As publisher and editor of the Times-Gazette, a small daily newspaper in this southwest Ohio town (pop. 6,600), I thought our endorsement of Donald Trump for president last year seemed innocuous enough. Then someone said to me, “Did you see that Rachel Maddow mentioned the Times-Gazette last night?”
Next Politico called. I soon discovered that our two-sentence endorsement was being reported – and often ridiculed – far and wide. The nearby Cincinnati Enquirer produced a post headlined “This Ohio paper is one of only six to endorse Donald Trump.” Not one of six in Ohio – one of six in the entire nation.
Hillsboro is the seat of Highland County, which has voted for the Republican candidate for president for decades but was particularly enthusiastic about Trump. He ended up winning 75 percent of the vote here, compared with 64 percent for Mitt Romney in 2012.
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Interestingly, the conservatives I speak with do not really consider Trump one of them. Rank-and-file Republicans tend to view Trump more as an independent who ran under the Republican banner.
But for the most part, they’re still with him. They appreciate Trump’s “America first” agenda, not because they believe in isolationism, but because they believe the United States and its citizens should be the government’s top priority.
The president’s tweets can be as annoying to his supporters as to his opponents, and if there is a common criticism, it is that he should tweet less. But his inability so far to overhaul health care, enact tax reform, destroy the Islamic State or “drain the swamp” is largely blamed on overreaching courts and the open “resistance” that appears dedicated to opposing anything Trump wants.
What Trump’s supporters also appreciate about him are the very attributes for which he is relentlessly criticized in the media. People here – a farming community supplemented by modest-paying retail jobs and a few factory opportunities – are frank and plain-spoken. They’re weary of politicians whose every statement seems carefully crafted to say nothing and offend no one.
I understand that. Years ago, I took a break from journalism to work in politics. I know what candidates and politicians are supposed to say and how they are supposed to say it. I sometimes find myself cringing at things Trump says, wishing he would behave more like a typical politician. But then I remind myself that if he did, he would likely lose the support of the grass-roots movement that put him where he is.
The negativity that permeates Trump coverage is a frequent subject of conversation here. Matters that are not frequently discussed: James Comey, tax returns, the Paris climate accord and the Russians. Instead, we talk about the heroin overdose epidemic ravaging our community.
Yes, Hillsboro is a rural setting with a majority-white population. But that doesn’t equate to its citizens or its Trump supporters being racist, homophobic or Islamaphobic.
Last weekend I covered the opening of an exhibit at our historical society that pays tribute to a school desegregation saga that unfolded here in the 1950s; the event honored surviving members of the African-American community who lived through a chapter in local history too long ignored. A big crowd, white and black, was on hand. Steps toward racial harmony happen even in Trump country.
While Trump carried Highland County heavily, there are people here who did not vote for him and who do not care for him. But overall, despite the avalanche of negative news stories, Trump’s support remains firm. Hillsboro’s mayor mentioned recently that he has noticed Trump yard signs popping up again, either in a show of support or a sign of defiance.
I’m an editor who happens to be a conservative on most issues. But I’m not a conservative editor. I strive to practice and teach solid, unbiased reporting regardless of what we are covering, doing our best to demonstrate respect, accuracy and fairness to all sides. Our political leanings are reserved for the opinion page. I wish more of my liberal colleagues would acquit themselves similarly.
I’m still astounded that our brief endorsement of Trump garnered such attention. In the end, Trump won the state by a solid eight-point margin. Consider the fact that Trump won the popular vote in 30 states, but in most of those states not a single newspaper endorsed him. Could there be better evidence of the gulf that exists between what is called the “mainstream media” and millions of Americans?
After the election, some news media leaders pledged to re-examine their approach. If they are even slightly successful in retooling political coverage, perhaps by 2020 a small southern Ohio newspaper’s endorsement of a major-party candidate for president won’t qualify as national news, no matter which candidate it chooses.
Gary Abernathy is publisher and editor of the (Hillsboro, Ohio) Times-Gazette, a Civitas Media newspaper. He wrote this for The Washington Post.