Monday, July 28, 2008

Don't Let the Facts Get In the Way of Opinion

Editorials are not what they once were; no longer do they memorialize the views of anyone who happened to lay his hands on a printing press.

Whoever wrote that hasn't read Wendy McCaw's News-Press lately, where sophistry and personal opinion reign supreme on the editorial pages.

The quote above comes from yesterday's L.A. Times and appeared on the same day the News-Press ran another editorial about the continuing Latino youth gang violence in town that asked: "Who will be next to die?"

Once again, it tried to lay the blame for the gang problem on Santa Barbara city officials, most notably Mayor Marty Blum and City Administrator Jim Armstrong.

The News-Press editorial concluded by saying:

A government commission reported that countywide 31 percent of the men and 9 percent of the women in the county jail are self-identified gang members.

This is what Santa Barbara has come to because of a lack of leadership by the city government, the schools and parents.

So the News-Press would have us believe that the current high percentage of gang members among the county's jail inmates is attributable to the current administration at Santa Barbara City Hall?

Hardly. For as long as I can remember, and I've been around here for over 30 years, the majority of the inmates who populate the county jail and juvenile halls are from north county. That's why county officials have long wanted to build a new jail in Santa Maria and within the last five years have constructed a new juvenile hall in north county and recently closed the county's original juvenile hall facility in Santa Barbara.

In its eagerness to blame Santa Barbara city officials, whom almost without exception the paper despises, editorial page editor Travis Armstrong is reaching for facts and hoping that readers will overlook the fallacy of the conclusions his editorials reach.

Which raises the question: how do these editorial positions come about?

I've raised this before, but I think it's worth discussing again.

Last summer at the NLRB hearings, Armstrong testified that the paper's editorials represented the position of the News-Press as an "institution."

According to Armstrong, the paper's "editorial board" consisted of McCaw, her live-in-lover (also known as co-publisher) Arthur von Weisenberger, and himself.

He didn't go into any more detail than that, but it's easy to imagine how that editorial policy process might go: Wendy says, "This is what I think"; Arthur nods in approval; and Travis says, "I'll write it up!"

Compare that process to the one described in that L.A. Times' editorial yesterday.

Today, at least at The Times, editorials reflect the considerations of a board, divergent in its members' politics, on the issues of the day. They are written after debate and disagreement, fashioned as part of a larger body of work that seeks intellectual honesty and consistency: We do not oppose the war in Iraq on Monday and support it on Tuesday; we do not support the death penalty one day and oppose it the next. And editorials are not blogs or columns; the views we publish in this space are not singular opinions but collective ones.

As such, editorials are a rare voice in our national culture and politics; they are the product of a Socratic enterprise, guided by the idea that debate produces wisdom.

If yesterday's News-Press editorial had been the product of a Socratic enterprise and if there had truly been some debate, someone surely would have pointed out the speciousness of citing a county-wide statistic to indict a south county municipal government for a "local failure."

I think it's fair to say that for a long time at the News-Press, the editorials having been nothing more than the singular opinions of McCaw and Armstrong.

So please Wendy, don't try to pass these editorials off as anything other than what they are: your personal opinion. And don't whine when we don't buy your paper (or into your opinions).

* * *

Newsroom staff at the L.A. Times, at least those who remain after the recent cuts that eliminated 150 positions, are evidently thinking about unionizing. Looking for a way to escape "Zell Hell" they recently met with representatives of the Graphic Communications Conference of the Teamsters, the same union that represents the newsroom employees at the News-Press.

Among those addressing the L.A. Times employees was wrongfully fired News-Press reporter Dawn Hobbs.

* * *

If you're like me and your favorite print newspaper is the L.A. Times, prepare for it to get a little less bulky.

In yesterday's edition, the management announced they were doing away with the Sunday Real Estate section, the Books section, and the Opinion section.

Real estate features will appear in the Business section and the Home section (which will be published on Saturdays rather than on Thursdays). Opinion pieces on Sundays will be found at the end of the main news section where they are the rest of the week. "The Guide," which covered weekend entertainment and was included in the paper on Thursdays, will no longer be published but will be available online.

And no, their reductions in content won't be accompanied by reductions in the price of the paper.

* * *

Corrections. A couple of readers wrote in to point out that Arthur and Wendy actually became engaged in the Spring of 2003, meaning they have been affianced for over five years and not the two that I originally reported.

Lou Cannon, the former Washington Post correspondent and preeminent biographer of Ronald Reagan wrote to point out that Reagan did not say, "if you've seen one redwood, you've seen them all." What he said was: "A tree is a tree--how many more do you need to look at?"

This statement was made on March 12, 1966, in a speech Reagan gave to the Western Wood Products Association in San Francisco.

The story behind the quote is documented in Lou's book Governor Reagan: His Rise to Power

So let me sign-off today by saying in reaction to that News-Press front page of Thursday: "A piece of broccoli is a piece of broccoli. How many more do you need to look at?"