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Informed Journalism Needs Reporters Who Participate

Friday April 04, 2003

Thursday’s Chronicle Op-Ed page featured a column by a smiling fellow identified as a Readers’ Representative, entitled “Credibility at Stake.” The title was right; the column was flat wrong. His conclusion: “If it were up to me … the sign over the entrance to The Chronicle would read ‘Check your activism at the door.’” 

The author, despite his title, is a Chronicle management employee; he describes himself as having spent years as a reporter and editor. In this connection, I should here identify my own perspective. I am actually a member of an endangered species, a Chronicle reader, and I confess that I have been since 1959. And you know what? Dick Rogers doesn’t represent me, or, I suspect, most other Chronicle readers.  

His piece refers to letters the Chronicle has received criticizing their suspension of technology columnist Henry Norr for demonstrating against the Iraq war. We readers might have liked to read these letters, but for some reason they never made it into the paper. (One which was copied to the Planet is reprinted here.) At first the story about Norr’s suspension didn’t make it into the Chronicle either, though it was picked up by Reuters and the SF Mercury and has been burning up the ‘blogs on the Internet. When Tuesday’s Planet (many of whose readers also read the Chronicle) printed Norr’s comments on what happened to him, the Chronicle was finally forced to take official notice of reader outrage. 

I’ve been a dedicated reader of Henry Norr’s trenchant dissections of technology innovations since my days as a high-tech executive, even before he was hired by the Chronicle. No other tech columnist comes close to his combination of technical savvy with literate prose. He provides the information that computer users need, and does it elegantly. There is absolutely no connection between his beat and his opinion on the Iraq invasion. As his reader, I was surprised to hear about his strong anti-war opinions, except of course that I did know he’s a very smart guy. Why should readers be deprived of Henry Norr’s excellent advice because he demonstrates against foreign policy? As we used to say in the tech biz, it doesn’t compute. 

And what if there were a connection between a writer’s beliefs and his or her beat?  

Let’s suppose that, for example, a financial reporter, who personally opposes the Iraq invasion on moral grounds, concludes that the recent behavior of the stock market was influenced by investors’ war jitters. Should she suppress this analysis in her stories? As a reader and investor, I would object to that. Does it make any additional difference if she also went to an anti-war candlelight vigil in her neighborhood last Sunday night? Why should it? 

Rogers’ piece lays out what I call the “Greater Eunuch” theory of journalism: that the public is better served if newsies check their cojones at the door. Reporters should of course do their level best to keep their own ideas from influencing what they put in news stories. But papers should be written by humans, not robots. It’s easier to leave your own biases out of news if you know what they are. And strongly held opinions add flavor to pieces that are not just straight news reports. 

The most interesting part of most papers, including the Chronicle, is the opinionated section: the Robert  

Scheers, the Molly Ivins, the Jon Carrolls, the Arianna Huffingtons. Old readers remember Herb Caen’s excellent columns against the Vietnam War. 

Arianna’s years as a conservative true believer, including participating in her then husband’s gubernatorial campaign, lend credibility to her recent role of critic of the excesses of capitalism. Should Bob Scheer be barred from the Chronicle because he once ran for Congress in Berkeley? Of course not. One of the reasons he was an excellent reporter for the L.A. Times was that he’d seen politics from both sides of the camera, and thus was hard for politicians to fool. 

I was a political activist and even managed campaigns before I became a journalist. I ran a business after I was a journalist. Meanwhile, I raised three kids who went to the Berkeley schools. I know a lot about why the public schools are constantly running out of money because of my years in the PTO — a lot more than the kind of reporter whose main news source is the superintendent’s office. 

Experience has convinced me that the public is best informed by people who from time to time cross over the line between participant and observer, not by journalists whose views have always been from the sidelines and never from the field.