Editorials don’t sway lawmakers on flag-burning issue

Wednesday, June 23, 1999

WASHINGTON — During a hearing last March on a proposed constitutional amendment outlawing flag-burning, Rep. Charles Canady, R-Fla., had no idea what kind of harsh response his words would provoke on the editorial page of Florida's largest paper, the St. Petersburg Times.

“Burning the flag is burning the flag, not making a speech,” said Canady.

“He is either dense or dishonest,” the paper replied in an editorial on March 28, taking Canady and the state's two senators, Democrat Bob Graham and Republican Connie Mack, to task for their stands in favor of the flag amendment.

Although Canady's central Florida district does not include St. Petersburg, such sharp criticism from a prominent newspaper with statewide influence is the kind of thing a politician might reasonably be expected to want to avoid. But in Canady's case — and seemingly in the cases of Mack and Graham — the strong editorial position of the St. Petersburg Times against the flag amendment has had little impact.

When the House takes up the flag amendment later this week, Canady will be voting “yes.” And if the Senate brings the flag amendment up, Mack and Graham also are expected to vote in favor of the proposal.

“I don't read the St. Pete Times,” Canady said in an interview. “They're entitled to their opinion.”

The Florida situation is not unique. Across the country, newspaper editorial writers have been weighing in almost unanimously against congressional efforts to overturn the Supreme Court's ruling holding flag-burning to be a form of protected speech under the First Amendment.

And across the country, many lawmakers are ignoring those often-impassioned appeals on newspaper editorial pages and coming out in favor of the flag amendment.

The amendment would allow Congress to make flag-burning a crime, and if it were approved by two-thirds of the House and Senate and then ratified by 38 states, it would mark the first change in the Bill of Rights in the nation's history. The House has voted in favor of the flag amendment twice before, in both the 104th and 105th Congresses. The Senate narrowly rejected it in 1995, and last year, the House-passed measure died for lack of action in the closing hours of the legislative session. This year, the House is again expected to pass the proposal, though perhaps by a smaller margin than before, but the Senate is thought to be just shy of the 67 votes needed to approve it.

With well over a majority in both chambers lining up in favor of the flag amendment, the obvious question is whether the position of newspaper editorials against the amendment has had any effect.

On the flag issue, “it's the polling, the fact that people are against it, not the waning influence of editorials,” said Larry Ottinger of People for the American Way, which opposes the amendment.

However, the cases of Sens. Byron Dorgan and Kent Conrad, both North Dakota Democrats, could be interpreted as evidence that newspaper editorials really do work. Throughout the last session of Congress, even when a vote in the Senate seemed near, Dorgan and Conrad listed themselves as “undecided” on the flag amendment. Opponents and supporters alike considered their votes key, and they were subjected to heavy lobbying on both sides.

This year, when the Senate was poised to move on the flag amendment by Memorial Day, Dorgan and Conrad were still viewed as undecided and pivotal votes. But on April 30, they both announced that they would oppose the amendment and support instead a proposal by Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., that would seek to outlaw flag-burning by statute rather than by changing the Constitution.

Without the votes of Conrad and Dorgan, supporters of the flag amendment appeared to fall two votes short of the two-thirds needed for passage. It was a major blow for supporters and appears to have slowed the Senate momentum. The Memorial Day vote agenda was scrapped, and currently there no plans to bring the flag amendment to a Senate vote at any time in the near future.

“Dorgan and Conrad maybe argue the other way,” said Ottinger. “There were strong editorials from their papers against the flag amendment, and they went with their editorials. There are a lot of veterans in North Dakota, and it was a difficult vote for them, but I think we mobilized a large number of people. too. In North Dakota, Dorgan and Conrad would have been sharply criticized if they voted for it.”

Among the North Dakota newspapers calling on Dorgan and Conrad to vote against the flag amendment were The Dickinson Press, the Minot Daily News and The Fargo Forum.

Canady said newspaper editorials “can certainly have an impact in helping to shape public opinion, and members of Congress are influenced by public opinion.” He acknowledges that “I'm sometimes influenced by newspaper editorials,” which can raise “valid opinions,” but says it “depends on the issue.”

Proponents of the flag amendment say the influence of newspaper editorials probably shouldn't be tested by such an emotional issue as flag-burning, particularly when the Citizens Flag Alliance, the American Legion and other veterans groups have spent millions of dollars in their lobbying campaign, lined up high-powered celebrity support and cast the issue as a question of patriotism.

“I still think editorials have influence, especially if they're in their (the congressional member's) district,” said Ottinger. “Sometimes I think lawmakers think they can gain some advantage by being against the media, but not usually the editorial pages. That's usually more a television thing. I still think editorials in the newspaper have credibility.”

Paul Tash, executive editor and deputy chairman of the St. Petersburg Times and chairman of the American Society of Newspaper Editors' Freedom of Information Committee, agrees with Canady that the influence of newspaper editorials depends on the issue.

“We get a lot of letters when we write about this, so that shows me it is of interest,” Tash said. “I think the readers are pretty interested when we give them a chance to be.”

In addition to his newspaper's anti-flag-amendment editorial stance, Tash has exchanged letters with Mack, who is retiring from the Senate after his current term, asking the Republican senator why he would support the flag amendment. In one letter, Tash asked the senator why, given his commitment to personal liberties and his defense of press freedom and other instances of free speech, he would support such an amendment.

“Free speech is an important right, especially when words are unpopular,” Mack wrote back. “I, however, separate words from acts of destruction. I know it's a delicate balance, but one that I believe is proper. Speaking in protest against the flag is a protected right and must never be compromised. I believe the act of destroying or desecrating our flag, America's most enduring symbol of freedom, is not protected and should not be.”

Terri Schroeder, a legislative analyst for the American Civil Liberties Union, said newspaper editorials were still valuable tools in swaying congressional opinion.

“Usually among lobbying groups and interest groups, you always want to make sure you have a lot of good editorials. If it supports your position, that's well and good, but the impact of how much it helps may not be as significant as having something written against the position you want someone to take,” Schroeder said.

But Phil Gutis, the ACLU's communications director and a former journalist with The New York Times, says neither a newspaper nor any other voice in a community has the impact it once had.

“Members of Congress are constantly putting in (the Congressional Record) editorials, op-eds and columns from people who agree with them, so they're listening, they're clearly listening. But I don't think an editorial or any one voice actually is a determining factor in the way they vote,” he said.

“I think sometimes they (the editorials) can help a member feel more confident about a position that they're concerned about politically. If they (the lawmakers) have that very influential voice in their community supporting them, that can help secure the position,” Gutis said.

However, he said, “the more miles you put between the community and the item you're attempting to impact,” the less the influence. “The distance really does help mute that voice.”

Another factor in the flag debate, Gutis said, is that the member “might actually feel the opposition or support of the American Legion. More of those people are likely to make phone calls or whatever” than are readers who take the opposing position because of an anti-flag amendment editorial.

“The pro-flag people are probably better at collecting bodies,” Gutis said.

Another factor in the lessening influence of editorials is the number of newspapers that in recent years have tried “to walk a very fine line” with their editorials “and present both views.”

“They don't often come out very hard-hitting,” Gutis said. “I think if newspapers were to throw their punches a little more strongly, they'd probably be listened to more.”