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Newspaper critics split: The Socialist-Review, or The Spokesman-Republican?

President Theodore Roosevelt visited Spokane in 1911 and laid the cornerstone for Lewis and Clark High School. The Spokesman-Review was a longtime supporter of Roosevelt. (Spokesman-Review archives)
President Theodore Roosevelt visited Spokane in 1911 and laid the cornerstone for Lewis and Clark High School. The Spokesman-Review was a longtime supporter of Roosevelt. (Spokesman-Review archives)

Fresh young reporters at The Spokesman-Review quickly learn that they have been pronouncing the name of their paper wrong.

“It’s the Socialist-Review,” a neighbor will correct them, with a grin.

The second thing that they’ll learn, possibly from neighbors on the opposite side of the street, is that their paper might as well be called The Spokesman-Republican, since it marches in lockstep with the GOP.

In most cases, this tells you more about the political leanings of your neighbors than it does about the paper. A look into the political history of The Spokesman-Review shows that the reality is more complicated.

The “Republican” part of the story reaches all the way back to the newspaper’s origins as the Spokane Falls Review. That paper was founded in 1883 by Frank Dallam, specifically as a Republican newspaper. In those days, many papers unabashedly embraced one party or another. The growing town of Spokane Falls already had a Democratic newspaper, the weekly Spokane Chronicle, and Dallam saw an opening for a Republican newspaper.

In fact, Dallam said he “would not publish anything but a paper advocating Republicanism.” Yet from the very first issue of the Spokane Falls Review, the paper declared its intention to think independently.

Dallam wrote that his paper “was not established for the purpose of representing any particular clique, but comes to the front unshackled, with the sole aim of laboring for the good of the community from which it receives support.” He also added that there would be no attempt to please everybody,” because “that would require too much acrobatic skill with the pen.”

In 1893, the Review merged with another paper, The Spokesman, run by William H. Cowles. The Spokesman was also a Republican paper – in fact, a member of the Cowles family, Edwin Cowles, was said to have been present at the birth of the Republican Party, at an 1854 meeting in Cleveland.

However, the editorial pages of the newly established Spokesman-Review proved its independence almost immediately. The Spokesman-Review endorsed Democrat William Jennings Bryan for president in both 1896 and 1900. Bryan was a populist Democrat. The politics of The Spokesman-Review at the time could be more accurately described as progressive (which at the time meant pro-reform and pro-prohibition, among other things) than strictly Republican.

In 1904, The Spokesman-Review energetically endorsed Republican Theodore Roosevelt. He was possibly the ideal candidate for the paper, being both Republican and progressive. In fact, Cowles would become a friend and occasional adviser to Roosevelt.

The paper’s devotion to Roosevelt never waned and perfectly reflected the attitude of the Inland Northwest at large. A crowd estimated at 50,000 people once gathered to see Roosevelt parade through Spokane’s streets.

In fact, it was Roosevelt who would cause The Spokesman-Review to once again buck the Republican Party. In 1912, Teddy Roosevelt ran as the progressive Bull Moose Party candidate against Republican William Howard Taft and Democrat Woodrow Wilson. The S-R snubbed Taft and endorsed Teddy.

In the ensuing decades, The Spokesman-Review reliably endorsed Republican presidential candidates such as Charles Evans Hughes, Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover. When Franklin D. Roosevelt ran as a Democrat, The Spokesman-Review consistently backed his Republican opponents – despite the Roosevelt family name and the fact that the paper found plenty to praise in Roosevelt’s leadership skills during the Great Depression and World War II.

In general, the paper stuck to its Republican roots – and not only on the editorial pages. Ashley Holden, The Spokesman-Review’s political writer in the 1940s and 1950s, was an unabashed supporter, in print and behind the scenes, of Albert Canwell, a Republican state legislator who chaired the state’s red-baiting Un-American Activities committee.

This helps to explain why President Harry S. Truman uttered his famous opinion of The Spokesman-Review during a Spokane visit in 1948: “The Chicago Tribune and this paper are the worst in the United States.”

Truman actually knew little about The Spokesman-Review. He was simply echoing the appraisal of Democratic Sen. Warren Magnuson – uttered privately, a few minutes earlier – that the paper was firmly Republican and tough on Democrats.

In 1952, Truman returned to Spokane and told a crowd that The Spokesman-Review was “the second-worst paper in the United States” and that it “never told the truth in politics in its life and it wouldn’t know the truth if it met it coming down the road.” The paper had not, needless to say, endorsed Truman.

The paper’s more recent political history has been less predictable.

It endorsed Democrat Bill Clinton in 1992 – which is one reason local talk radio enjoyed calling it the “Socialist-Review.” However, it did not endorse Clinton in 1996. It endorsed Republican George W. Bush in both of his elections and endorsed Republicans John McCain and Mitt Romney against Barack Obama. However, in 2016, it endorsed Democrat Hillary Clinton as “the only rational choice.”

So, while it remains true to its roots in endorsing many Republicans, it also remains true to its roots in “not representing any particular clique.”

As for that “Socialist-Review” moniker?

Socialism has never been, at any point in the paper’s history, one of its enthusiasms. Its historic attitude may best be summed up by a 1909 front-page editorial cartoon, showing a woman labeled “Spokane,” dressed as Lady Liberty. In her grasp is a tiny member of the radical-socialist Industrial Workers of the World. She is, quite enthusiastically, throttling him.

Jim Kershner is a former Spokesman-Review staff writer and columnist, and author of “Carl Maxey: A Fighting Life.”


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