Blog on the Run: Reloaded

Sunday, September 28, 2014 12:55 pm

The News & Record and batshit Mark Walker, redux

After I took the News & Record to task for normalizing the grossly abnormal candidacy of Mark Walker for the 6th Congressional District seat in the U.S. House, reporter Joe Killian wrote a column today on Walker, saying, among other things, “I’ve seen him in a lot of different situations. I’d tell you if he was crazy. He’s not.”

Killian, who’s covering the 6th District race, summarizes:

Crazy people may be crazy, but they generally believe the crazy things that they’re saying.

Mark Walker does not think Barack Obama may declare martial or Sharia law. He does not really believe the president has been spending billions of dollars — with a B! — on family vacations. He doesn’t actually have no qualms about bombings at the border that could start a war with Mexico.

But he still says these things. Why?

Because there’s something in him that wants to please a crowd, be it a Tea Party rally or a small clutch of cynical journalists. He can’t help himself. He gets carried away. And that makes for some great performances — but it doesn’t help you understand who he really is, what he really thinks.

Being a United States congressman shouldn’t be like being a stripper. You do not want your representative in Washington driven by the excitement of the crowd, the adrenaline rush of approval. You don’t want him doing the policy equivalent of a fevered bump and grind routine to Motley Crue’s “Girls, Girls, Girls” while lobbyists, corporations and political action committees shove sweaty fists full of dollars into his campaign G-string.

Metaphorically.

I still think Walker is batshit. But Joe has spent more face time with Walker than I have, so I’m not dismissing his take out of hand.

But whether he is or isn’t crazy, the larger fact remains: He is manifestly unfit to be my next congresscritter, but he almost certainly is going to be anyway. FML.

 

Monday, August 25, 2014 8:12 am

Letters to the editor: Now the News & Record is just trolling us

For a good while, a number of other local bloggers, most prominently Ed Cone and Roch Smith Jr., have taken the News & Record to task for publishing letters to the editor that contain untrue assertions of fact. I’ve even sent editorial-page editor Allen Johnson a private email or two on that subject.

Well, today we get a twofer. We hear from one Steven M. Shelton, who complains that smoking shouldn’t have been banned on county property because notions that second-hand smoke is harmful are “the old cliche” and “nonsense.” And we also are treated by Gary Marschall to the already-debunked notion that “recent findings” involving carbon-14 testing of T-rex tissue indicate that the fossil in question was only about 6,000 years old. (In point of fact, the people pushing that line are distorting what researcher Mary Schweitzer said to the point of mendacity — and ignoring the fact that she said her own findings are not to be taken as evidence that dinosaurs existed as recently as 6,000 years ago.)

I think we can safely assume that now the News & Record is just trolling us.

Memo to N&R editor/publisher Jeff Gauger and owner BH Media: I get that you want the N&R to be a community paper. And that’s exactly what you should want; we’re all going elsewhere for national and international news. But “community” means focused on local people, events, and businesses. It does not mean giving a voice to every mouth-breathing knuckle-dragger with a keyboard and an opinion. It does not mean mindless boosterism or abdicating the paper’s responsibility for accountability journalism. As you aren’t from ’round here, I feel obliged to point out that not all that long ago, a North Carolina newspaper with a circulation of about 10,000 won a Pulitzer Prize.

People in small and medium-sized communities need, and deserve, journalism as good as — or better than — what people get in major metropolitan areas. And because so many such communities have few or no other news outlets capable of, or willing to engage in, accountability journalism and an overall level of trustworthiness that translate into engagement with readers and advertisers, it falls to the newspapers to do the job. Like it or not, BH Media, this is the business you have chosen. It might not be realistic to expect a Pulitzer from the N&R, but it damned sure is realistic — in fact, it’s a pretty low bar — to expect that the paper refrain from adding to the ever-growing pile of bullshit that now constitutes our public discourse.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014 12:09 am

Radical conservative morons try to shut down local blogger; or, An even more special kind of stupid, cont.

So it turns out that the political action committee Conservatives for Guilford County and four of its principals are suing local blogger Jeff Martin, who blogged under the pseudonym Fecund Stench, for defamation. If I liked popcorn, I’d be buying some.

First, the obligatory disclosures: Jeff and I have been friends online and in real life for years. (Less relevantly, his wife and my ex-wife used to work together at the old TriadStyle magazine, which is, indirectly, how he and I first met in real life.)

Second, for those of y’all not from ‘Round Here: C4GC is a local Tea Party outfit, with all the ideological baggage that that term implies. And Jeff Martin, a more traditional Republican, despises it and everyone associated with it. And Jeff plays hardball. To extend the baseball metaphor, I don’t think I’ve ever seen him intentionally hit a batter, but when a batter crowds the plate, Jeff will throw a 99 mph brushback pitch and not lose a second’s sleep. I like him, but I don’t agree with every last thing he says. And fellow Greensboro blogger Ed Cone, who is more dispassionate about Jeff, says this about him: “At his best, Fecund Stench is Guilford County’s own, digital H.L. Mencken (and like Mencken, his use of racial and religious stereotypes can be an issue). At his not-best, duck.” I think that’s fair.

Now, the complaint, which you can read for yourself. (Jeff has 30 days to respond.)

Now, the obligatory disclaimer: I Am Not A Lawyer, and I don’t play one on the Internet. However, I did publish a fair bit of potential lawsuit bait about some incompetent and/or bad people during my 25 years in print journalism, consulting with lawyers many times in so doing, without ever being sued at all, let alone successfully. And my just-completed master’s program included a media-law course just a year ago. (Much of what appears below is adapted from the text for that course, The Law of Public Communication, by Kent R. Middleton and William E. Lee, published in 2013 by Pearson.) So I’m in a position to do a little analysis without attempting to say who will win.

Now, the caution: Jeff has taken the Fecund Stench blog down, apparently as a result of the lawsuit, so the posts quoted in the complaint are absent any context. That caution is important no matter which side of this case you’re inclined to come down on at the moment.

In plain English, the first question is: Are the plaintiffs — that is, C4GC and the four named individuals — public figures? The answer determines what they have to prove in order to win the suit. The answer is that they almost certainly are. They are not public officials — the least ambiguous type of public figure. But they are public figures. The PAC has attempted to play a role in local elections. Jodi Riddleberger is an occasional op-ed columnist for the News & Record. And so on.

I’ll explain why the fact that they are public figures is important in a minute. First, you need to know that to win a libel suit, plaintiffs must prove, at a minimum, all of the following six things:

  • defamation: that what was published damaged plaintiffs’ standing in the community or professional reputation via attack on plaintiffs’ character or professional abilities, and/or that it causes people to avoid the person defamed. (Fun fact: The law does, indeed, recognize the possibility that someone’s reputation might already be so bad that they can’t be damaged any further by being libeled.)
  • identification: that what was published specifically identifies each plaintiff (it need not do so by name if the description clearly identifies a particular individual).
  • publication: defendant made the allegedly defamatory statements where at least one other person besides defendants could see them. Blogging on the World Wide Web meets this definition.
  • fault: defendant published the information either knowing it was false or with reckless disregard for whether it was true or false.
  • falsity: the information must be provably false, and the burden of that proof falls on plaintiffs.
  • injury: plaintiffs must prove some form of actual damage, financial or reputational.

Remember, the plaintiffs must prove all six to have a chance of winning.

Now, the public-figure status of the plaintiffs matters because of the level of fault they must prove as public figures, noted in bold above. In North Carolina, private figures under the law need not prove quite as much — merely that the allegedly libelous material was published negligently. But, as I noted, I’m pretty sure that C4GC and the named individual plaintiffs qualify as public figures because of how they have injected themselves into public debate on issues of public import, e.g., elections. If the court finds that they are in fact public figures, they’ll have to prove that Jeff knowingly or recklessly published false and defamatory statements about them.

Here’s the thing, though: Defendants in libel cases have several defenses available to them under the law, and if the defendant employs any of those defenses, the burden of proof is on the plaintiffs not only to prove the six things listed above but also to show that those defenses are inadequate or don’t apply.

Some of those defenses that might relate to this case are:

  • statute of limitations: Even if a statement is libelous, a suit must be filed within a certain period of time after its publication to be allowed to proceed. If a would-be plaintiff waits too long — typically a year — to sue, the plaintiff is out of luck. Some of the statements at issue date to 2011.
  • truth: If the plaintiff alleges that the defendant has published something false and the defendant can prove that the statement is true, the plaintiff is out of luck.
  • neutral reportage: If Candidate A says something potentially libelous about Candidate B, Newspaper C may be able to report what Candidate A said without committing libel, even if it knew or suspected that Candidate A’s statement was false and defamatory, as long as it reports what Candidate A says in fair and disinterested fashion. Candidate B might, just maybe, have a libel case against Candidate A, but not against Newspaper C.
  • First Amendment opinion defense: Statements can’t be libelous if they are opinions based on verifiable fact or if they are opinions whose truth can be neither proven nor disproven.
  • exaggerations and figurative terms generally are not libelous.

Obviously, we can’t even begin to know until the discovery phase of the suit is complete whether plaintiffs can prove the six things they need to prove. Publication is a slam dunk, and for the sake of argument, let’s give all five plaintiffs the benefit of the doubt on identification. That still leaves falsity, defamation, injury, and fault, specifically that the plaintiffs must prove that Martin published false and defamatory material either knowing it was false or with reckless disregard for whether it was true or false.

Which raises another issue. Is it provably false, for example, that plaintiff Brett Riddleberger “suffers from a medical condition known as Erectile Narcolepsy, by which loss of blood to the brain when aroused causes him to lose consciousness.” To this layman, a better question would be: Who, among those older than 9, would believe this to be true in the first place? This is arguably an example of the kind of exaggeration that cannot be considered libel.

Anything is possible in a lawsuit, particularly if a case actually gets tried in front of a jury. But few libel cases get that far. The farthest most ever get is that after discovery (in which each side is obliged to provide certain evidence to the other), both sides move for summary judgment — they ask the judge to rule for their side without even letting the case go to trial — and the judge grants it to one side or the other after determining that there are no real issues of fact for a jury to determine.

But even more likely than that is that the two sides settle or one side, usually plaintiffs, realizes that it has no case and cuts its losses. A letter from Jeff’s counsel, Ron Coleman, strongly suggests to plaintiff’s attorney that that is where this case should be headed:

Although we have only passing familiarity with the litigation pending in Guilford County at this point, we see no reason to doubt that a cooperative resolution of this matter is the likely outcome. In light of your own experience and considering your level of practice, we would expect that you see it the same way. If so, you will probably agree as well that we should make every effort to skip the stupid steps and get to that point now.

Rationally, I agree that that’s exactly where this case should be headed. But I’ll be honest: Part of me wants to see what plaintiffs have to say, under oath during depositions in the discovery phase of the suit, about the businesses of the Adkinses and the financial backing of C4GC. As a longtime Republican living in N.C.’s 6th Congressional District, I must vote in a runoff between the top two finishers in the May 6 GOP primary, one of whom, Mark Walker, is backed by C4GC. If one of the candidates is backed by money from strip clubs, I’d certainly find that relevant. It might or might not affect my ballot — past performance, more than anything else, generally dictates my voting decisions — but it might very well affect those of other Republican voters in the 6th District. It’s certainly germane. And, frankly, given the Christofascist nature of some of the candidates previously supported by C4GC, the possibility of exposing great hypocrisy is attractive to me.

In short, part of me wants to see plaintiffs spanked so hard their appendixes come flying out of their mouths.

But this isn’t about me. It’s about Jeff and his constitutional right to publish factual information, criticism, and even parody, and about the same rights for other bloggers, perhaps, one day, including me. Assuming everything he has published is either true fact, protected opinion or parody, not only does he need for this suit to go away, America needs for the plaintiffs to be driven away with their tails between their legs and lots of bright red bruises on their asses so that robust political commentary and criticism can continue unabated.

Friday, October 18, 2013 7:56 pm

Hey, Paul Cox of Leicester, NC — why did you go on Hannity’s show and lie about Obamacare?

Because you did, and you’ve been busted.

Thursday, July 25, 2013 6:01 pm

Police Chief Ken Miller, the First Amendment would like to see you

About eight years ago, I met Greensboro blogger Billy Jones. Billy and I disagree on politics almost as often as Fred and I do, but as with Fred, he and I have a very good RL relationship and I consider him a friend.

Billy took to his blog on Tuesday to take issue with the fact that George Hartzman, a candidate for mayor, apparently (I say “apparently” because I have no first-hand knowledge of this) was removed from the city’s farmer’s market this past Saturday for campaigning on city property. Billy’s post includes a lot of the email back-and-forth, which includes not only the original parties but also the Guilford County Board of Elections (which took Hartzman’s side), blogger and formal mayoral candidate Roch Smith Jr., and others. Billy concludes with this segment from the majority ruling in the 1938 U.S. Supreme Court case Lovell v. City of Griffin, which would appear to be the last word on the subject:

“4. A city ordinance forbidding as a nuisance the distribution, by hand or otherwise, of literature of any kind without first obtaining written permission from the City Manager, violates the Fourteenth Amendment; strikes at the very foundation of the freedom of the press by subjecting it to license and censorship. P. 450.

So held as applied to distribution of pamphlets and magazines in the nature of religious tracts.

5. The liberty of the press is not confined to newspapers and periodicals. It embraces pamphlets and leaflets. P. 452.

6. One who is prosecuted for disobeying a license ordinance which is void on its face may contest its validity without having sought a permit under it. P. 452. “

(Billy’s link is broken, but his pagination appears to match that of the source to which I’m linking.)

Billy himself then concluded:

I think we know what is going on here. As usual supporters of the status quo are stalling,  hoping Greensboro’s working class will give up the fight, roll over and die. Well here’s some news for you Mr S. Mujeeb Shah-Khan: Greensboro’s working class is educated, organized, pissed-off and ready to fight. We have access to the law and the media worldwide. And if you and your kind think you can continue to run Greensboro as Greensboro has been run for the last 100 years… Well click here and I think you will change your mind.

You can run but you cannot hide behind your lies.

Up to this point, some disagreement but nothing egregious. But then, yesterday morning, Greensboro Police Chief Ken Miller, acting in his official capacity, wrote Billy the following:

From: Miller, Ken <Ken.Miller@greensboro-nc.gov>
Date: Wed, Jul 24, 2013 at 7:05 AM
Subject: Encouragement
To: “Jones, Billy” <recyclebill@gmail.com>

Hi Billy,

I see a post on your blog that I am requesting and hoping you will remove it right away:

“I think we know what is going on here. As usual supporters of the status quo are stalling,  hoping Greensboro’s working class will give up the fight, roll over and die. Well here’s some news for you Mr S. Mujeeb Shah-Khan: Greensboro’s working class is educated, organized, pissed-off and ready to fight. We have access to the law and the media worldwide. And if you and your kind think you can continue to run Greensboro as Greensboro has been run for the last 100 years… Well click here and I think you will change your mind.

You can run but you cannot hide behind your lies.”

The language appears threatening and, even if you can qualify it as protected speech, adding the link to a Google map of Mujeeb’s home after indicating that the working class is “ready to fight” and before “you can run but you cannot hide…” certainly can be construed to be threatening or encouraging others to act upon your information.

I am, of course, appealing to your sensibilities here in asking you to remove the paragraph from your site, and I hope you will honor the request.

Kind regards,

Ken Miller

I’m not sure what the chief is thinking here, but he certainly is not thinking about the Supreme Court’s standard for what comprises a threat without constitutional protection. Having gotten a copy of Chief Miller’s email, I wrote to set him straight:

From: Lex Alexander <lex.alexander@gmail.com>
To: Ken.Miller@greensboro-nc.gov
Date: July 24, 2013
Subject: Billy Jones

I don’t normally involve myself in local politics beyond voting (which I haven’t missed doing since moving here 27 years ago), but violations of basic human and constitutional rights are a whole ‘nother subject.
I mean, you’ve got to be kidding me, right? Tell me you didn’t send that moronic email Billy Jones quotes you as having sent. There’s nothing in Billy’s blog post that comes anywhere CLOSE to the standard for threats defined by the Supreme Court in Brandenburg v. Ohio:

…the constitutional guarantees of free speech and free press do not permit a State to forbid or proscribe advocacy of the use of force or of law violation except where such advocacy is directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action and is likely to incite or produce such action.

You owe him an apology, and you owe us, the citizens of Greensboro, better sense. If you can’t muster it, resign. If you’re actually this misinformed, you’re just a lawsuit waiting to happen, and frankly, my tax dollars have better things to do than clean up your mess.
Sincerely, etc.

(The chief sent a one-sentence response thanking me for my perspective, which, depending on how you look at it, could be the civil response of a man swamped by job duties or an upraised middle finger.)

Feel free to disagree with Billy about city policy. Feel free to disagree with George Hartzman’s rights to speak on public property if you like; Lovell, after all, speaks to pamphleteering, not actual spoken words, and Hartzman’s efforts to speak may or may not have run afoul of time, place and manner restrictions recognized by the Supreme Court — I wasn’t there, so I don’t know.

But communicating threats is a crime in North Carolina, and it is incumbent upon law enforcement to understand, then, what constitutes a prosecutable threat. Billy’s blog post was a warning, not a threat, and it certainly does not appear on its face likely to “incite or produce” “imminent, lawless action.” We demonstrably have a police chief who does not understand the difference; thus, we have a chief unfit for his job.

My involvement in local politics is limited to voting, and that’s not changing here because when a high-ranking local official demonstrates constitutional ignorance in an area of his supposed expertise, that’s a problem for every resident of the city, not a political issue. If nothing else, it leaves every one of us city taxpayers legally exposed if someone sues the city for official actions stemming from that ignorance. And as I said in my email to Chief Miller, my tax dollars have better things to do. I’m pretty sure yours do, too.

Friday, November 2, 2012 5:56 pm

“The Handmaid’s Tale,” our kids, monsters, and writing in blood

Just a little too late (and, boy, there’s both a pattern and a metaphor) for Banned Books Week, a woman named Lisa Reid has arisen here in Greensboro to complain that students at Grimsley High School shouldn’t be allowed to reid Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale.” She’s afraid high-school-age students will be harmed by the book, and she claimed that the Guilford County Schools have no standards for determining appropriate reading material for children.

Well, I take second place to no one in my hatred for the disorganization and clutter of the GCS website, whose search algorithm seems to have been written by developmentally disabled chipmunks, but, that hatred notwithstanding, I found such standards in less than 30 seconds. If Reid wants to argue that the standards are inadequate, we can have that conversation, as long as she’s willing to discuss what an objectively quantifiable definition of “adequate” might look like. But, sorry, she doesn’t get to lie.

Over at the collection of right-wing nut jobs playing journalist at the Greensboro Guardian, Joe Guarino, who, as a book critic, makes a pretty good physician, claims that the book “has numerous sexual references and graphic passages.  It repeatedly depicts promiscuity and multiple partner sexuality.  It contains cultural messages regarding sexuality and relationships that are potentially harmful to adolescents during their formative years. The book also glorifies drug use and dwells on suicide.  There is considerable profanity found throughout the book– which also contains unfavorable depictions of Christianity.”

Well, no. It doesn’t contain “unfavorable depictions of Christianity.” It contains the things he mentions as hallmarks of the kind of patriarchal, authoritarian crushing of liberty that Jesus Christ himself explicitly condemned. That condemnation  notwithstanding, that’s precisely the kind of religion to which Guarino adheres. He’s free to do so, but he’s not free to try to use the power of government to impose his beliefs on the rest of us, which is what he endorses.

I won’t go over the whole plot of the book here, but the conservative critics’ main problem with Atwood’s book is that although she wrote it as a cautionary tale about a dystopian future,  they want to use it as a freakin’ government instruction manual, as guys like Todd Akin, Joe Walsh and Richard Mourdock, and every single GOP national platform since 1980, already have demonstrated.

And with all due respect to Lisa Reid, if her own children are fine and healthy and unmolested, she’s blessed, but many of their peers, even at a “good” school like Grimsley, aren’t so lucky. As Sherman Alexie, author of the young-adult book  “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian,” writes:

 I can’t speak for other writers, but I think I wrote my YA [young-adult] novel as a way of speaking to my younger, irredeemable self.

Of course, all during my childhood, would-be saviors tried to rescue my fellow tribal members. They wanted to rescue me. But, even then, I could only laugh at their platitudes. In those days, the cultural conservatives thought that KISS and Black Sabbath were going to impede my moral development. They wanted to protect me from sex when I had already been raped. They wanted to protect me from evil though a future serial killer had already abused me. They wanted me to profess my love for God without considering that I was the child and grandchild of men and women who’d been sexually and physically abused by generations of clergy.

What was my immature, childish response to those would-be saviors?

“Wow, you are way, way too late.”

My daughter, who, by the way, also attends Grimsley, is 14. She doesn’t know it, I don’t think, but for one of her good friends, the Lisa Reids of the world are already “way, way too late” — and, by the way, banning “The Handmaid’s Tale” wouldn’t have saved her. And that’s just the one I know about; statistically speaking, there almost certainly are others. For Reid to be worrying about this at this late date … well, that, in the immortal words of Charlie Pierce, “is a horse that has left the barn, run over the hill, sired twelve A-level stakes-race winners, and is now buried with honors on the backstretch at Keeneland.”

Moreover, one of the many outstanding characteristics of the kind of free country we imagine ourselves to be is that we do not let the most rigid pecksniffs dictate how everyone else gets to live, particularly when those pecksniffs have demonstrated an abiding inability to distinguish between “glorify” and “mention in any way, shape or form, even to caution against.”

We live in a country in which our high-school freshmen may be 18 months  from being sent to fight and die in Afghanistan or Iran or God knows where else. You want to argue that it’s not time to talk with them about life and death, in all their blood and suffering and glory and redemption and passion and reality? Good luck with that. That’s the kind of thinking that’s standing around this week wondering why the New York subway tunnels, dry these last 104 years, are now flooded, and it’s not just stupid, it’s an existential threat to itself and all the rest of us. I’ll give Alexie the last word:

Teenagers read millions of books every year. They read for entertainment and for education. They read because of school assignments and pop culture fads.

And there are millions of teens who read because they are sad and lonely and enraged. They read because they live in an often-terrible world. They read because they believe, despite the callow protestations of certain adults, that books-especially the dark and dangerous ones-will save them.

As a child, I read because books–violent and not, blasphemous and not, terrifying and not–were the most loving and trustworthy things in my life. I read widely, and loved plenty of the classics so, yes, I recognized the domestic terrors faced by Louisa May Alcott’s March sisters. But I became the kid chased by werewolves, vampires, and evil clowns in Stephen King’s books. I read books about monsters and monstrous things, often written with monstrous language, because they taught me how to battle the real monsters in my life.

And now I write books for teenagers because I vividly remember what it felt like to be a teen facing everyday and epic dangers. I don’t write to protect them. It’s far too late for that. I write to give them weapons -– in the form of words and ideas — that will help them fight their monsters. I write in blood because I remember what it felt like to bleed.

 

Wednesday, August 1, 2012 8:03 pm

A Wendy’s franchise owner steps into a big bucket of something warm and brown that is not hamburger

Jim Furmen, CEO of Tar Heel Capital, which owns 86 Wendy’s franchises in North Carolina, says he stands with Chick-Fil-A. Fine; I and mine are walking elsewhere.

Image (and story h/t): TowleRoad.com

ATTN: Jim Furmen, CEO, Tar Heel Capital.

I’m a Republican, a conservative and a Christian. And it is because of, not in spite of, those affiliations and the beliefs that undergird them that I will not patronize any Wendy’s franchise owned by Tar Heel Capital so long as the company supports Chick-Fil-A’s bigoted stand.

If you don’t like gay people getting married, don’t marry one.

And repent and come to Jesus, you jackass.

Saturday, May 5, 2012 6:40 pm

Fire Robin Saul.

My friend Ed Cone has ragged on the News & Record in recent days because of its (lack of) coverage of Amendment One, the proposed amendment to our state constitution now before North Carolina voters that would deny legal recognition to any union except the marriage of one man and one woman. (If you’re not from around here and want to know more about the proposal, Google is your friend.)

He’s particularly annoyed that it hasn’t taken an editorial position on the issue. I’ve been annoyed, too, but only a little. First, the referendum isn’t ’til Tuesday, so I figured there was still time for the paper to take a stand. (Which stand is irrelevant for the purposes of this discussion, although obviously I have a preference.) Second, I left the N&R more than three years ago, and while I miss the people, I don’t miss the job. So I don’t worry overmuch about its internal politics. Third, the place is so short of resources now that major gaps in its coverage no longer surprise me.

So I wasn’t inclined to get involved in online discussions about the N&R’s coverage. What prompts my involvement now is that apparently, in the past few days, multiple people contacted media blogger Jim Romenesko, who for years covered media for the Poynter Institute for Media Studies before going out on his own several months ago. Could Jim inquire, they asked, why the N&R hasn’t yet run an editorial on Amendment One?

So Jim did.

This is the email I sent to [publisher Robin] Saul and editorial page editor Allen Johnson III:

Good afternoon Robin and Allen,

One of my readers sent this email:

“I would be grateful if you could get publisher Robin Saul on the record regarding whether he has banned editorials on ‘moral issues,’ including but not limited to the upcoming referendum on Amendment One, which would add a ban on all civil unions besides heterosexual marriage to North Carolina’s constitution.”

I’d appreciate a response to this.

Johnson sent this reply:

Jim, thanks for your note.

Here’s an official statement:

The News & Record editorial board could not come to a consensus on the marriage amendment issue. Therefore, we’ve elected not to officially support or oppose it. We’ll leave this highly personal decision to individual voters.

Note that the statement does not address the alleged “moral issues” ban.

* * *

I have a number of problems with the response Romenesko got. To explain why, I’ll provide a short bit of background for non-newspaper folks, starting with an explanation of what a newspaper editorial board is and does.

That board is the people who, at most medium-sized and large papers, determine a paper’s editorial position on an issue. (At smaller papers, it might be just one person — editorial-page editor, executive editor, even the publisher — who does this.) Who’s on the board varies from paper to paper, but at most papers with boards, the board includes everyone who writes editorials for the paper — the unsigned opinion pieces that represent the opinions of the paper as an institution. And it also typically includes the publisher. Some publishers take part in the daily discussion, some just want to know what the rest of the board has decided before anything goes to press, and some fall somewhere in the middle. Each paper and each publisher chooses the arrangement that seems to work best for the institution’s unique circumstances.

Editorial boards, particularly large ones dealing with complex issues, commonly fail to reach a consensus. But if the issue or election is of any import, lack of consensus is just a step in the process, because from the standpoints of journalism, ethics and business, ignoring the issue is not an option. The culture of newspapers says that on big issues, you find out all you can and you render a considered, informed opinion based on the facts and what you see as your public’s best interests because that’s why Jefferson, Madison et al. put freedom of the press into the First Amendment and the First Amendment into the Constitution.

So the board haggles until it reaches consensus, or the majority wins, or in extreme cases the publisher may break a tie or even overrule the majority. All these mechanisms are accepted and considered ethical in the business as mechanisms, even when a publisher overrules his united staff. People might disagree bitterly with the publisher on a particular issue, but everyone knows that he has the right to impose his viewpoint as the official, institutional opinion of the paper. What’s not an option, what’s not OK, what’s never acceptable, is to let a major issue slide by without comment and just hope that nobody notices.

So that’s the editorial board. Now a little bit about the job of publisher. Being a newspaper publisher in a market this size is a pretty sweet gig. Even as your paper in particular and the industry in general circle the drain, you get paid very well, and among the local establishment you’re considered a player, which is a benefit if that sort of thing matters to you. If you make your numbers, then generally you can keep the job as long as you like, and as long as you don’t actually commit fraud, no one whose opinion matters to you is going to care much how you make your numbers, even if it means destroying the paper’s credibility and laying a lot of people off and ruining their lives. Sucks for your employees and your readers, but for you, life, in short, is good.

But once every few years, a candidate or an issue comes along that a newspaper simply has to take a stand on — in its news pages, its editorial pages or both — or else it is committing malpractice and undercutting an intangible but very real part of its already-dwindling financial net worth. And that’s the one time when being the publisher can get sticky. The guy who runs the bank or the insurance company or the factory has his own problems, but at least he doesn’t have to deal with this one.  The newspaper publisher does, and in most of those situations, no matter what he does, he’s going to make a lot of people very angry, and some of those people may be quite wealthy and powerful. Most of the publishers I worked for during a quarter-century in journalism did a more than fair job of this, which is why, in general, I’ve never particularly begrudged the publishers I’ve worked for their pay and perks.

With that background perhaps you can begin to see where Robin Saul has gone wrong.

First, the decision not to publish an editorial on this proposal is cowardly. (As Ed notes in the comments on Romenesko’s piece, the story of a blanket ban on editorials on “moral issues” appears to have been just that: a story, and one intended only for internal consumption at that.) Amendment One is the most important statewide ballot initiative in my 52 years of living in this state; it could have serious and negative everyday implications for my fellow citizens and appears likely if enacted to generate a whole passel of lawsuits. As I just noted, newspaper publishers don’t get a pass on things like that.

But Robin Saul did just the opposite (and I’ll explain in a second why I single him out rather than blaming the paper as an institution). He took a pass. He chickened out. He dismissed as a “highly personal decision” what is in fact the most important public-policy issue to go before my state’s voters in more than half a century.

That’s bad enough. What’s more, by issuing the statement that the paper did, Saul is trying to deceive readers in such blatant fashion that one can’t avoid the inference that he thinks his readers are idiots. Now, here’s why I say this:

First, recall what I said above about editorial boards and their duties. Now note that the News & Record’s editorial board, according to the box on page A10 of Thursday’s print edition, consists of only three people: Robin Saul, editorial page editor Allen Johnson and editorial writer Doug Clark. Nobody else. Allen and Doug have taken individual stands in their respective signed columns. And those stands agreed. Therefore, if the editorial board “failed to reach consensus,” it was because Robin Saul disagreed with Allen and Doug and is overruling them not by making them run a pro-Amendment One editorial, which at least would be consistent with industry ethics, but by making the paper sit this one out.

That’s being a coward.

For Robin not only to obscure his role in this dynamic but also to dismiss Amendment One as a “highly personal decision” suggests that he thinks readers are stupid.

And if he had stopped there, that would have been bad enough. But he didn’t. Instead of taking a stand himself, accepting the responsibility that goes with the pay and perks, he sent Allen Johnson out to lie to Romenesko and the world for him.

That’s being a bully. Indeed, to paraphrase a federal prosecutor in the closing arguments of televangelist Jim Bakker’s fraud trial, it was the kind of thing only a person who is used to exploiting, manipulating and humiliating human being after human being, without ever suffering any consequences, would even have had the guts to try.

I haven’t talked to Allen about this. But he and I worked together for 22 years, disagreeing often but respectfully. Allen is smart, proud, dignified and honest, and I don’t care how bad things are at 200 East Market, he deserves better than this. What could he possibly have done to make Robin choose to humiliate him in this way?

Of course, almost no one will care. Journalists like to pretend otherwise, but the truth is that no one much cares what goes on in a newspaper office as long as the paper arrives on time, dry and accurate, and most days that’s only for the best. But this is not one of those days.

We now have incontrovertible evidence that the man running the News & Record is a liar, a coward, a menace to the human resources he is paid to steward and a man who believes his readers are idiots.

I quit mourning for the News & Record and the journalism business a long time ago; most of their wounds were self-inflicted anyway, and they started long before Robin Saul came to town. But outrage at bullying is an evergreen for me, one that transcends era, job, industry, geography, race, class, gender and all the other things that divide us. Bullying enrages me as much at age 52 as it did at age 12. And almost everything that’s wrong in this country today and that has gone wrong throughout our nation’s history essentially boils down to bullying, whether it’s slavery or driving the Cherokee to Oklahoma or robosigning mortgage documents or, for that matter, arrogating the power of a secular state government to tell gay couples they can’t have the same rights you enjoy, because the Bible says so.

And while Jesus had nothing to say on gay marriage, he was clear on bullying. He said the most important thing you can do is to love God, and that the way that you love God is by loving that part of God that is in every other human being you meet, even — especially — the people who are lower on the totem pole than you. That’s as clear a ban on bullying as you can find everyanywhere. And everything else, he said, depends on that, nothing else you do or refrain from doing matters unless you do that, and he made it that easy to understand because he knew how hard it would be for us to do, how very much against our paranoid, selfish, fearful, clannish, sinful natures it would be for us to obey those two simple laws.

And he was dead serious about it: When he came into the temple and found the banksters of his day ripping off the devout, the Prince of Peace put his sandaled foot up their asses.

I have no idea what religious beliefs, if any, Robin Saul holds. But if he thinks of himself as a Christian, he had better pray that Jesus doesn’t come back tomorrow. Otherwise, the fact that he ought to be fired will be the least of his problems.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011 6:27 pm

Robert Klippstein of Greensboro, you, sir, are a goddamned idiot (and I’m not real happy with my former employer, either)

I don’t know Robert Klippstein of Greensboro. But today, in a letter to the editor of the News & Record supporting the requirement of a photo ID for voters, he writes, “Voting is a privilege, not a right.”

Leaving aside for a moment any discussion of the constitutional, legal or practical merits of requiring photo ID to vote, oh, screw it, Jesus H. Christ, why is this man not locked up in a room somewhere where he can drool on himself without the rest of us having to be bothered?

Voting isn’t a right? What about “taxation without representation”? What about the civil-rights marchers, some of whom were beaten by police for pursuing — say it with me, kids — the right to vote? What about — oh, screw it. Just. Screw. It.

Oh, and News & Record? As I’ve already told editorial-page editor Allen Johnson privately, I of all people realize that running a Letters to the Editor column means presiding over a wretched hive of scum and villainy (and not in a FUN way, like, say, running Fark.com) and giving writers wide latitude. But at some point, if you’re going to run a public forum, you have to institute some level of quality control. You wouldn’t let a letter-writer claim, with respect to an important public issue, that 2 + 2 = 22 or that gravity is “only a theory” as if that meant you could step off the roof of the Lincoln Financial building with impunity. So why would you let someone assert as a fact something this stupid and dangerous? Allen, to his credit, copped a plea, but as Roch Smith has documented, this has not been an isolated problem.

Thursday, January 25, 2007 8:43 am

Guilford College beatings

The wah-wah factor

One of the many reasons why the longer I blog, the less attractive blogging gets.

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