A daily newspaper imposes its own unique lens on the life of a community every day. The tone and selection of its articles, along with the views overtly expressed by its editorial board, obviously have a lot of power to shape public opinion. This can occur whether or not the paper is consciously trying to sway its audience, and whether or not the community happens to share its viewpoint.
The letters and opinion (“op-ed”) pages, by contrast, are normally reserved for readers and citizens to express their own views, in their own way.
For this reason, it’s rare for most serious newspapers to respond directly to the letters and op-ed pieces it publishes. Even highly ideological editorial boards, such as The Wall Street Journal’s, tend to refrain from engaging in back-and-forth debate with letter- or opinion writers. (To the Journal’s credit, one not infrequently finds stiff critiques of its own position in the letters column, published without backtalk from the paper itself.)
Most mature papers understand that their own credibility is only enhanced when they offer a platform for diverse and even contrary opinions to be heard. Doing so implies that its editors and publishers are unafraid to expose their readers to other viewpoints, willing to keep their own minds open, and not grinding just one side of the axe-blade. (If a serious dispute arises about the paper’s accuracy or fairness, that is usually handled by an independent ombudsman, who is paid by the paper but does not answer to its publisher or editor.)
Of course, everyone knows that editors and publishers do have opinions, often strong or even irrational ones. But most try to at least maintain the appearance of being level-headed, neutral brokers of cold, hard facts. Barking back at readers publicly is generally considered undignified among people who buy ink by the barrel.
A glaring exception to this unspoken news industry rule, especially during the years of the long-running cement plant controversy, was the editorial board of The Register-Star.
Contrary to standard media ethics, then-publisher Jules Molenda penned rafts of editorials cheerleading for his largest advertiser, St. Lawrence Cement, sometimes several times a month. During this dark period, the paper also began appending argumentative notes to readers’ letters and op-eds.
In the media business, this is considered bad form to say the least. It seemed all the more undignified because Molenda (who was fired the same week that the plant got stopped) only bickered with readers who did not share his views. Pro-cement letters, no matter how ridiculously illogical, incoherent or illiterate, were never subjected to a sarcastic Editor’s Notes or tendentious corrections.
Now, it has seemed like the Register pretty much abandoned Molenda’s unusual practice once the cement battle ended, and he got canned. Since that time, the paper has taken an additional step back from courting controversy, generally sticking to safe, boosterish editorial topics like honoring fallen veterans on Memorial Day, or celebrating volunteer organizations which feed the needy at Christmastime.
But in this weekend’s edition, a long and argumentative editorial note was appended by the paper to a My View submitted by Philmont Beautification, Inc. The group’s director, Sally Baker, sought in her submission to clarify what she and her board deemed confusing or even mistaken information contained in an anonymously-sourced attack piece printed by a Register reporter the previous week.
The Register is of course free to cast a suspicious eye on PB Inc. (For this outside observer, it has yet to seriously dent the group’s integrity, and one wonders what prompted them to do so.) And it’s understandable that editors may feel protective toward cub reporters.
But even supposing that the Register were correct to be suspicious of PB’s finances, the more usual way that a serious newspaper reacts to pushback like Baker’s is by researching the matter further, fleshing out the story with more objective analysis. Eventually, it might issue a factual, follow-up news article, and maybe even add its own editorial revisiting the story. But this normally and preferably happens only after allowing some time to pass to show that the paper has thoroughly considered its allegations and position.
Instead, the sniping tone, odd format and hasty timetable of the Register’s retort, tacked on the back of PB’s op-ed like a juvenile “KICK ME” sign, conveys a thin-skinnedness which is all-too common among the media when people dare to question its accuracy. (For more on that topic, see my series on the regional media published in Our Town last year.)
As a result, a meeting between PB Inc. representatives and editor Theresa Hyland of the Register has reportedly been scotched, presumably because the paper’s overt hostility caused the group to realize the exercise would be pointless. This just further highlights how much a media outlet loses when it fails to exercise restraint, and bares its more partisan fangs: Its public becomes reluctant to speak with them, believing that a fair hearing is impossible. Over time, such a paper’s readers will get less news and opinion from fewer and fewer sources.