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.