Freedom Newspapers, Inc., is much like any other media chain—29 daily papers and 2 television stations. Except it is written into the articles of incorporation that the organization exists to present a libertarian view of the world.
D. Robert Segal—friends call him D.R.—is the president of Freedom Newspapers. Segal is a libertarian. But to say that is only to scratch the surface. D.R. is a newspaperman—has been since he started working for the Chicago Tribune as a correspondent in 1938. "I fell into a rut," he says, "and stayed there. I have no demonstrable talent, and the newspaper business is a great business for somebody like that.
"Also," he adds, "I had a lack of motivation to do anything else. When I started, nobody ever got fired who could stay sober five out of seven hours a day. That's the way the business was then." The fact that Segal was studying medicine at the time he "fell into" journalism would lead anybody with some discernment and objectivity, qualities Segal admits are necessary for good journalism, to doubt his self-effacing statements.
Segal worked for several papers before the Army Air Corps brought him to Santa Ana, California. This gave him the opportunity to work for all the Los Angeles papers, "moon-lighting." Another self-deprecating explanation: "They were taking anything that could walk through the door." After leaving the military in 1945, he went to work—"temporarily," he thought—for Freedom Newspapers at their flagship paper, the Santa Ana Register, in Southern California.
There, he was exposed to the late R.C. Hoiles, the founder of Freedom Newspapers. Through this association, Segal came to adopt Hoiles's philosophy of individual freedom, "probably by osmosis," says Segal. "I did not see a blinding light," he confides. "I'm not the born-again variety."
It occurred to me to ask Segal what it is like to be an individualist in the predominantly liberal press. He disagreed with my assumption. "Most newspapers pretty much reflect the vague political views of the subscribers," he explained. "The owners of a very large paper that is commonly perceived as a liberal, prounion paper are, in fact, strongly opposed to unions in their own shop. I asked a well-known editor about that and he said, 'Well, this is the real world.' I said, 'You're right.'"
So I asked Segal what it's like to have a paper with a consistent philosophy in a predominantly nonphilosophical business. "Not as exciting as it used to be," he told me. "Twenty or 25 years ago, the things we said were highly inflammatory. There were frequent threats of violence. R.C. Hoiles's house in Ohio was bombed—they blew off his front porch. Our paper boys had ink thrown on them. It was very stimulating."
In fact, the National Education Association and the Parent-Teacher Association once made Freedom Newspapers' stance against government schools a national issue. Boycotts were not uncommon. When Segal was vice-president, he often found groups organized and waiting to demonstrate when he arrived in some town to set up a paper. Segal speaks fondly of those times: "It was dull in those places. It was the only game in town—the local bullfight, the lynching of the martyrs—good clean fun. Advertisers would pull out for a month but come back when their business fell off. Eventually, the organizers became an annoyance and somebody would say, 'Maybe we could use a good critic to keep us on our toes.' That's the cycle."
Freedom Newspapers activities in Texas were the object of particularly intense activism. Judge Roy Hofheinz, who later became the mayor of Houston, used what he called the "California Mafia" as an issue to draw unfavorable attention to a television station Segal was starting. "There were rallies, and meetings denouncing us," Segal recounts, "and everybody felt much better for it, saying, 'By God, we showed them.'"
But nowadays, Segal recounts wistfully, the papers' editorial positions don't make the same splash they used to. "In the age of sexual liberation and drugs," he explains, "who gets excited when you say that government shouldn't run the schools or the money-printing press? People are more worried about whether or not the nuclear power plant in their neighborhood is going to blow up. They're not too very damned interested."
Freedom Newspapers is expanding, presently considering the purchase of several more television stations, and is undergoing some growing pains. Members of its board of directors—almost all Hoileses or their relatives—are in disagreement about how best to accomplish goals that they all seem to share. Despite national attention, Segal shows no concern. An editor at the Register describes him as "an ideal CEO."
"I love newspapers and newspaper people," explains the one-time medical student. "My primary concern has long been the selection, care, and feeding of people. For about the last 10 years, newspapers have gotten bemused by the influx of new technology—the magic-eye drinking fountain. Whenever publishers got together, they talked about some new machine, and the human element slipped—we let the human element slip. None of the machines do what they say they will, anyway. People make the difference."
Segal runs his papers that way. He says he offers people maximum individual freedom and minimum bureaucracy, and he encourages people to enjoy themselves. "If you are a zealot," he says of people who take their work too seriously, "find yourself a stake, get burned, and we'll have a barbecue. I intend to have a good time."
Patrick Cox is a frequent guest columnist for USA Today and public affairs director of the Pacific Institute for Public Policy Research.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Spotlight: Pressing for Freedom".