An Iconclast in Texas

With the exquisite timing of a smart businessman, W. Leon Smith founded The Lone Star Iconoclast, Crawford, Texas’ only newspaper, shortly before President Bush was elected to office in 2000. The first thing you notice about the Iconoclast are the words spelled out atop page one, [PDF] in brilliant red, white and blue:

“Crawford … Home of the President of the United States!”

The rest of the paper tends to stick to local issues: In the most recent edition, a photo of a grazing calf features prominently, and the lead story concerns an upcoming archery competition.

The Iconoclast comes out weekly and its penetration of its market is basically 100 percent; its circulation is roughly 1,000, a little more than the total population of Crawford itself. (If the New York Times could say the same, it would be selling 28 million papers a day.) But there’s more to the Iconoclast than just cattle, just as there’s more to Crawford than just acolytes of the local celebrity. The Iconoclast also covers politics, and for a paper that might not exist but for Bush’s ascendancy, it isn’t the cheerleader you might expect. This week’s editorial takes the president to task for holding to the June 30 deadline for handing over power in Iraq, declaring unequivocally that “the short-sighted election strategy threatens the stability of the entire world.”

Crawford itself, like the rest of Texas (with the possible exception of Austin), is often portrayed as an overwhelmingly Republican stronghold, but Smith’s paper comes closer to reflecting the reality: Even at the center of the Bush universe, political dialogue thrives, unencumbered by the convenient pronouncements of political consultants and journalists who prefer a shorthand that reduces most Americans to red vs. blue caricatures.

Crawford has its share of people “who are phenomenally behind whatever the president does, of course,” says Smith. While he acknowledges that he gets letters that “tell us that we’re publishing drivel” if the Iconoclast diverges from the Republican party line, Smith says the letters the paper receives split down the middle ideologically. A self-proclaimed “conservative Democrat,” as well as the mayor of nearby Clifton, he argues that “while the population of the state is largely Republican, most people don’t really feel it in their soul.”

Pamela Colloff, a Texas Monthly senior editor who wrote a cover story about Crawford in 2002, says the media tends to oversimplify the nature of the town’s inhabitants. “You see the same story over and over — a bunch of yokels in their overalls with straw between their teeth,” she says. “But as small towns go it’s a really impressive group of people, well read and articulate. Certainly more impressive than most towns of 700.” Most reporters don’t see that, she says, because they don’t put in the effort. “Not one reporter that I knew of bothered to cross the railroad tracks and talk to black residents who weren’t necessarily happy the president had moved to Crawford,” says Colloff.

This more nuanced portrayal of Crawford and Texas is rarely seen in the mainstream media. In 2002, CNN’s Wolf Blitzer came to Crawford and reported back to the world that Bush’s name is “almost sacred.” “Everyone we spoke to,” he said, “seems to really like him.” Perhaps CNN should have looked a little harder: The city’s mayor, Robert Campbell, is an African-American Democrat, and Smith estimates that the town isn’t more than 60 percent Republican.

For its part, the Iconoclast endorsed Bush when he ran for president, and when he decided to enter Iraq, but now the paper has begun expressing misgivings in its pages. “We just try to play it as we see it,” shrugs Smith. Smith knows too much, and his readers know too much, for him to portray all residents of Crawford as hometown boosters who just happen to identify with the president ideologically.

Too bad the same can’t be said for the legions of more prominent journalists who long ago dispensed with nuance in favor of reflexive, knee-jerk descriptions and assessments of a complex, diverse electorate.

Brian Montopoli

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Brian Montopoli is a writer at CJR Daily.