Margaret Sullivan, media columnist for The Washington Post, found herself in a much smaller newsroom recently when she made a trip to Alabama to see for herself how local media was covering Roy Moore's Senate race against Democrat, Doug Jones.
At first, she wanted to visit the newsrooms of the state's three big-city papers, all of which are owned by Alabama Media Group. All three papers splashed an anti-Moore, pro-Doug Jones editorial on their front pages few weeks ago. It was "highly unusual" for a paper to do that, Sullivan said, because editorials don't often end up on the front page.
"I thought that would have been an interesting story," Sullivan told Brian Stelter in this week's Reliable Sources podcast. "But I also thought it would be really fascinating to go to a small paper."
Sullivan ended up spending time with the top editor of the Opelika-Auburn News, Troy Turner, and she went on a reporting trip with one of the paper's reporters, Kara Coleman. The newspaper is staffed by 11 people and has an estimated circulation of 12,000, Sullivan said.
"I thought it would be a good lens into the whole situation and it did turn out to be fascinating," Sullivan told Stelter. She wrote about her trip to Alabama in a recent column for her own newspaper. The Washington Post column was published on December 3 under the headline, "A small-town Alabama newspaper takes a stand on Roy Moore. A very careful one."
"Careful" because editorials like the ones printed on the front pages of Alabama Media Group's newspapers would not have worked for a small-town paper like the Opelika-Auburn News. Turner had to tread carefully.
"I would have bullet holes in my window," Turner told Sullivan. The paper ended up publishing an editorial that called for Moore to drop out of the race. There were no bullet holes in Turner's window, but there were "some ticked-off readers," Sullivan wrote in her column.
Listen to the whole podcast here:
The December 12 special election between Moore and Jones has made major headlines in recent weeks, especially in light of the Washington Post's investigation into the accounts of women who accused Moore of pursuing sexual relationships with them while they were teenagers and he was in his 30s.
Since then, a number of Republicans and Democrats have called for Moore to drop out of the race. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan has reiterated his call for Moore to step aside, while President Donald Trump has maintained his endorsement of Moore.
Sullivan said Coleman, the reporter, was "perfectly impartial" in how she covered the embattled Moore, even though Coleman came from the same town as the candidate and worked with one of his sons as a lifeguard. The community is tight, to say the least.
"They're very connected to their audiences," Sullivan told Stelter. "The people I spoke to at [the Opelika-Auburn News] attend church with their readers. They're going to the grocery store... It's very -- as Troy Turner said to me -- it's very close-knit, which is part of the reason they really didn't want to take... an endorsement stand for Doug Jones."
Moore has denied the allegations published in the Post and his supporters have slammed the report. But Sullivan said her connection to the Washington Post did not cause a problem during her visit in Alabama.
"People definitely recognized why I was there and they sort of, you know, they got it," Sullivan said. "They nodded. But I didn't feel like I was about to be run out of town on a rail or anything like that. And some people definitely appreciated the reporting."
Sullivan added that those she met in Alabama didn't entirely seize on what some have considered Moore's run against the media.
"It's there, but you know, on the reporting trip that I was on, I didn't hear too much of it," she said. She did state, though, that the Opelika-Auburn News' Facebook page included some "really strong anti-media and anti-liberal sentiments" from readers, but cautioned that "you don't want to paint everybody with the same brush."