Editorial: Free Press, Free Papers and Free Advice

By Becky O’Malley
Friday November 17, 2006

We’ve gotten communications from a couple of supporters of winning candidates in the recent election who claim to be shocked at the decision of the Planet’s publishers to print extra copies of our record 44-page pre-election issue and distribute them door-to-door instead of just placing them in boxes for reader pickup. Both letter writers seemed to be charging that this distribution was part of a management plot to enhance the fortunes of particular candidates. There are a number of responses which should be made to such assertions—we’ll take them in no particular order.  

First, as unattractive as it is to be a sore loser, it’s even more unattractive to be a sore winner. You won, guys, so now it’s time for the gracious speech welcoming your opponent back to the common table where political discussions take place among consenting adults. 

Second, the decision to print extra copies and contract with a door-to-door distribution agency was a marketing decision made by the advertising department. It was a big, solid paper, and they wanted to show it off. They’ve done this several times in the past in various locations: with the launch of our real estate pages, when we did special holiday issues and on other occasions. It’s true that this pre-election issue contained the paper’s editorial endorsements, as had previous issues, but it also ran a long and absolutely free campaign statement by the complainers’ candidate, Mayor Bates, whom we did not endorse. Our pre-election issues contained many exhortations about Measure A, which we supported, and no one complained about those getting around town the weekend before election day. And of course our regular commercial advertisers didn’t complain about the extra exposure. 

Third, and we won’t belabor this point excessively, the complaint about home delivery of the Planet from the chief apologist for the candidate who stole the endorsement issue of the Daily Cal out of their distribution boxes in 2002 looks a bit lame, doesn’t it? We could claim proactive self-defense, but we won’t. 

These are the minor points. More important is the apparent belief of the writers that there’s something illegitimate about independent newspapers taking editorial positions on elections. The Nov. 27 issue of The Nation contains an excellent column by Eric Alterman on this very topic. We hope to get permission to reprint it, but you can find it on the internet at www.thenation.com/ doc/20061127/alterman. 

Alterman notes that “while reporters and editors would like to believe that their readers are fully aware of the split between the news and editorial desks, in fact the distinction matters only to the minuscule minority who read the paper the way journalism professors would wish.” He claims, and based on our reading of recent letters we agree, that “most news consumers do not know or care enough to make such distinctions.”  

But careful readers of the pre-election issues of the Planet should have noticed that the most excitement among our news staff was not about the relative virtues of the candidates, but about the role played by the Chamber of Commerce’s Political Action Committee, which raised a lot of money from developer sources which it spent in largely unreported ways. That was the big election story, and it’s still going on. Many facts have yet to be uncovered. Our news staff deserves major props for tracking down the PAC’s early donor list in the Alameda County offices when the PAC neglected to file it in Berkeley. And they were appropriately careful not to let their personal opinions of candidates or ballot measures (and certainly not the opinion of the Planet’s management) color their reporting.  

Reporting on the PAC scandal seems not to have made much difference to the average Berkeley voter anyhow. As usual, name recognition and incumbency trumped almost all other factors in voter decision-making.  

Alterman dismisses the apparent potency of editorial endorsements: “Of course, editorial writers would argue that their authority rests not on any inherent influence, but on the power of their prose to persuade. But if so, why not sign your name to your argument? Lord knows, nobody reads committee-written and vetted editorials for their scintillating prose. Too often, the stentorian voice of the collective editorial acts as a condom against effective communication—a prophylactic against the accidental conception of wit or irony.” 

We had reached the same conclusion when we re-started this paper. That’s why we opted against the turgid collective editorial in favor of just having a column signed by the executive editor.  

For those of you who haven’t broken the code, if I say “we” in this space, it usually means that I’ve at least discussed the topic with the publisher over breakfast, and perhaps as well with the cynics in the newsroom, though I still reserve the right to make the final call. When I use “I” it’s usually my personal opinion. Others on the paper’s staff might or might not disagree.  

As some perceptive readers have noticed, the editorial cartoonist’s unflattering depiction of one of the mayoral candidates in the recent election was not calculated to echo my endorsement of her. Her supporters griped, but that’s the way it works. He draws the cartoons, we just print them. And just to make it even more confusing, the cartoonist is also the associate editor who works with me on the opinion pages, and together we managed to get almost all pre-election submissions into the paper eventually, whether we agreed with them (or each other) or not. 

Which brings us to Alterman’s final suggestion, again one the Planet’s gone part way to implementing already: 

“Wouldn’t most papers be immediately improved by dropping their editorial page and increasing the ideological range and informational expertise of their contributing columnists? I’ll go even further. Why not heed the examples of Britain’s universally admired (liberal) Guardian and (conservative) Economist and drop the frequently phony distinction between “fact” and “opinion”? Why not just let reporters tell us what they know to be true and how and why they know it? Such a solution would borrow what’s most engaging from the blogosphere without sacrificing the crucial function of newspapers in a democratic society.” 

Exactly. That’s why the Planet has so many columnists, including the Public Eye columnists who are unashamed participants in the political process. That’s why we devote such an ungodly number of column inches to the opinions of our readers.  

We still do require our staff news reporters to adhere to conventional American notions of objectivity in the news section, to attempt to get “all the facts” and a variety of voices into news stories. However, one of our news reporters also writes a column in which he expresses his personal opinions, which a conventional paper would never allow.  

Is this the best way to perform “the crucial function of newspapers in a democratic society”? Let’s hear from readers: Tell us what you think about this important topic. But of course we don’t promise to agree with you, or to follow your advice.