Skip to comments.Living on Ink and Ether (Bozo alert)
Posted on 01/08/2005 7:50:10 PM PST by mighty_righty
Leon Smith was all but run out of a small Texas town, not so much for what he did as for where and when he did it. After all, hundreds of others across the country did exactly the same thing at about the same time for perhaps similar reasons without noticeable consequences. Even Smith himself was able to commit his deed a second time a short drive down the road without tumult and uproar.
The Lone Star Iconoclast was banned from the Coffee Station over its Kerry endorsement. (Photo by Scott Latham)
We yanked the Iconoclast from the store and pulled our ads.
But Smiths decision last fall, as editor and publisher of The Lone Star Iconoclast, to endorse Democrat John Kerry for president in George W. Bushs adopted hometown on one of the busiest tourist weekends of the year, when Bush and the national media were in town nearly killed his newspaper (and may well yet), turned Smiths name to mud among many of his former customers, and made him and his employees bubbas non gratas in Crawford, Texas.
The soft-spoken, thoughtful 51-year-old with fine white hair and a neatly trimmed beard had been in the newspaper business long enough to know that taking a stand on a controversial issue could hurt his wallet. But the tsunami of anger from Crawford that drowned the Iconoclast in the weeks following the newspapers Sept. 29 endorsement took Smith and his small staff by surprise.
I thought maybe some people would be upset, that it might be of bigger media interest for maybe a day, Smith said. You might lose an ad. You might lose a subscription or two. But we didnt expect this.
Circulation plummeted. Businesses the small paper had counted on yanked ads. President Bushs friends in Crawford held a rally to denounce Smiths perceived treason. Business owners took out ads in another newspaper denouncing the Iconoclast. The phones rang with taunts and threats. Local news sources dried up. Even the newsstands disappeared, as if the town were attempting to erase the last vestige of its existence. One day the paper was being sold in Crawford alongside other publications from McGregor and Waco, and the next day it was gone, seemingly consigned, as President Bush might himself say, to the ash bin of history.
For The Lone Star Iconoclast, Smith would later write, Sept. 29, 2004, is a day that will live in infamy.
But what initially sounded like taps for the plucky weekly slowly changed to a more cheerful if strange tune. News that President Bushs hometown paper endorsed his opponent, and that the town had turned on the papers staff, spread from Crawford across the nation and the globe.
The New York Times, which carried a front-page photograph of the beleaguered editor in his cluttered office, reported that Smith was paying dearly, in lost sales and hate mail for the endorsement. The international press gleefully noted the endorsement. DUMPYA, screamed the headline in The London Daily Mirror Paper in Bushs hometown tells its readers: Vote for Kerry. Similar stories appeared in media in Canada, Germany, South Africa, New Zealand, Australia, and France.
The Iconoclasts endorsement might have been nothing more than the media flavor of the moment if not for what happened next. The papers web site, which might get 150 visitors on a typical day, strained as throngs of curious web surfers Googled the papers homepage. During the month following the endorsement, Smith said, the best we can figure, we had about three million visitors.
That was followed by waves of New Yorkers, Californians, Europeans, and others whose new subscriptions more than made up for the loss from the local boycott. Its really amazing, Smith said. People from coast to coast want to help us out. They want us to stay in business.
While the Iconoclast hasnt exactly soared from its ashes, for the time being it is at least hovering above them. Smith is carrying more political commentary and international news (his staff is working on a story about the Iraqi elections), and he dreams that his besieged little upstart might one day become a trusted name for news thats been ignored by the mainstream media, with hundreds of thousands of readers worldwide.
If a transition from a cow-country weekly to major media player seems improbable, it is not without precedent. More than a hundred years ago, another publication in nearby Waco also gained a national audience with tens of thousands of readers. And it, too, was called the Iconoclast.
Thank you for being one of the courageous, uncensored news sources.
William Cowper Branns story is told in The Handbook of Texas. He was a third-grade dropout, a preachers kid, and an Illinois runaway toward the end of the U.S. Civil War. The young Brann hustled his way to the South, working menial jobs before finding his calling as a journalist. He began his career as a printers devil, or apprentice, and some would say the devil stayed by his side as he worked his way through newspapers in Missouri and Texas. Along the way, the Handbook says, he gained a reputation as a brilliant though vitriolic editorialist.
In the early 1890s, Brann began what he called a journal of personal protest that he named the Iconoclast. Texas apparently wasnt yet ready for a newspaper dedicated, as its name implied, to the destruction of religious images and established beliefs, and the venture failed. Brann spent the next few years writing and editing at papers in Houston, San Antonio, and Waco before resuscitating his own publication.
In an era when few periodicals had a national audience, Branns Iconoclast, as the paper was rechristened, amassed a following of almost 100,000 subscribers amused or outraged by his venomous verbiage. The pistol-packing, sharp-tongued editors acidic attacks on political figures, popular beliefs, and religion were peppered with words designed to offend and offense was often taken, sometimes with violent results. He was threatened, kidnapped, and beaten over his writing.
According to internet sites dedicated to The Great Iconoclast, Brann confessed a sneaking respect for Satan who parlayed cash capital of one snake into half the globe and an option on the other half and stated that the Bible begins with a homicide and ends with a holocaust. And he relished tormenting the most sacred of cows in the Iconoclasts extended pasture Baptists and Baylor University. God made a perfect man and let him degenerate until he began to breed Baptists, he wrote. Another time he suggested the only thing wrong with Baptists is we do not hold [them] under water long enough.
As far as he knows, W. Leon Smith, himself a Baptist, is not related by blood to Brann, but he has the same ink if less vitriol running in his veins.
Beginning in the 1960s, Smith and members of his family bought, operated, and then sold a handful of Central Texas weeklies: The Dublin Progress, The Stephenville Star, and The Evant News. He and his father currently own Progressive Media Communications, which publishes The Clifton Record, a 110-year-old weekly across the Bosque County line, and a tabloid shopper, The Globe. Smiths family bought the Record in 1979, but the paper (Cliftons oldest still-operating business) has been publishing since 1895, the same year, ironically, that Branns Iconoclast first appeared in Waco.
When Smith heard that Bush was building a house on a sprawling ranch he had purchased on the outskirts of Crawford, the editor decided to see if that town, a little less than 20 miles southwest of Clifton, could support a weekly newspaper. The publication he started is owned by Smith Media, a Clifton-based company that lists Smith as its only officer. Don Fisher, the papers associate editor and a journalism instructor at McClennan Community College, owns a minority interest. Smith named his paper The Lone Star Iconoclast in homage to Brann.
Growing up in a newspaper family and living near Waco, Smith had a passing familiarity with the legendary Brann. Calling his start-up newspaper the Iconoclast just seemed to feel right, he said. He kind of did what we try to do tell the truth and not care what people think about it. We didnt want to come out with The Crawford Chronicle.
Though he had run the neighboring Clifton Record for more than 20 years, Smith wasnt well known in Bushs adopted hometown, according to Raydean Damon, a Crawford school teacher and the owner of the Red Bull gift shop in downtown Crawford. I dont know anyone that knows Leon that well, she said. Still, Smiths paper for several years did a very good job of keeping Crawford informed. He gave us excellent coverage of our schools, she said.
Initially, Crawford seemed to embrace the paper. A growing tourist town needed a paper to promote local businesses, disseminate community news, and record the athletic prowess of its youth. Except for its provocative name, the Iconoclast wasnt much different from a typical small-town weekly. An upcoming Methodist youth group dance made news. So did the annual senior citizens garage sale, a local FFA show at a veterans hospital, and the induction of new members into the local Sons of the American Revolution chapter. Of course, stories and photos of the beloved Crawford High School Pirates and Lady Pirates appeared in abundance.
The Iconoclast didnt make an endorsement for president in 2000. But if anyone had bothered to check on the political inclinations of its editor, they would have discovered that he had endorsed Bush, though rather lukewarmly, in The Clifton Record during the 2000 campaign. In a lengthy editorial that made recommendations for other state and federal offices, Smith urged his readers to vote for Bush as the best bet to reform the unfair electoral college system due to his ability in Texas to sever party lines and push results in new directions. ... He is an outsider in Washington and has a solid reputation as a common-sense type of reformer.
Over time, however, people in Crawford began to notice that the Iconoclast seemed to grow increasingly critical of the Republicans. Marlene Englebrecht, Crawfords election judge and a Republican party stalwart, said the Iconoclast seemed to be going more and more to the left and constantly picking on Gov. [Rick] Perry and President Bush. (In his columns, Don Fisher repeatedly refers to the broken campaign pledges of the lying Texas governor Tricky Ricky Perry.) Still, Englebrecht said, the Kerry endorsement took Crawford by surprise. We had no idea thats the way he felt.
Kerry Will Restore American Dignity, the headline declared. Jointly written by Smith, Fisher, and staff writer Nathan Diebenow, the editorial said the paper was backing the Bostonian because of the presidents plans to privatize Social Security, the economys deteriorating state, a dangerous shift away from the basic freedoms established by our founding fathers, and his continuous mistakes regarding terrorism and Iraq.
The writers accused the president of having a hidden economic agenda that favored his fat-cat friends. In perhaps their sharpest rebuke, they all but accused the President of ducking for cover in his hideouts on remote military bases well after the first crucial hours of the 9/11 terror attacks. We dont need a part-time President who does not show up for duty as Commander-in-Chief until he is forced to, the editorial said.
In Bush Country, thems fighting words.
The Iconoclast is published on Wednesdays, and the timing of the editorial on Wednesday, Sept. 29, whether intentional or not, guaranteed that it would raise a godawful stink. Not only was Crawford expected to swell with tourists during the coming weekend with its annual Tonkawa Traditions Festival, named for the Indian tribe that once called the area home, but it was also homecoming weekend for the Crawford Pirates. The towns most famous citizen was in residence at the Western White House, as it is sometimes called, though Smith and Fisher say they were unaware of his whereabouts at the time. Regardless, when the paper hit the streets, Crawford was crawling with the contingent of reporters who travel with the president.
The Iconoclasts endorsement of Kerry when the community was brimming with civic pride and basking in the presidential spotlight seemed to some a decision calculated to offend local sentiment and generate lots of publicity. It did both.
If Leon whatever his name is, Smith? had to endorse Kerry, fine. But you dont rub it in your neighbors face, said Dorothy Spanos, who owns the Coffee Station restaurant and convenience store. He really should not have chosen the time he did. Vendors scheduled to set up at Tonkawa Traditions backed out. Iconoclast news racks that usually greeted Crawfords tourists, along with the newspapers they held, vanished.
We yanked the Iconoclast from the store and pulled our ads from the paper, Spanos said. It was his choice to [endorse Kerry]. It was our choice to take his paper away and keep it away. You wont find an Iconoclast in Crawford.
True enough. You can find a bobble-head Bush doll, a sweatshirt with first dog Barney, Crawford cookbooks, presidential tire gauges, cardboard cutouts of the man himself but you wont easily find a copy of the Iconoclast for sale.
Before the endorsement, Smith was selling just over 900 copies of the paper each week. We lost about half of what we had, he said. Some of the advertisers the paper depended on bailed, though Smith, hoping to one day lure them back, wont identify them. They were pretty good ads, he explained. Id rather not say who they were. Crawford residents once eager to see their names, news, and photographs in the Iconoclast now viewed it like a cheating spouse. A lot of our community news sources dried up, Smith said. People at the school dont want us to run photographs of their kids.
But just as things looked their bleakest, a glimmer appeared in the ether. People who viewed the papers endorsement as courageous, nearly all of them flung far from Crawford, began requesting subscriptions. Soon, the 400 or more local subscriptions and rack sales that had been lost were more than offset by the Iconoclasts new friends. Smith said today he has 2,600 subscribers who are paying $45 a year for updates on the exploits of the Crawford Pirates, the newly minted 2A state football champs, and political commentary and reporting from Smith and his staff, five full-time employees spread among the Record, the Globe, and the Iconoclast.
God bless you brave souls for trying to keep honesty and democracy alive, said an e-mail from a California schoolteacher. Just a love note from over here in the heart of the red belt, a South Carolinian wrote. I am personally thankful to people [like you] with the courage to speak out.
Your message is being heard loud and clear in Portland, Oregon! another wrote. Thank you for being one of the courageous, uncensored news sources.
The subscriber base is just one of the changes brought about by the boycott. When the Kerry endorsement ran, the Iconoclast was a broadsheet, with the same dimensions as the Fort Worth Star-Telegram or most other big-city dailies. Today, its a tabloid the same dimensions as Fort Worth Weekly and typically 16 pages. Smith said he downsized the paper to better organize it in a magazine style with a catchy cover story each week. Hes hoping an online subscription offer will catch on and bring in more revenue.
Crawford really isnt Bushs home, says Don Fisher. Its his vacation home.
The content is also changing. Smith is hiring freelancers to work on investigative pieces he hopes will distinguish the Iconoclast, and his staff reporters are working on more national and international stories. A recent edition of the Iconoclast, for example, contained a long article about Smiths interview with filmmaker Dave vonKleist about his documentary, In Plane Site, which calls the 9/11 attack on the Pentagon an inside job. Another story reported that an attorney for the Crawford 5 peace protesters arrested in Crawford in 2003 planned to file a civil rights lawsuit on their behalf. The papers web site homepage also included links to the Texas Abortion Rights Action League, a business selling novelty Bush voodoo dolls, and a company selling t-shirts proclaiming Jesus was a Liberal.
Smith said his Iconoclast is an independent paper, and he is quick to point to his 2000 endorsement of Bush, in The Clifton Record, as evidence of his neutrality. We dont have an agenda, he said.
He may not have an agenda, but he does have well-established roots in the Democratic party and local politics. He served on the Clifton city council during the early 1980s. When his job on the council collided with his job at the newspaper, he resigned. The reporter who covered the city quit, Smith said, and when he had trouble finding a replacement, I decided to step down.
Today, Cliftons newspaper editor is also in his second two-year term as Cliftons mayor, a non-partisan job that is often filled by whomever volunteers. Smith signed up for the job three years ago and got it without opposition. City government stories are a staple of newspapers large and small, and stories and photographs about Mayor Smith, written or taken by his staff, often appear in the paper that Editor Smith owns. I try to keep the hats I wear separated, he said. But he still finds himself with sticky issues on occasion: Would we run a picture of the mayor if it wasnt Leon Smith? he mused.
Between his stints as council member and mayor, Smith also twice sought the Democratic nomination for the Texas House of Representatives. He lost both contests. They werent real hot races, he said. Smith also endorsed Kerry in the Record in 2004. But that endorsement occupied just a few paragraphs in an editorial that focused on the local congressional race and lacked the impact of the Iconoclasts half-page assault on Bush. Though Smith said the Iconoclasts Kerry endorsement was a matter of principle, others suggested that his lower-profile endorsement of Kerry in the Record shows that he was acting on self-interest instead of principle. He knew he had to have Cliftons support to keep his paper running, Spanos said. He was just going to bait them and not rile them up too much.
Only a short drive separates Clifton from Crawford, and Smith said everyone in his hometown knew what he had done down the road in the presidents backyard. Most of them had read it already, he said. We do it differently in the Record. Its more low key, but its always been that way.
Crawford, like much of Texas, made the transition from red to blue during the last two decades, as conservatives who dominated the Democratic Party switched allegiances. Whatever impact the Iconoclasts editorial might have had elsewhere, it was negligible in Crawford, which the President carried with 87 percent of the vote. Fisher said Bushs landslide in his hometown isnt an accurate measure of Crawfords politics. A majority of people there would vote for George Bush if he was a three-legged hog, but they see that as voting for the community. They dont see it as voting for President of the United States.
Much of the rancor directed at the Iconoclast, Fisher said, comes from those who are worried about the towns future after Bush leaves office, worries that he believes are unfounded. Youre talking about people who are very much afraid of whats going to happen to their back pocket without George Bush, said Fisher, who lives in the nearby town of Valley Mills close to the Bush ranch. Theyre going to survive and thrive long after Bush is out of office.
He comes back here and plays good old neighbor Bush, Fisher said. Does he socialize with these people? Does he sit down and listen to their opinions, then act on them? Hes not Lyndon Johnson. He doesnt slip down to the feed store on Saturday morning and drink coffee with the guys, nor, I suspect, will he ever. Crawford isnt his home. Its his vacation home.
One difference: The money that shops like this make off Bush memorabilia.
The thing that I found disappointing in all of this is we were there when nobody else wanted to be, the associate editor said. From the start, we pointed our camera at their children. We went to their school board meetings. We went to their parades and graduations. We still put their state championship on the front page. We still send people to every football game. We still publish the city council and school board minutes.
Others arent buying it. The paper really isnt a Crawford paper. Its in Clifton. He [Smith] just adopted us, Spanos said.
In an interview, Smith expressed no regrets. People in Crawford, he said, have asked us to apologize or retract it. A lot of them take the approach that we did it for the publicity. We did it because its what we believe. To do different would have been dishonest.
Smith and his staff are in the process of seeing what the Iconoclast might become. What I think the Iconoclast would like to do is sort of be the small-town paper for the state of Texas, to address issues that dont get addressed anywhere else, Fisher said. Smith said he wants his paper to cover stories the major media arent covering and for it to become a major media player. Without a hint of irony, Smith mused aloud: Maybe we need to publish a European edition. A short while later, he casually stated, Wed like to have a half million subscribers.
Stranger things have happened.
At its heyday more than a century ago, The Handbook of Texas says, Branns Iconoclast had 98,000 subscribers around the country. But it passed into history after Brann himself was killed in a gunfight.
According to various historical accounts, a Baylor booster and investor named Tom E. Davis, weary of Branns blistering assaults on the university, shot Brann in the back on April 1, 1898, while the editor was walking through town. As Brann lay bleeding to death, he leveled his own revolver at Davis, squeezed the trigger, and killed him.
The fiery publisher was buried in a Waco cemetery, a single word etched upon his tombstone: Truth.
Truth is everything, Smith said. Pursuing truth and providing it to the public is why the Iconoclast exists to hell with the consequences.
Ayup! Ol' Smith is a liberal, all right.
Bush does drop into the Coffee Station, but it's pretty hard for him to slip about quietly, and the days when a President could slip out and go to a feed store for coffee without any Secret Service protection are long gone.
Don sees things the way Don sees them, but he doesn't spend much time in Crawford, and I do, and I can tell you that the people in Crawford like George Bush.
I suspected for quite a while that the paper was planning to turn into a Texas political paper, and wrote that back in October when the editorial first came out. I also strongly suspect that most of the people who are writing these stories read the article I wrote, because I notice that they generally follow the theme I wrote, particularly about the town's love for the Pirates.
Crawford was not in fear that the town would dry up and blow away if the President left. While the town has embraced the President, the focus of the citizens of Crawford is their kids. By extension, that means the school and the sports teams. They love Bush because he's shown great kindness to the kids.
The article is pretty accurate. I strongly suspected that Leon wouldn't want me anymore after the football season was over, and that would pretty much put me out of the sports coverage business. I think I'm pretty good, but most of the papers around here have sports photographers, and even if they aren't very good, they usually have connections with the paper, or do it for free. Also, I have to admit that I'm spoiled, and really don't want to cover other high school teams. However, they asked me to do the basketball season, which means that they're going to keep covering the team, even though more people see the photos on my web site than in the paper.
Wm. Brann's paper wasn't merely rabidly anti-religious (specifically, anti-Baptist) - it was racist in equal measure.
One can only assume that Lee Smith knows this and approves of Brann's writings. He's certainly got the "rabid" part down pat.
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