More From 'Iconoclast' Country
W. Leon Smith on freedom of speech, peace, and Crawford
The small town of Crawford, Texas, is accustomed to making news. The modest rural neighbor of Waco and home of George W. Bush's Texas White House has seen its share of international attention and breaking news stories. The town was in the spotlight again recently when The New York Times and papers across the country reported on the controversy swirling around the local paper's endorsement of John F. Kerry for president, rather than hometown favorite President George W. Bush. W. Leon Smith is the soft-spoken editor of the The Lone Star Iconoclast, the Crawford paper published in Clifton, the "Norwegian capital of Texas," about 20 miles away from the fortunate son's vacation ranch. When Smith, a jovial bear of a man with a more than passing resemblance to Wilford Brimley and Santa Claus, co-authored a presidential endorsement of Democrat Sen. John Kerry, it ignited the town's outrage. Global coverage, particularly the piece in The New York Times, has illuminated an uncomfortable rift. We checked in on our friends in the small Texas town to see what life during election time is like. We visited the area on Tuesday and Wednesday, Oct. 12 and 13. This is an extended transcript of the Chronicle's interview with Smith. Kate X Messer
Austin Chronicle: Are you the Smith of Smith Publishing?
W. Leon Smith: Yes.
AC: So you are both editor and publisher of the Iconoclast?
WLS: Yes. I grew up here [in Clifton, Texas, 20 miles from Crawford]. I've been here most of my life. I went to two different colleges [eventually landing at] University of Texas Permian Basin in Odessa. I've worked in papers, in this industry, in Texas, all my life.
AC: Then you came back to your hometown? How did the current version of the Iconoclast come to be?
WLS: It's a fairly convoluted story. My father bought the paper here in 1965. I was in junior high, seventh grade. And I worked here this was your hot type days. So I did all that, ran the presses, and all that good stuff. That was the last two or three years of the hot type. I melted the metal, swept the floors, you name it, I did it. Well, he sold the paper in 1973. He had two other partners, and they sold it, and I went to, I was editor of the Burkburnett Star that was on the Oklahoma-Texas border. And I worked right out of college. I went to work over at the Johnson County News that was in Cleveland; I sold advertising. So I've done a little bit of everything in newspapers.
In 1979 the newspaper, The Clifton Record, came back up for purchase; it was available, so we bought it back. I graduated from Clifton High School. Smith Media was started by me, I think in the late Eighties, early Nineties, whenever there was a window available between bid on the construction project for a radio station. I was interested in doing that, so I started that corporation for that. We didn't get the bid, but I kept the corporation.
The radio station was for this area. Somebody had made an application through the FCC, and we thought maybe this might be something useful to get into. My father was not interested in it. So I pursued that on my own and started that corporation. So I kept the corporation for a number of years. We didn't have any assets. It was there. So when we got ready to start a paper in Crawford, that's the way we did it.
AC: What was the publishing scope? How many papers were you producing at that time?
WLS: Well, when we repurchased the Record back in a '79, we also bought a paper called The Lake Whitney Star-Shopper. We converted the Star Shopper into a paper called The Lake Whitney Star and it lasted for a few years and finally we folded it because it wasn't very profitable. The Clifton Record has been here since 1895. It was founded by the grandfather of renowned pianist Van Cliburn. He started the paper, and he was a lawyer.
AC: Where is Van Cliburn originally from? Or where does he live?
WLS: As far as I know, he's still in Fort Worth. He may originally be from Tyler. ... But whenever the Record published its centennial edition in 1995, myself and one of our reporters went to his mansion, got to interview him. A cousin of his was there, too, who teaches, or taught he's retired now but he taught at Baylor University in Waco. So we got to ask a lot of questions about their ancestry and ask questions about why they started The Clifton Record, what they were trying to prove. His grandfather was an attorney by trade lived in McGregor and it was their idea that they wanted to bring more civilization to this area. More civilized ways of thinking. And his wife is the one that provided the funding. She had the money in the family. She paid for it. And they started several newspapers, and this is one of them that survived.
AC: In Texas, the Galveston paper is the oldest surviving and continually operating, right? In age, how do you all compare? What's the time frame between the two?
WLS: I think so. It was probably 1840s that it was started, probably. Galveston's a very unique community surviving the hurricane and all.
AC: The paper still seems integral to the community. It seems small town papers still are, and that sets you apart from the ubiquitous major-market papers. What do you think about the role y'all play? Especially in light of the controversy surrounding your endorsement of John Kerry. What you're experiencing... with all of the backlash. ... How does that fit in with the role of the press and the basic right to free speech?
WLS: [Laughter] Yeah. [Pause] It's just an editorial. [laughter] Our papers through the years have always endorsed candidates, national candidates, state candidates, frequently. We very seldom miss endorsing, when it came time to endorse somebody for president, with the Iconoclast. And really, what got us more interested in doing it when we did it was the fact that in our view the campaigns have been very trivialized, and with all the commercials that have been running, with things taken out of context, and little splices of film pieced together and consist of half-truths and, I guess, outright lies in a lot of those. And we really didn't feel that our readers should be focusing on trivialities in making a decision; they need to focus on the issues. And we were really concerned about Social Security and stem cell research and certain issues that are going to have an impact deep into the future, for generations of people to come. So we decided we would utilize that as the basis for our editorial, and plug in the thoughts of the candidates, their approaches to these issues, in making our decision. And that's what we did.
The publishers of our papers thought that as far as Social Security goes that we do not need to be privatizing. The system will work if the country's not deep in debt. We need to help the economy of our country, and Social Security will take care of itself actually in the long run. We fear that privatization would cause the destruction of the Social Security system. Plus the fact that the way that Social Security is structured, it's really imbedded into the whole economy of the United States, because money is taken out of that to replace bonds. And it'd be a disaster, major disaster. So, when we applied to approach the candidates with that, Kerry, you know, is not for privatization; Bush is. Kerry comes out on top. Same thing with stem cell research. We think that stem cell research is a good thing. If you can cure one disease, it's going to have a major impact on the economy for one thing. It's going to reduce health insurance claims. It's going to have people be healthier as a result. So we're for that. Kerry's for it. Bush is against it. So Kerry gets the nod there.
We also looked at the endorsement as being a hiring process. If put yourself in the position of employing one of these two guys to run the country for you. You look at their track record. You look at, do they mislead you? Are they truthful? What's their work ethic? Does it meet the work ethic of most middle-class people? Most middle-class people work hard. They keep their nose to the grindstone. They try not to miss a beat. They stay alert to what's going on. To me that's extremely important. And we tried to compare the candidates as best we could. It's difficult to do apples to apples, oranges to oranges, because one is already a sitting president, and one is not. But when we did that, we felt that Kerry would be better. And there were other elements, too, such as the war in Iraq. We felt like the country was misled. The due diligence was not conducted by the administration. So we felt like Kerry would be a better leader. And also the element of trying to work with other countries. To put everybody on the same page. Try to fight terrorism that way instead of going it alone.
AC: It's interesting to me how much you focused on domestic issues. You resisted what seems to be the easy, hot-button topic to draw sides what other media outlets cannot seem to resist. Why?
WLS: One of the reasons we did that, too, is like I said before about the long-term effects of the issues. The war in Iraq could change on a daily basis. It's something that, in a period of two or three weeks, the war could be over. And it's an important issue; it's a very volatile issue. But it probably won't be around forever. Social Security is something else. Stem cell research is something else. And that's where we tried to put a lot of our focus. So, we did. We based the editorial on the opinion of the publishers and what we thought was best for the country and we've had some flak over that.
AC: Where are y'all at with that now, compared to when The New York Times reported figures? The canceling of subscriptions, Letter to the Editor, e-mails, etc.?
WLS: We're still receiving subscriptions from throughout the country, which has its pluses, and it has its minuses. The minus side is [that that direction of growth] is not really going to necessarily appeal to a lot of potential advertisers, because people from California aren't gonna probably come to this area to go to the coffee shop. So that advertising's not going to do them a lot of good.
Most of the people subscribing are buying a year's subscription. And my last total showed that right now we're slightly over what we lost. A lot of our circulation in Crawford was through newsstands. We had three or four newsstands there in town. And of course the stands have been pulled. But that's, you know, people bought a lot of copies of our paper there, and that's what we really lost. But overall we're ahead on subscriptions now, from what we lost.
AC: Do you have a long-term plan for local distribution in light of all this?
WLS: I talked to one of the merchants there [in Crawford] I don't think [they] want to be named ... [They'd] like to have our papers back, but if [they] took it back everybody in town would run [them] out of town, probably. ... Perhaps later, after things cool off. This person thinks we need to have an outlet there. So, I don't know. Maybe after the election, cooler heads will surface and things will get back to normal.
I've also had a lot of people who have sent me e-mails we've received over 3,800 [as of Wednesday, Oct. 13] in the last two weeks and a lot of them think we should try to go national with the publication dump Crawford. One thing that we've done ever since we started the Iconoclast is we've done some investigations. They're not local, they're area or national-type investigations. And we could still focus on that quite a bit. We did a story probably pretty close to Houston about the situation in Dayton with the chemical dump. We did a story on that a while back. We did an investigation regarding Export-Import Bank of [the United States], which is, you know, in Washington, but there was a company in McGregor originally that later enlarged it at Irving, and they manufacture equipment that cuts, galvanizes, shapes steel. A lot of their business is export, outside the United States, and they were being stonewalled by the bank, and we did a pretty in-depth study of that.
AC: Did that have to do with the shortages due to the war?
WLS: Part of it had to do with the tariff. There was a lot of politics going on regarding steel. They don't manufacture steel, so they were caught in the wake. And they had a contract with a company in Ukraine, that they were going to provide equipment that would manufacture siding for houses, roofs, and things like that. And they had financing in place this was multimillion-dollar financing and they were being stonewalled and couldn't get beyond that.
AC: If readers want to read more about the outcome, could they check your archives online?
WLS: Our archives are not very available right now because we're being hit so hard [because of the endorsement story]. We've had to improvise and set up three or four different sites, servers [mirrors], that our T1 line's just inundated.
The name of the company was Delta Brands. What was so unique about this company was they're the last company in the United States that does this particular process. They're the only ones that can do this. And they're the only ones that can repair the equipment. They're in Irving, close to Dallas. Another element was that they provide the equipment that makes armor for Humvees and other military equipment, and they had letters from the Department of Defense saying please, finance this, we need to have our equipment in Iraq protected. It's just crazy.
AC: These stories go beyond Clifton, beyond Crawford. This seems reasonable, considering Crawford's favorite son goes way beyond Crawford. Does your staff or do particular members of the staff contribute to this energy to go beyond your regional scope? Or was that the original intent of the paper?
WLS: When we started the Iconoclast, it was in the year 2000. The owners ... right now, I own 90% of the stock, and Don Fisher, who's a journalist and professor at McLennan Community College, owns the other 10%. He's a friend of mine, and we worked together on getting the paper started. And we really wanted to do more with the Iconoclast than we would with a normal paper. We wanted to have an active editorial page. We wanted to make the Iconoclast stand for something as far as its name goes. We got the name from the Brann Iconoclast, you've heard of William Cowper Brann? So part of what we were trying to do is to for a while we ran a little thing called "Icon/Iconoclast of the Week." "Iconoclast" is somebody in the United States that did something that would be like breaking an icon that needed to be broken. And the "Icon" would be just the bad guy, somebody that did something really pathetic that needed to be pointed out. We ran that for a while, and we ceased. It became an editorial pain; we had some of the same people over and over.
But we were gonna try to do some investigations. We did one about the TAKS test, the fact that it was a ...
AC: A joke?
WLS: A disaster. In fact, we broke a story regarding that. We had students that we interviewed who told us how they cheated and how they got e-mails from people in other parts of the state. And we did an editorial on that, too. Well, I mean it shows that they're pretty bright.
AC: [Laughter] It shows the development of some societal survival skills ...
WLS: Right! But it really doesn't do much for the test. Fisher tends to do a lot of the education issues because that's his trade. His father was a [school district] superintendent, and his wife's a teacher. They're really into education. So we do quite a bit about that.
We looked into the aspect of TAKS tests being created in another state and the kind of money that these people are making off this. Really, the test should be devised here in the state. You'd think somebody in Texas would be smart enough to come up with a test that we wouldn't have to go to I don't know what state they went to Georgia or something, maybe Florida. You'd think
AC: [Laughter] That's a riot. I'm from Florida. And I remember when we were battling it out with ... what? Alabama or Mississippi for the rank of 50th in the U.S. in education!
WLS: We have major problems here. Part of our problem is teaching to a certain standard. That's very myopic. That, plus the fact that they're starting to go in and change history a little bit. They're not teaching everything they used to teach because it's not "politically correct" to do that. And we tend to think you teach it all, whether it's favorable or unfavorable. It's history. History is history, period. And that's something we're totally against.
AC: Let's focus for a bit on The New York Times piece. [Ralph] Blumenthal [the reporter] characterizes you as a "fervid Reagan admirer." Tell me about that.
WLS: OK, what we'd been talking about was I think he had asked a question, perhaps, "Do you always endorse Democrats?" And I am a Democrat. I'm not a real strong Democrat.
AC: Not a Yella Dawg.
WLS: No. Over, say, the last couple of decades, we've endorsed more Republicans than we have Democrats for president. And primarily we try to go right down the middle; you know, looking at the candidates in terms of leadership abilities goes a long way. We did endorse Reagan twice. I didn't like some of the things he did. There were, uh, I think he was bad for the economy, but overall, I thought he was a great leader, just like I thought FDR was. FDR was probably the best president of the last [century] because of him going in and fixing a major problem that had been left to stagnate, could have been fixed before but it wasn't. But I always thought that Reagan was a real good leader.
AC: How do you feel about this backlash against you? Especially considering a pretty moderate record?
WLS: Well, in the past, whenever we've written editorials, even be it for a candidate or be it for an issue we do a lot of issue-oriented editorials we end up invariably with somebody who disagrees with it. They have a different point of view. Which is expected; which is good. Normally they write a letter to the editor. And we publish most letters to the editor. We haven't published near all the letters regarding our deal, because ... 3,800 letters. But normally we would publish the other letters and get more points of view out there. The editorial page expresses the opinions of the publishers and there's the op-ed page. And also our columnists express opinions in their columns. It's a personal opinion. And letters to the editor are from our readers. They express their opinions. And that's the way it works. Whenever we endorsed Bush, the Gore people didn't try to put us out of business. And in all the previous elections, that's never happened. And it's just like during the last three years, there's a different mindset.
AC: Why is it so personal this time?
WLS: I don't know. There are a lot of people that really like Bush. There's a certain degree, I guess, of blind patriotism, where, you know, the president can do no wrong. If he does wrong, well, it's OK. You have to get beyond that. People can make mistakes. ... The fact that he walks like a Texan, he talks like Texan, even though some people say he's not one. He's a likable guy. But, like I said, start with Reagan, our endorsement on the issues. But I suppose it's part of the backlash. And the fact that people are saying, well, 80% of the people voted for Bush last time, how dare we endorse somebody else? Well, we endorsed Bush last time, but we changed our mind. You don't base editorials on polls. I mean, we could do a poll; every editorial we write, we could do a poll and say, OK, this many people are for it and this many are against it, then we'll have to editorialize for it. That's not why editorials are written. It's not a poll.
This is really disturbing. I understand that people have a right to cancel their subscription, they have a right to cancel their ads, they have a right to disagree, of course. That's part of why you run editorials people disagreeing with them. But there are some people that are out trying to run us out of business. They're telling other advertisers that unless they don't advertise with us anymore that they'll run them out of business. And so it's really part of a concerted effort to silence us rather than just disagree with us, and that's what's disturbing to me. I don't think we deserve that type of response. I would prefer that they write us a letter or they go with traditional means of voicing their opinions against us.
AC: At what point could they be successful?
WLS: Well, I guess, if you don't have any readers, if you don't have any advertisers to pay for printing your product cause it's expensive and you don't have any way of distributing your copies, well, I guess your goose is cooked. With the Iconoclast, we do have two elements we have the local element and the stuff that we do that's more investigative. We could perhaps accent the other side more. But we've had people in Crawford that have wanted to buy the paper locally, can't find it, have e-mailed us or called us and said, "Where can we get a copy of the paper? We want to see our son's football game write-up photos, and school coverage." And we're still doing what we can do on that. I don't know, I just hope it blows over and people understand that we're not really their enemies. And we're just trying to express our point of view in our editorial pages just one that's not real popular.
AC: Another comment in the Times piece seemed odd in that the reporter didn't offer any response from you. [Quoting from the NYT piece] "Everyone has freedom of expression but there are repercussions." OK, first of all, that seems to me to be an implied threat. Then it goes on: "She and others in town complained that Mr. Smith had chosen to foist his views in the special issue devoted to the Tonkawa Traditions Festival, the annual Crawford fair, named for an Indian tribe, which raises money for community improvements and scholarships. "He took advantage of the advertisers," Ms. Smith said.
WLS: That hurts comments along those lines. We had initially intended to run the editorial the 8th of September. It was a co-written editorial. I wrote the original first draft. And then Fisher and [Iconoclast columnist] Nate Diebenow, looked it over and put their two bits in on it. We'd kind of pass it around. After I got the input from them, I rewrote the editorial and changed it up quite a bit. It's hard to get all three of us in the office at the same time so we were passing it around. The second ended up three-quarters of newspaper-size page way too long for an editorial. I prefer about a quarter of a page. So we talked about that, had to cut stuff out. We got the final version down to half a page. Still that was too long, I thought. And this is around the 8th that we were talking about, what are we going to do? And so we ended up going back. And it just took us that long to get it together. We were gonna do it in September, and it was the last issue of September, and we wanted to get people thinking about issues before the end of the election. So that's just coincidence. We weren't even thinking about the Tonkawa Traditions; it just happened to be in that issue.
But as far as the other comment about, you said it might be considered a threat. There's a Web site by somebody in Crawford we got an e-mail on it and it says, "Words have consequences." And I don't know how to take that either. I guess it is a statement of fact.
AC: What about the Chet Edwards race?
WLS: I think he's a little bit ahead in the polls. Personally, I hope he wins. He's been a very, very good congressman for this area. And I know him very well. I know Arlene Wohlgemuth [Edwards' opponent] very well, too. But I think he would be head and shoulders a better person to be in the position.
AC: Did the redistricting affect y'all as much as it did Austin?
WLS: It's quite a bit different. Edwards had a really strong following around Fort Hood, and I think they cut that part out, so it's more Republican than Democratic right now.
AC: Fort Worth to College Station?
WLS: Yeah, College Station and that area. Of course, Edwards is an A&M grad, so that shouldn't hurt him terribly. But he's a I know him extremely well. I've known him for a lot of years. He's helped the city with some projects. We're trying to build a water pipeline, and he helped us get grant money to help us do that, which should help preserve our groundwater, which is a conservation issue in the long run an environmental-type issue. And I think he's just a good guy. Some of Arlene's politics don't match my politics. We had some problems a few years ago whenever we were trying to have uh, trying to get the Bosque River cleaned up, and the mayor here at that time and myself and somebody from our chamber went to Austin to a hearing, and we thought Arlene was gonna be on our side, and she wasn't. She wasn't on our side at all. We were hoping to have some regulations.
AC: Since the endorsement and since the Times piece, have you noticed an influx of résumés?
WLS: Yeah. Not résumés as much as but people interested in working for the Iconoclast. I've received a good number of submissions from people. Some of the things are not things we'd normally run. A lot of the things are just really anti-Bush things, people who really think we're on that bandwagon, and actually, this was just kind of a separate editorial, it's wasn't like we're on a crusade. But we have received a lot of submissions.
AC: From recent J-school grads?
WLS: We occasionally get some. Usually, we might get two or three a year, people submitting an application to us editorially. I've probably got 15 different people that have submitted poetry, which we don't usually [publish] poetry. I got one today. Oh, I want to show you this one! This is from a lady who says she's never written a Letter to the Editor before. She included a bunch of cut-outs and clippings from other papers
AC: Like mom does!
WLS: She wrote on here; "Sorry, I have arthritis in my fingers and I am typing. Enjoy the cartoons! This is the first time I've ever written a letter regarding anything." She's an 88-year-old. [He continues] "Remember! Don't vote for Bush and his Bushies!" I've gotten all kinds of letters and stuff handwritten things and over 3,800 e-mails.
AC: So, Leon, what's the state of the Fourth Estate?
WLS: We're in big trouble. We're in very big trouble, I think. I've often thought that if something were gonna happen to the First Amendment, you'd get somebody in office who would go in and start with the influence they have, they would start whittling away at it and make it less powerful than it is. But what's happening is, they're brainwashing the populace to think the fourth estate is worthless. They're controlling it in that regard. And it's like people coming up to me and saying, "OK, you can have the First Amendment, but you better be careful how you use it." It's almost at that level. For some people. I'm not saying everybody. But, I'm feeling that. We really need to do something to protect the Bill of Rights, the First Amendment especially to make them unalterable. Unchangeable. And I don't know how you're going to do that. I'm real concerned, personally.
AC: I guess we just keep plugging away.
WLS: Well, yeah, but papers like me are pretty small. You really need some of these big papers to break out of that. And I don't know who's gonna do it. They're all corporate owned, and the administration owns the corporations in a way, or has that influence. I don't know how you're gonna do that. So I don't know what's gonna happen.
AC: Right. How do you break up that "dinner table"?
WLS: I think one of the purposes of the media is to expose the truth. As it is, a lot of the media's ignoring the truth, or bypassing it. I don't know what's going to make it happen. If Kerry gets elected, we're still gonna have some of the same problems. But if Bush gets re-elected, we could have a major problem with the First Amendment in the next four years. We could lose it. And that, to me, would devastate our democracy. We've got to have the First Amendment; we need it to be strong. Need to practice it and not be afraid to practice it.