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Would Sale of O.C. Register Silence Libertarian Voice?

July 30, 2002|SCOTT MARTELLE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Early next month, descendants of R.C. Hoiles--the one-time newspaper publisher and a standard-bearer for libertarianism--will gather for what could become a watershed moment for Orange County's famously conservative character.

On the agenda: The possible sale of Freedom Communications, the privately held company through which Hoiles' descendants run the Orange County Register, 27 smaller daily newspapers, 37 weeklies and eight television stations.

At issue is a desire by some of Hoiles' descendants--led by grandson and Freedom board member Tim Hoiles--to earn more income from their holdings. Options to be discussed at the Aug. 10-11 meeting include leaving things as they are, arranging a partial buyout of the cash-hungry heirs and selling the company, which is estimated to be worth up to $2 billion.

Such a sale would end nearly 70 years of Hoiles family ownership of the Register, just two years after the heirs of Harry Chandler made a similar decision and sold Times-Mirror Co.--publisher of the Los Angeles Times--to the Chicago-based Tribune Co.

There's more at stake, though, than the possibility of another family-owned newspaper being gobbled up by a chain.

For decades, political and academic observers say, the Register has represented the philosophical heart of its core readership, a symbiotic relationship that has not only brought riches to Hoiles and his descendants, but helped shape the course of national politics.

As the Chandlers used The Times to push a business and development agenda in the early years of Los Angeles, Hoiles used his paper to spread his brand of libertarianism.

He positioned the Register as a bulletin board and bully pulpit for libertarian and conservative causes, helping launch grass-roots political efforts in the 1950s and 1960s that fueled the presidential bids of Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan.

"I don't think you can underestimate their role in helping shape the political culture of the region," said Lisa McGirr, a Harvard history professor who has studied the rise of conservative politics in Orange County. "The Register really helped introduce many people to conservative politics and ideas. It helped shape a relatively unformed dissatisfaction with American liberalism into a right-wing ideology."

The paper has evolved in the years since Hoiles' death in 1970, and the news pages no longer sound the libertarian or conservative clarion call. The editorial pages, though, remain staunchly libertarian. "We believe in a very consistent point of view, that we would always do our best to foster discussions about what it would mean to be free," publisher Chris Anderson said Monday. "So we're not very popular in some of the views that we would take. People would see them as rather liberal."

He cited the paper's support for decriminalization of drugs and prostitution, for ending the U.S.-led trade embargo of Cuba, and its recent criticism of the detention of hundreds of foreign-born U.S. residents in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terror attacks.

The company even has a staff philosopher: Tibor Machan, a noted Hoover Institution research fellow and business ethics professor at Chapman University, advises the chain on public policy issues.

Whether the Freedom chain's editorial viewpoint would stay libertarian under new ownership is a matter of debate. Anderson declined to speculate, but outside experts say newspaper chains in recent years have often left local editorial voices intact when they take over. Gone are the days of newspaper barons like Pulitzer and Hearst, who insisted on a uniform message.

"Typically, most chains allow the local unit a great deal of autonomy," said Dave Demers, author of "The Menace of the Corporate Newspaper: Fact or Fiction" and a professor at Washington State University. "They know their operations are different and the local politics vary, so they will allow the local publisher and editor to set that general framework for editorial policy."

Tony Fellow, who teaches American media history at Cal State Fullerton and USC's Annenberg School of Communications, agreed. "I think the bottom line for any newspaper is to make money through ad revenues and enlarging circulation," he said. "People still want that hometown newspaper that reflects the community. It behooves the new owners to continue the newspaper's [viewpoint.]"

Yet the community the Register serves has been evolving rapidly. Where the area was once dominated by farmers and transplanted engineers from the Midwest, fresh waves of immigration have made the county increasingly diverse both ethnically and politically.

Despite increases in numbers of Democrats over the years, Republicans dominate the county's electoral life, and they are in turn heavily drawn from the conservative wing of the party.

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