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Thursday, Oct. 28, 2004 07:16 am

Master’s voice

Two days after "Your Hometown News Source" aired parts of an anti-John Kerry documentary, "The Oldest Newspaper in IllinoisTM" republished an editorial endorsement of President George W. Bush that first appeared in a sister paper in California.

The State Journal-Register editorial, which ran in the newspaper's Sunday, Oct. 24, editions, was an abridged version of one that appeared a week earlier in the San Diego Union-Tribune, flagship of the Copley Newspapers chain. Copley owns 10 daily newspapers, including the SJ-R.

According to the SJ-R and Union-Tribune editorials: "There never is any doubt" about where Bush stands -- and that is why "he merits another four years in the White House." Kerry, by contrast, has a "record of waffling," the newspapers said.

The Springfield paper trimmed about 350 words from the San Diego editorial -- about one-third -- without any significant changes.

Another Copley daily, the Independent of Massillon, Ohio, also endorsed Bush on Sunday, but published its own editorial.

SJ-R editor Barry Locher said in an e-mail that all Copley papers endorse the same presidential candidate. "While each of our newspapers is free to write its own, it has been our practice to publish the editorial as it appeared in our flagship paper, the Union-Tribune," he said.

"I've always figured those endorsements are written 'in the owner's very words,' and that's good enough for me. Every other endorsement is selected -- and authored -- here."

The Copley practice of making chain-wide presidential endorsements appears to be falling out of favor with other newspaper groups. For example, newspapers owned by the E.W. Scripps Co. used to make the same presidential endorsement, but that changed this year.

On Sunday, the Commercial Appeal, a conservative paper based in Memphis, Tennessee, endorsed Kerry for president. The paper, which backed Bush in 2000, and his father in 1988 and 1992, said the Bush presidency has "divided this country like no other in history."

Other newspaper chains have given their local papers autonomy on presidential endorsements. The Media General-owned Tampa Tribune, which has supported every Republican presidential nominee of the past four decades, made national headlines earlier this month when it refused to endorse Bush again.

Two Illinois dailies also have reversed course on the president. The Chicago Sun-Times and Rockford Register-Star, which both backed Bush in 2000, now back Kerry. Other papers supporting the Democratic nominee are the Chicago-area Daily Herald and Daily Southtown.

Illinois papers supporting the president include the Chicago Tribune, the Pantagraph of Bloomington, the Southern Illinoisan of Carbondale, the News-Gazette of Champaign, and the Journal-Standard of Freeport.

Of course, journalists and politicians may be among the few readers who actually care about newspaper endorsements.

"I have generally been surprised at how little influence they actually have on voters," says Don Corrigan, a professor of journalism at the Webster University School of Communications in St. Louis.

"As a journalist with a career in newspapers, I find it a little depressing that endorsements actually mean so little."

When Sinclair Broadcasting ordered its stations, including Springfield's WICS-TV (Channel 20) to broadcast an anti-Kerry documentary, some newspapers criticized the decision, saying that the broadcast company was abusing the public trust by forcing local stations to comply with directions from its corporate headquarters.

The SJ-R, by contrast, compared the program to Michael Moore's film Fahrenheit 9/11 and said that Sinclair's program was unlikely to "make any appreciable difference in the November election."

Forty Sinclair stations, including Channel 20, broadcast A POW Story, which included excerpts from Stolen Valor, an anti-Kerry documentary produced by journalist-turned-security consultant Carlton Sherwood.

Sinclair, whose top executives are contributors to the Bush re-election campaign, originally planned to broadcast Stolen Valor in its entirety, according to the Los Angeles Times, which first reported on the controversy.

Sinclair backed away from the plan, according to the Times and other newspapers, in the wake of heavy criticism, especially by Democrats. The Sinclair group includes 62 TV stations, but in some cities it operates more than one station.

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