the case.
Here, however, the focus is squarely on the conservative slant expressed on the editorial pages. It is important to distinguish between small “c” conservatism and capital “C” Conservatism, because the News-Gazette has changed over time. Its editorial line today is not exactly the same as it was five, 10, 50, or 100 years ago. What it means to be Republican or Democratic changes over time, but the relationship — or difference – between “liberal” and “conservative” is a constant. What changes is the content, the position on specific issues, but Republicans continue to be more “conservative” relative to more “liberal” Democrats. Thus, it is widely acknowledged, for example, that over the past 25 or 35 years both national parties have moved to the right, become more “conservative.”
The single best way to understand the paper’s conservatism, its editorial position today, is to understand its editorial position yesterday. The News-Gazette has been on the wrong side of history continuously and consistently, and not just occasionally. Ask yourself: have you ever seen the paper take a liberal and progressive stance, an anti-Republican position on a major political or social issue?
To be sure, it is anachronistic to read generally-held views today into the paper’s past positions. Yet relative even to its contemporaries, it is conservative. Neither did the Champaign-Urbana Courier (1877-1979), nor certainly does the Daily Illini (1871-present) take consistently “liberal” positions. But they were and are relatively more “liberal” than the News-Gazette.
It may be argued that in east central, especially rural, Illinois conservatism is normative, but that obfuscates as much as it purportedly explains. On the one hand, “Red-baiting” during the McCarthyite period 1947-1953 was both a national and local issue. On the other hand, this is a college town, and even Champaign/Urbana is generally less conservative than the surrounding, mostly rural counties. The example of the Louisville Courier-Journal comes to mind. Family-owned like the News-Gazette, it is a Democratic paper in a conservative town and region, which suggests that a local paper does not necessarily have to mirror the conservative politics of a conservative region (Hunter Thompson, “A Southern City with Northern Problems,” 1963).
Below, I focus on some of the historical highlights, or lowlights, of the News-Gazette‘s editorial positions on political and social issues over time. Due to severe space limitations, what follows is, of necessity, not comprehensive, but it is sufficiently representative to demonstrate common themes and pervasive attitudes.
1) To begin with, consider the tone and attitudes set by publisher Marajen Stevick Chinigo (1967-2002), president and CEO John Hirschfeld (1987-1997), and publisher John Foreman (2003-2014).
The attitudes of people like Chinigo and Hirschfeld, in particular, determined the paper’s tone. Everyone is entitled to their own opinions, but not to their own facts. For Chinigo, Hirschfeld and their ilk, however, their personal opinions too often trumped the journalistic facts. Key is that they rarely let professional journalism standards get in the way of expressing their personal politics in print. To understand the paper they and others made, therefore, it is necessary to discuss their personal lives and the beliefs that they carried over into the paper they ran.
The point is not to make personal, ad hominem attacks. The point is to understand how the paper works, what makes it tick. It is not me but they who have made the personal political, and in so doing, necessitated a discussion of them personally. The News-Gazette looks like a newspaper, it is laid out like a newspaper, it uses the rhetoric of newspaper prose (ledes, he said/she said viewpoints). But this “news” is all-too-often news inflected, when not determined, by personal opinions and whims versus professional journalistic ethics. In short, Chinigo, Hirschfeld made, and their News-Gazette successors continue to make, their personal lives political.
Chinigo’s editorial interference is a matter of record (“In Memoriam, 2000-2009,” Smile Politely, 2009; Miner, “Power Failure,” 2000; DeLong, “Down, minions, down!,” 1982). In the late 1970s replacing a Democratic editor with a Republican one, dismissing the crime reporter for political reasons, and banning reporters’ bylines for a time out of vindictiveness. Replacing a pro-Democratic letter to the editor as the first one published with a pro-Republican letter. Moving an Evans and Novak column, “Reagan Can Lose Illinois,” a few days before the 1980 elections so that it ran under a pro-Reagan George Will column. The list goes on.
The pressure for self-censorship must have been and be incredible. Staying on the “right” side of the “old girl,” and more recently the successive “good old boys,” must be exhausting, soul-sapping. Partisanship is not journalism.
John Hirschfeld had no background in journalism before becoming involved with the News-Gazette. “He was a journalist only to the extent he enjoyed the confidence of Marajen Stevick Chinigo,” according to former Champaign mayor Dannel McCollum. “Maybe like me he had a paper route, but I know of no other background experience that would have made him a journalist.” McCollum is a Democrat, and he tangled repeatedly with Hirschfeld on the pages of the News-Gazette, but he is also even-handed, even generous, in his assessment of Hirschfeld — more so than some of Hirschfeld’s own Republican critics. For example, McCollum stated that “In person, John is one of the most engaging, positively charming people I have ever met.”
Hirschfeld had been involved in his family’s Orange and Blue beer distributorship, which dated back to 1898, and which he continued to participate in. In 1992, for example, he criticized Champaign’s crackdown on Campustown bars for serving underage drinkers — a clear conflict of interest – saying Black on white Campustown attacks were more important than underage drinking (“Politicians who condone violence really encourage more of it,” May 6, 1992).
Before this in the early 1970s, he was a state legislator in Springfield. In his most notable act as a legislator supposedly interested in education, he dressed as a student, went into the UI dorms, and detailed the allegedly illegal, unsavory behavior the students engaged in.
In the 1980s he chaired the county Republican Party. What happened was that Hirschfeld “forged an alliance of convenience” with local politician Tim Johnson. “It’s always been my impression they were never very good friends,” McCollum says, “but they combined their resources to oust the former Republican county chair. John assumed the role and later vacated it for Tim. The partisan manipulations that went on were, I felt, extremely adverse to the long-term interests of the county. Decisions were made for pure partisan advantage rather than the general good.” Partisan politics was Hirschfeld’s hallmark.
Already by 1975 while still serving in Springfield, Chinigo had hired him as her personal lawyer. Hirschfeld was a founding partner in Meyer, Capel, the leading conservative Republican, white shoe law firm in the county. Soon after Chinigo had him hired as the News-Gazette’s corporate attorney, and in 1987 she named him as the paper’s CEO/Publisher. “The party boss became president and CEO of Chinigo’s media companies, which controlled not only the Champaign News-Gazette but the the weekly Tolono County Star and radio stations WDWS AM and WHMS FM.”
Hirschfeld’s radio show on Stevick-owned WDWS-AM “gained him a reputation as Champaign County’s own Rush Limbaugh”
From the 1970s into the 1980s and 1990s, his ascent was meteoric – he was the darling of the Republican establishment. Apparently his positions as the paper’s attorney and CEO/publisher did not satiate his political impulses. So, Hirschfeld began a regular hard-right column, “From Where I Sit,” and added a regular radio show, “Ricochet,” on Chinigo-owned WDWS-AM, which “gained him a reputation as Champaign County’s own Rush Limbaugh.”
His ascent reached its apex, in a manner of speaking, when he went from local and state politics to national politics in 1991 and was named to Education Secretary Lamar Alexander’s education accreditation advisory committee under George H. L. Bush. As we have already seen above, however, Hirschfeld had no more training, experience or background in education than he did in journalism.
“John had immense influence in political circles, not only in this town, this county, but statewide,” McCollum says. “And my personal opinion is that John didn’t handle it very well. He was very partisan.” Political partisanship, public service, and journalism – for Hirschfeld they were all one and the same.
In his extreme rightwing, take-no-prisoners newspaper columns, writing especially on racial and civil liberties issues, pugnacious Hirschfeld regularly went for the jugular. When the mayor of Urbana and Champaign mayor Dannel McCollum jointly proclaimed in 1989 “Lesbian and Gay Pride Day,” Hirschfeld questioned McCollum’s motives. “How better to get re-elected than by satiating the public desires of a very small, but very vocal minority.” Wondering what the mayors would proclaim next, Hirschfeld suggested a few possibilities: “Pride in Desecrating the Flag Day’…’Nudity Day’…’Pedophilia Photo Day’…’Beastiality Month.’… The list could go on.”
McCollum responded in the paper that he stood by his Pride Day proclamation, and hoped that “those who have raised the furor re-examine their own sense of charity and tolerance in this matter” (News-Gazette, July 4, 1989). Bloviation is not journalism.
Not only Hirschfeld’s homophobia, but also his extreme racism is a matter of record. In 1991, Hirschfeld defended the Champaign Park District’s inadvertent use of a racist clip art cartoon in which African “cannibals” boil a white person in a large vat. What happened was that a low-level employee inadvertently picked the image for a Champaign Park District flier advertising a course, “Cooking with a Foreign Flair,” which the Park District director did not see before publication. When it was published the director profusely apologized to the understandably outraged African-American community. Hirschfeld, however, opined that if anyone should complain, it was him. “That such events [a white man being boiled alive in the cannibal’s pot] actually occurred is historical fact, and all the black militancy in the world can’t change that.” He went on, “Until you [African-American critics] can document discrimination and racial insensitivity, it is best you keep quiet. Otherwise, you will continue to stew in your own pot” (News-Gazette, September 29, 1991).
Around the same time, a campus McKinley Foundation flier used the very same cartoon among several other racist images on a flier announcing an anti-racism film series. Hirschfeld wrote a letter on his News-Gazette stationery to the McKinley director asking, “why is using the one ok [on the McKinley film flier], but not the other [on the Park District flier].” To which the director logically responded that they were not at all comparable, because McKinley was using the image, along with the other ones, to explicitly underscore racism in film as the flier plainly stated.
Still in 1991, Hirschfeld devoted two columns to white supremacist David Duke, simultaneously disavowing the person, and urging serious consideration of his views by Republicans. Duke’s Klan membership was “despicable,” but it was “only a subterfuge for liberal opposition” to Duke’s message. “What terrifies the liberals is not the Klan, but the message Duke is carrying,” Hirschfeld wrote. Duke has “touched the pulse of this country” (News-Gazette, November 14, 1991).
When Hirschfeld’s racist views were brought to the attention of Lamar Alexander’s Department of Education that had appointed Hirschfeld to its education advisory committee, the resulting flap made the pages of the New York Times (“Education Advisor Defends Duke,” January 19, 1992), Washington Post (“Accreditation and Politics,” Jan 23, 1992), and Chronicle of Higher Education (March 4, 1992), among others. (Full disclosure: Belden Fields, pictured and quoted in the Chronicle article, is a founding member of the Public i editorial collective.)
Then in 1997 it all came crashing down. Chinigo fired him over his very public divorce and marital peccadilloes (she was one to talk). It was revealed that Hirschfeld had billed Chinigo as her personal lawyer over $1 million for work that he should have been doing as part of his News-Gazette duties between 1993 and 1997. Found guilty, Hirschfeld was disbarred from practicing law, fired by Meyer, Capel, as well as disowned by Chinigo.
“As citizens and as consumers, we’re gratified that Hirschfeld will not be practicing law any time soon, if ever again”—News-Gazette editor John Foreman (2000)
Compared to a piece of work like Chinigo, and a moral and ethical reprobate like Hirschfeld, Foreman comes across, at first, as a kindly old curmudgeon. But beware the flailing tail — there is more than one dinosaur out there. For his editorials are dyed in the same colors as those by Chinigo and Hirschfeld. Columns railing against Barack Obama (“Obama’s first term shows our judgment was sound,” November 4, 2012), marijuana (“Smoke it if you got it,” September 6, 2013), Obamacare (“Obamacare gets close to liftoff,” September 17, 2013), James Kilgore (discussed below; “Kilgore’s status leaves unanswered questions,” February 16, 2014), and same-sex marriage (“Maybe I just don’t understand,” September 27, 2015), and in favor of Chief Illiniwek (“No symbol can fill void left by Chief Illiniwek,” June 9, 2013) are all too representative.
2) The News-Gazette’s long, lamentable history of playing conservative politics emerges clearly from its editorializing about, and demonstrated meddling in campus issues. Time and again it positions, it fancies itself as an influential player between campus, on the one side, and its allies on the UI Board of Trustees, and local and state politicians, on the other. So-called “town and gown” tensions and conflicts are a phenomenon of college towns nationwide. Locally, however, the “town” has historically determined outcomes much more than “gown” cares to think about or acknowledge. While News-Gazette owners and managers are part of the local Republican elite, they reflect and push, but do not direct or determine matters.
The News-Gazette’s long history of playing partisan politics is even clearer during the McCarthyite “Red-baiting” years between 1947 and 1953. Whether it was the 1947 Clabaugh Act banning Communists from speaking, the 1947-1950 Bowen controversy over hiring Keynesian-oriented economists, the 1949 Broyles commission pushing for public employee loyalty oaths, or the1953 firing of UI president Stoddard primarily for not being anti-Communist enough, the News-Gazette consistently editorialized in favor of these firings and dismissals, measures and laws, and against critics claiming they violated the First Amendment.
In 1948, for example, local Urbana congressman Charles Clabaugh got his eponymous act enacted in Springfield that banned communists or communist sympathizers from speaking on campus. Not until 1966, 18 years later, was it challenged when students at UI-Chicago invited a W.E.B. Dubois Club speaker to speak. Finally, it was declared unconstitutional in 1968 by a unanimous panel of three U.S. District Court judges as a clear violation of the First Amendment.
3) Between 1947 and 1950, the so-called “Bowen controversy” virtually destroyed the economics department. The issue was ostensibly intellectual: whether or not to hire Keynesian-oriented economists. In fact, the issue was immediately and continuously politicized, on and off campus, as “Red,” or at least “Pink,” Keynesians and their fellow travelers versus patriotic, anti-communist, “proper” Republicans, who just happened to be also pro-business.
Throughout the controversy the News-Gazette editor, Eddie Jacquin, was in continuous contact with both faculty and off-campus opponents of Bowen, editorialized unceasingly against teaching Keynesian economics, and opened the paper’s pages to Bowen’s opponents. Before the News-Gazette and its co-conspirators on campus, in the community and in Springfield were through, 17 economics faculty members had resigned or been driven out. One of them, Franco Modigliani, went on to receive the 1985 Nobel prize in economics.
Among other things, the Bowen controversy elicited strong political support to “protect the business community” from the supposed disease of Keynesian economics, certainly considered “pink,” if not thoroughly “red.” This is, of course, risible. No liberal he, Keynes’ main motivation was precisely to save capitalism from socialism and communism through his reformist economic policy, including deficit spending paid back through economic growth resulting from the multiplier effect.
4) Support of the business community, coupled with its anti-labor positions – anti-union, anti-“fair share” union payments and pro-“right to work,” anti-minimum wage increases – has been an editorial constant at the News-Gazette. How the business elite substitutes its interests for the interests of the entire community, and how an often libertarian, radical individualism expressed in the pages of the paper trumps a more inclusive community is discussed below.
More recently in 2008, the paper staunchly supported creation of the so-called Academy for Capitalism and Entrepreneurship, a rightwing infiltration of economics at UIUC. Its “free enterprise,” “free market” bias was so egregiously lacking in intellectual content and persuasiveness that the Academic Senate, after spending way more time and effort studying the issue than it deserved, concluded that it had no place on campus. Thanks primarily to the demonstrated partisanship of former Vice President Craig Bazzani, however, faculty watched helplessly as it was set up as a one-of-a-kind, quasi-independent entity operating out of the U of I Foundation, of all places.
5) The News-Gazette is as anti-labor as it is pro-business. Today, it editorializes against “fair share” union dues payments and in favor of Gov. Rauner’s “right to work” policies, and against minimum wage increases. In 1995 in one of the most notorious anti-union moves in Illinois history, the paper editorialized in favor of the collusion between then-UI president Stanley Ikenberry and then-representative Stanley Weaver to destroy the then-faculty union at UI Springfield (formerly Sangamon State). This was Ikenberry’s personal requirement for making Sangamon State the third school in the UI system. Weaver made duplicitous, illogical, university-serving arguments in legislative hearings, as verbatim transcripts make clear.
Here is what happened. In 1995, the Sangamon State University faculty union, the University Professionals of Illinois affiliated with the IFT, had been in existence for nearly 10 years. As a condition of joining the UI system, however, president Ikenberry told the Illinois Republican-dominated state legislature that he would only allow the school to join the UI system as UI Springfield if it got rid of the union. Compliant state legislators acquiesced. They added a last-minute provision to the legislation reorganizing the system that merged faculty at all three UI campuses into a single bargaining unit. This maneuver had the effect of killing the union, because Springfield unionized faculty were very few in number compared to the number of faculty at Chicago and Urbana.
“We got screwed through a process of backstabbing, underhanded, double-dealing politicians in smoke-filled rooms” –former Sangamon State faculty union president Bob Sipe
Although more than 80% of Springfield faculty signed a petition to the UI Board of Trustees (BOT) in favor of their right to bargain, the BOT refused, the last multi-year contract ended in 1998, and by 2000 the union was de facto defunct. “For possibly the first time in United States history,” wrote two union members, “a state legislature overturned a state labor board’s prior decision specifically to make sure that the usual criteria for bargaining unit recognition such as commonality of purpose and physical proximity would not be followed–and only in a single institution!”
In the Southern Illinois University system, for example, Carbondale faculty could vote in a bargaining unit without needing a majority vote of the Edwardsville campus, but not so in the UI system. “We got screwed,” said former union president Bob Sipe, “through a process of backstabbing, underhanded, double-dealing politicians in smoke-filled rooms who pushed their agendas to the total exclusion of faculty, staff, and students.”
6) Key during the “Red-baiting” years, free speech and related issues have arisen several times since, and the News-Gazette has editorialized against them, too, from Vashti McCollom’s 1948 case concerning religious instruction in public schools, to Leo Koch’s 1960 firing for defending premarital sex, and from the failure to reappoint James Kilgore in 2014, to rescinding Steven Salaita’s already accepted job offer in 2014-2015. In both the Koch and Salaita cases, the AAUP censured UIUC.
Free-speech-for-me-but-not-for-thee has consistently been the paper’s position. That the First Amendment is not about speech we support, but instead protects speech we do not support is a crucial distinction wholly lost on the News-Gazette.
What the News-Gazette appears incapable of doing is framing such issues in terms of competing rights: my right not to serve gays vs the right of all LGBTQ folks to marry, weighing them and choosing the more constitutionally compelling and significant right to uphold. Even the mostly right-wing John Roberts Supreme Court has more often gotten this rights balancing correct – which is not all that often — than the News-Gazette, and its rearguard, retrograde, largely Republican supporters.
But what about the First Amendment protections of freedom of the press, you ask? True, it can be counted on to defend freedom of the press, which, not to put too fine a point on it, is in its own self-interest. While the paper is quick to defend freedom of the press, it cannot help leaning Republican here either.
7) In theory, the News-Gazette supports both the rights of free speech and assembly. In practice, it is more “do as I say, not as I do.” Law and order often trumps the rule of law, legal niceties be damned. At no time was this clearer than during anti-Vietnam war protests in the 1960s and early 1970s.
Several UIUC faculty, a tiny number of administrators, and very sizeable numbers of students were against the Vietnam war, and supported peaceful, nonviolent protest. The generally pro-war News-Gazette favored disciplining anti-war faculty, students, and others.
Beginning with the 1965 SCOPE conference; continuing in 1966 with W.E.B. Dubois club recognition favored by students and faculty, and opposed by everyone else; the first sit-in against Dow (“agent orange”) Chemical in 1967; and the belated release of campus security files; to 1968 sit-ins, arrests and suspensions over Project 500 plans to admit more African-American undergraduates; peaking with the 1970 protests after the Kent State murders, including firebombings, demonstrations, curfews; and calling out the National Guard alongside campus “Illicops,” before protests died down in 1971, the News-Gazette barely tolerated peaceful protest, not civil disobedience, and certainly not violent or militant protest.
8) Struggles over race and racism have fared no better historically on the News-Gazette’s editorial pages, from 1920s Champaign Ku Klux Klan rallies to the League of Women Voter’s 1949 North End “shack study,” and from multiple 1969 protests against racism (February 7, 12, 14, 17 and March 4, 18, and 25) to the 2009 killing of Kiwane Carrington.
Racism here is so structurally, systemically rooted, white supremacy is so pervasive, widespread, extensive, casual — it is a part of the air we breathe, part of the city’s respiratory system. It is the elephant in the room, too big to be seen, right in front of our faces – unseen most of the time by most whites.
This is not the Deep South, but it is the Bible Belt. There are towns all around that were “sundown” towns – Mahomet, Monticello – but most people simply find it impossible to give credence to such arguments. Even more seriously, most locals fail to connect the dots linking de facto sundown town policies then with low, nay miniscule, Black populations now.
Hirschfeld’s racism detailed above is neither isolated nor out of the ordinary. Defenders, including the News-Gazette, of the Park District’s racist clip art, for example, and defenders of the Chief Illiniwek mascot, argue that these are tempests in a teapot, superficial, unimportant. Besides, Chief Illiniwek is not a “negative,” racially demeaning mascot, they argue, but a “positive,” Noble Savage symbol.
What the News-Gazette has never copped to is, however, that the Noble Savage is a racial stereotype. But the key point is that representations are social facts. And the fact is that they are part and parcel of, and reflect the underlying, structural, systemic racist attitudes expressed on the editorial pages of the paper.
9) Racism specifically against Native-Americans in Champaign-Urbana goes back further than African-American racism, since the cities were founded on the expropriation of native Americans in the 1830s to make way for white settlers. Such racism locally, a foundational characteristic of what some term “whiteness,” is simply not seen, which is the point
Chief Illiniwek is constitutive of white identity in Champaign-Urbana. One of the bitter historical ironies is that the physical absence of Native Americans has been transformed into the presence of a sports mascot that refers to no physical thing; it is a sign without a signifier. Long after the demise of 1940s and 1950s anti-Communist loyalty oaths, one loyalty oath that every newly-named campus administrator, for example, must swear fealty to is Illinois sports, “Illini Nation.”
The News-Gazette personifies the mascot’s embrace by many in the community. From the beginning of the anti-Chief movement in the late 1980s, to its “death,” by its “retirement,” in 1997, the paper has spoken the loudest, longest and shrillest in its favor.
Is Illinois sports so inextricably bound up with its racist mascot that they cannot be thought of without it? Apparently so.
10) After the mascot’s “death” in 1997, it “lives” on, after a fashion, in loyalists’ “Illini Nation.” But its apotheosis at the News-Gazette has taken a new, not to say surreal, twist. What can be termed the “sportsification” of the News-Gazette is the friendly takeover of the news sections by the sports section. The passing of the editorial baton in 2013 and 2014 from the older generation of editor John Beck and publisher John Foreman to the younger, but already middle-aged, generation of editors Jim Rossow and Jeff D’Alessio amounts to a game, set, and match won by the sports section, “consistently recognized among the nation’s best,” as they like to remind us. The new-old paper reports every mascot-related tidbit, drop, and crumb, and never fails to fabricate an excuse for ever more.
11) The flipside of Champaign-Urbana as one community, indivisible from a mythical “Illini Nation” is the reality of radical individualism and its deleterious consequences. It was suggested above that there is a connection between a business elite substituting its own interests for the interests of the entire community, on the one hand, and an often libertarian, radical individualism, as expressed in the pages of the paper, trumping a more inclusive community, on the other.
Furthermore, radical individualism, especially a libertarian attitude of “do whatever you want,” works to reinforce and reproduce the status quo. “Don’t let government tell me I have to fasten my seat belt/wear a helmet/not text while driving/not smoke/not drink sugary drinks.” The News-Gazette editorializes against these and other measures regulating all such behavior, because it views them as some sort of Thatcher or Reagan “nanny state” that is “intruding into our private lives.” The News-Gazette employs variations on these arguments over and over to block, prevent, and slow-walk change. And the News-Gazette’s contagion infects others.
Take a longer-term, wider-angle view. McCarthyism. America First. Foreign policy isolationism in east central Illinois 60 years ago nested nicely with domestic Republican laissez faire editorial policies. Incessant conservative calls to “shrink government” (Grover Norquist) and its “entitlements” (an erroneous term since they are not given but have been earned), because Ronald Reagan preached that “government is the problem,” and the “government does nothing” has led today to national political gridlock and all-too-many reactionary Republican-dominated state legislatures. But the entire argument is teleological, a self-fulfilling prophecy. Government does nothing, because we do not allow it to do anything. These anti-social, conservative views for 35 years have been pounded into us, so many mantras repeated over and over, ad nauseum. In east central Illinois, the News-Gazette has been leading the attack on the legitimacy of the state, pushing exclusivity over inclusivity, and simultaneously dissing the public sector and trumpeting the private sector in reflexively knee-jerk reactions.
Historically speaking, constant attacks on the legitimacy, combined with the inefficacy of liberal democracy, in 1920s Italy and 1930s Germany were the necessary, but not sufficient, prerequisites for Mussolini and Hitler. Today, Republicans locally and nationally are experiencing buyer’s remorse, as the seeds of political illegitimacy they have sowed are coming to fruition.
12) In a final bitter irony, the News-Gazette lacks the strength of its editorial convictions. It can only argue its conservative political positions by engaging in tendentious distortions and ad hominem attacks – acts of commission. That is, except when it chooses to simply not cover an issue, pretending that what everyone else is talking about does not exist — acts of omission.
1) With the heavy hand of owners and managers like Chinigo and Hirschfeld, the paper has failed historically to distinguish between personal partisan politics and professional journalism standards.
2) Time and time again, the News-Gazette has actively meddled in University of Illinois educational, especially academic freedom, issues. The paper positions itself as an influential player siding mostly with its campus friends and UI Board of Trustees allies, plus local and state politicians versus faculty and students. Yet historically, the “town” – Champaign — has determined outcomes much more than “gown” – UIUC — cares to think about or to acknowledge.
3) Consistently on the wrong side of history, the paper’s died-in-red extremism emerges especially clearly during the McCarthyite “Red-baiting” years between 1947 and 1953. Corollary is its constant support of business, and the business community.
4) The News-Gazette is as anti-labor as it is pro-business. Anti-union. Anti-“fair share”/”free ride” union payments. Pro-“right to work”/”right to work for less.” Anti-minimum wage increases.
5) The paper is against faculty unions in particular, ranging from support for the breakup of the Sangamon State University union in 1995 to attacking the newly-formed UI-Chicago faculty union in 2013-2014, and the UIUC Campus Faculty Association’s attempt to create a union in 2014-2015. cite my articles
6) Instead of free speech, the News-Gazette supports “free-speech-for-me-but-not-for-thee.” That the First Amendment is not about speech we support, but instead protects speech we do not support is a crucial distinction wholly lost on the paper. The News-Gazette is incapable, along with the rest of the mainstream media, of framing and deciding issues in terms of competing rights. The right of a group of individuals, such as the LGBTQ community, to enjoy equal protection under the law, plus the doctrine of separation of church and state outweigh the right of an individual, a business, or a church to discriminate against an entire group of people, or the right of a state that defines marriage as a union between “a man and a woman,” since federal law trumps states’ rights.
7) For the News-Gazette, “law and order” usually ranks above the rule of law, legal niceties be damned. The paper barely tolerates peaceful protest, has less patience for civil disobedience, and none for militant let alone violent protest.
8) Racism directed at Blacks in Champaign-Urbana is so structurally, systemically rooted; white supremacy is so pervasive, widespread, extensive, and casual that it is unseen most of the time by most whites. including the News-Gazette. Instead of reporting on, interrogating, and challenging white supremacy, the paper through its desultory reporting on the underlying issues, its consistent editorializing in favor of, for example, building a bigger jail, and defense of racial profiling in police stops, plus its biased reporting of crime and recycling of criminal stereotypes (cite Althaus) – all this produces and reproduces deeply-entrenched white supremacist attitudes. Key is that racialized stereotypes and attitudes are social facts. And the fact is that they are part and parcel of, and reflect the underlying, structural, systemic racist attitudes expressed on the editorial pages of the paper, thus closing the circle.
9) Racism against Native-Americans in Champaign-Urbana is a foundational characteristic of “whiteness,” the construction of what it means to be white locally. Chief Illiniwek is constitutive of white identity in Champaign-Urbana. The News-Gazette exemplifies the mascot’s embrace by all-too-many in the community, even after its “death,” through “retirement.”
10) While remaining fundamentally the same, the paper changes slightly over time. Thus, the passing of the editorial baton in 2013 and 2014 has led to the “sportsification” of the News-Gazette, the friendly takeover of the news sections by the sports section.
11) The flipside of Champaign-Urbana as one community, indivisible from a mythical “Illini Nation” is the reality of radical individualism and its deleterious consequences. Arguably, there is a connection between a business elite substituting its own interests for the interests of the entire community, on the one hand, and an often libertarian, radical individualism, as expressed in the pages of the paper, that trumps a more inclusive community, on the other.
The important point is that this kind of radical individualism, especially a libertarian attitude of “do whatever you want,” works to reinforce and reproduce the status quo. “Don’t let government tell me I have to fasten my seat belt/wear a helmet/not text while driving/not smoke/not drink sugary drinks.” News-Gazette attacks on these and similar measures work in effect to block, prevent, and slow-walk change.
In east central Illinois, the News-Gazette has been leading in effect the attack on the legitimacy of the state, repeatedly dissing the public sector and trumpeting the private sector. Today, however, “respectable” Republicans locally, as well as nationally, are experiencing buyer’s remorse, as the seeds of illegitimacy they have sowed for more than 35 years are coming to fruition.
12) The News-Gazette lacks the strength of its editorial convictions. It may come as a surprise that behind the self-satisfaction, self-righteousness, and bluster, the paper is actually quite defensive. “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain” – Illinois is, after all, not far from Kansas.
The paper can only argue its conservative political positions by engaging in tendentious distortions and ad hominem attacks, instead of a balanced presentation of the pros and cons on issues.
Instead of professional journalism, what we get is Faux-News Champaign. It is as though those who power the paper graduated from the Roger Ailes school of journalism that is the Fox News fear factory (cite Dickinson). As a number of studies in professional journals conclude, the common saying that “Fox News makes you stupid” is empirically true.
And what is true of Ailes’s Fox is true of Chinigo’s Gazette. Because there is no there there.
Coda: Better Off Without It?
Would we be better off without the News-Gazette?
This question is sometimes asked, especially by those who have just read yet another cringe-worthy editorial.
The usual response is “I read it for the local news.” By this people apparently mean what could be termed “surface stories,” that is, what is going on in the local schools, city councils, county board, and the like. Although less willing to admit it, many also get a guilty pleasure, a low-level voyeuristic thrill from reading the obits, letters to the editor, and the often lurid crime stories complete with mugshots.
By “local news” folks do not mean investigative journalism, that is, extensive, in-depth coverage of local business, the university, and news analysis of local wheeling and dealing, of what really went on at the last city council/county board meeting, and the like. For that you have to read between the lines of a story, plus online reader comments, and any subsequent letters to the editor.
Arguably, therefore, the News-Gazette is no better on local news than it is on state news (spotty), national news (consider the blurbs on page A-3), and international news (scattershot at best).
At this point in the discussion, either the News-Gazette, or one of its defenders, will respond that “if the paper were owned by a newspaper chain, rather than locally-owned, then there would be much less, and less knowledgeable, local news coverage.” Although often made, this point is largely a self-serving myth, repeated especially by the News-Gazette. For it is rarely, if ever, backed up or substantiated versus simply asserted.
First of all, there was a local paper owned by a national chain during its last years. People did not complain about the lack of local news in the Urbana Courier.
Second, the Courier had been running in the red in the years before it folded in 1979, but the News-Gazette also operated at a loss in the five or so years after 2008.
Third, by “locally” or “family-owned,” people are referring to the paper’s byzantine for profit/not-for-profit tax status. The for-profit paper is technically owned by a non-profit foundation set up when Chinigo died. The News-Gazette claims this “far-sighted” move safeguards the paper from a corporate takeover.
What the paper does not tell you is that it is also a financially astute mechanism to maximize tax advantages, meaning it pays lower taxes. The News-Gazette is not operating illegally, but like that other locally-based for profit/non-profit — Carle Foundation Hospital/Carle Clinic/Health Alliance – it is definitely pushing the envelope.
So, would we be better off without it? If you say no, keep it, then you are also saying that it is ok for the News-Gazette to have a news monopoly, and for that to be Faux-News Champaign.
David Prochaska formerly taught colonialism and visual culture in the UI History Department