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Column

Wimbiscus: Newspapers ain't too good at political manipulation

Newspapers take a lot of flack from readers for being either too liberal or too conservative.

It all makes for fascinating conspiracy theories that help fuel the personal umbrage some folks like to feel when they disagree with the words and images that make their way into print.

In truth, conspiracies rarely occur. Ownership focuses primarily on the bottom line, while editorial focuses on finding stories and images to fill up the day’s white space. There’s simply not enough time left in the day for nefarious shadow campaigns.

Notice I said rarely.

In 40 years, I’ve witnessed three incidents where newspapers – or more specifically their owners – took a direct hand in shaping the newsroom’s political stance.

The first occurred in the early ’80s at a small downstate family-owned paper. The family was pro-Republican, which was a problem since the popular local state senator was a Democrat.

The owners’ solution: The newsroom was banned, under penalty of death (or unemployment anyway, which was pretty close to it back then) from letting the dude’s name ever appear on the front page.

A mere reporter then, I toyed with the idea of quitting over the edict, but since I had two kids, one wife and zero job prospects, I gutlessly soldiered on another year.

Ironically, the paper’s relegation policy had the opposite effect: the senator was re-elected six times.

I finally jumped ship and got a job at a corporately owned publication. They never seemed to care too much about who got in the paper as long as we 1. made money and 2. didn’t make (too many) waves.

All that changed in 1996 when the managing editor retired, my boss moved to Hawaii and they needed an in-house idiot to run things during the hiring freeze. Now in the Big League – albeit temporarily – I got to fly out with the rest of the Illinois editorial contingent to the corporate resort in California, drinking corporate liquor on the corporate Constellation jet.

California was like stepping into an episode of “Mad Men” – a bunch of white guys in suits making big plans to attract future audiences. As the junior member of the Illinois contingent, I focused mostly on shutting up and not falling asleep during the interminable planning sessions. The big plan that year: Bob Dole!

“We’re going all in with Dole!” the Washington bureau chief exclaimed. “We’re going to host this year’s Republican National Convention!”

“And how much is that gonna cost?” asked the suit next to me (I was too busy keeping my mouth shut).

“Only $12 million!” the bureau chief exclaimed.

“I’m short three reporters and you’re going to spend $12 million on a party?” said the suit next to me. “How’s that going to help us?”

“It’s going to give us a national prestige!” the bureau chief exclaimed.

Four months after that announcement, Dole lost. Four years later, the company got sold. And now, 24 years later, I’m still not sure what happened to all that national prestige.

In 2008, I got a job at a family-owned paper in Florida.

Like the place I worked for in the 1980s, they were big on keeping Democrats off the front page. Like the place I worked for in the 1990s, they were big on backing Republican presidential candidates – in this case, Mitt Romney (though without purchasing a GOP National Convention).

But it didn’t stop there. “The Associated Press is too liberal,” I was told, and all political stories had to be edited by my immediate boss, a former arts and entertainment writer with a background in graphic design.

Still, he was a company man, and he knew how to edit for the company: move all the Republican stuff to the top and run it on Page 1, while taking out all but the most innocuous Democratic material, and run that inside.

His editing strategy failed him only twice: once when Joe Biden was in town, campaigning about 300 feet from our office, and again on the day after Barrack Obama won the election and the paper was forced to run his photo on the front page ... for the first time.

Mercifully, I managed to get myself fired shortly after that.

My point is this: You can blame newspapers for political engineering, but generally their ham-handed efforts are so inept they always backfire.

No, if you truly to want to change hearts and minds, you gotta use social media. And hire a Russian editor.

• Bill Wimbiscus quit eight papers and was fired once. So far.

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