20 years ago, Bill Clinton announced presidential run as two local Arkansas papers became one

On Oct. 3, 1991, Bill Clinton announced his run for the White House on the steps of the historic Old State House Museum in Little Rock, Arkansas.

The announcement was one of the biggest stories – if not the biggest – in the state’s history. But a media drama brewed just under the current.

The Arkansas Gazette, the oldest newspaper west of the Mississippi River and the state’s first newspaper, and The Arkansas Democrat, founded in 1876, were in a bloody war. The Gazette, owned by Gannett since 1986, and The Democrat, owned by Walter Hussman’s Wehco Media since 1974, had been battling for almost five years.

Reporters knew the end was near.

Indeed, 15 days after Clinton’s historic announcement, the Gazette, nicknamed the “Old Lady,” sold its assets to the Democrat. The Democrat acquired the Gazette’s archives, computers, equipment and even its historic building. In a paradoxical twist, Hussman soon leased the building to Clinton’s campaign.

Afterwards, the Arkansas Democrat, a conservative paper to the Gazette’s more liberal slant, became the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, the only paper offering state-wide coverage and reporting on Clinton’s White House run.

Arkansas newspaper stalwart Max Brantley, a columnist at the Gazette when it closed, said that if the newspaper war had continued during Clinton’s campaign the unprecedented budget spent on staff and newsprint would have continued.

“It would have been crazy,” says Brantley, Arkansas Times’ editor from 1992 until this summer. “The favorite son was running for president so we would have pulled out the stops.”

Brantley, now a senior editor at the Times, notes the surviving newspaper – the Democrat – had been “incredibly critical of Bill Clinton.”

But Brantley stresses that the Gazette, although more pro-Clinton, had not ignored his gubernatorial record or his ascent to a White House run. Earlier in 1991, Gannett had sent Brantley to California and Iowa when Clinton spoke in both states.

The Clinton criticism certainly played out after the merger with harsh columns and editorials about the eventual nominee and president. Pulitzer Prize winner Paul Greenberg had coined the term “Slick Willy,” a moniker that still resonates, at the Pine Bluff Commercial before he became the Democrat-Gazette’s editorial page editor in April 1992.

Rex Nelson watched the newspaper war as editor of the weekly “Arkansas Business.” In July 1992, he became the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette’s political editor, a newly created position for coverage primarily of Clinton’s campaign. He worked 15-hour days, often making sure that every Clinton angle was covered by the newspaper.

“I don’t think there were a lot of rocks unturned, something had been written about Whitewater in the Little Rock papers before the national media took an interest,” Nelson says. “It wasn’t as if Clinton was ignored as governor. Most of the national media parachuting in were camping out in our [Democrat and Gazette] clip files.”

The stampede to the archives was so rapid that the paper eventually closed its archives to outsiders.

The Democrat-Gazette went from one full-time employee in its Washington Bureau during the newspaper war to three during Clinton’s years in the White House. (Now, the paper again has just one employee in its Washington bureau.)

The paper often sent its then-social editor, Phyllis Brandon, to Washington to cover White House events for the High Profile section. The column “Paper Trails” developed to highlight Clinton tidbits, too small for a story but too entertaining to ignore.

On the 20th anniversary of Bill Clinton’s announcement he’d run for the presidency, he and wife Hillary Clinton, now Secretary of State, returned to Arkansas to much less coverage than when there were two separate local newspapers. (Image courtesy of the Newseum)

Nelson, who left the newspaper business in 1996 to work for then-Governor Mike Huckabee, said while the volume of the coverage would have been more extensive with two newspapers, the Democrat-Gazette certainly was “throwing a lot of resources at this new president.”

Jerry Dean worked for both Arkansas newspapers from the 1960s until the 1990s. He worked as a reporter at the Arkansas Gazette until it closed in 1991 and jumped over to the Democrat-Gazette a year after the merger.

“It’s certainly anti-climatic that all of that [Clinton’s presidency] would happen after the Gazette disappeared,” he said. “The fact that the old grey lady succumbed before the biggest story of the state is certainly ironic.”

That lack of competition still haunts some who didn’t get to see it play out during a momentous presidential election.

“Had the Gazette somehow survived beyond 1992, Arkansas certainly would’ve seen an intense battle for competitive edge not just between the Gazette and Democrat, but between the national news media and members of the local press who knew Bill Clinton best,” says Dean.

This past weekend, Clinton arrived in Arkansas with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and daughter Chelsea to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of his announcement for president. The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette sent reporters and photographers to cover the weekend’s events, but the coverage was minimal.

The Saturday event made the front page – albeit just a picture of Bill and Hillary Clinton in silhouette – in the corner. The Arkansas section featured a bigger story above the fold with a picture of Clinton waving. The headline read: “Clinton revisits where it all began.”

But many people won’t see the story about Clinton. The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette has a high pay wall for those who don’t subscribe to the newspaper, increasingly common these days for the newspaper industry.

People who attended the event posted photos and updates via social media in real time. They didn’t need the next day’s paper to tell them what they missed. Chelsea Clinton shared her memories with The Daily Beast. The Clinton Foundation, too, broadcasted the event live on its website – a sign of how far media had come in 20 years.

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  • Anonymous

    Yes, I was there when he announced. A bunch of us from the Arkansas Gazette newsroom strolled over to the riverfront (just a couple blocks away) to watch the announcement. Little did we know that we’d all be out of a job two weeks later.
     
    Missing the chance to cover that campaign as a member of the Little Rock news staff is the second-biggest disappointment of my journalism career. The biggest: when the Gazette closed.
     
    My wife was the design director of the Gazette, and she was working on a big Sunday spread on Clinton’s life when word came on Thursday that there wasn’t going to be a Sunday paper — or a Friday or Saturday one, either. She just got up from her desk and left — we were all in shock. She’d gotten all these rare old Clinton childhood photos from the family, and she just left them sitting there — doesn’t know what happened to them. It’s possible they eventually made their way into a file at the Democrat-Gazette.

  • Anonymous

    Parker’s written an excellent article, covering lots of bases, UNTIL the last three paragraphs and the caption under the front page, questioning news judgment.

    What is the news value of an anniversary story (Clinton opens campaign 20 years ago)? What’s more important? Front page articles on Pakistan-Taliban relations, the controversial state lottery, world research on education conducted by state university, FOI and prisoners, Syrian civil war.

    Only then does the reader learn of Clinton making one of his quarterly visits to Little Rock that includes public appearances.

    Sounds about right for a serious newspaper.