Sunday, October 31, 2004

Judge for yourself: Editor on Engles

Nov. 11: Editor has offered Engles 300 words to respond.

Nov 3: added Engles' extensive Nov. 1 letter of response to editor's column (near end of post); also removed commentary that's now extraneous or obviously off the mark.

The publisher joined in on Nov. 2.

"The nice thing about blogging - you can judge for yourself."

Perhaps because he has a print-based column rather than a weblog, The Union's editor* has developed an unfortunate tendency to defend his newspaper against community members' criticisms without exposing the reader to the criticisms directly - they're often presented as strawmen, and handily demolished with a newsroom chuckle and a swipe of the keyboard. Unfortunately also there's been a tendency of late to attack the complainant as much as the complaint; it takes a tough hide to endure criticism without retaliating, and skins have worn thin at The Union.

In yesterday's column, The Union's editor takes on Grass Valley resident Eric Engles' letter petitioning Swift Newspapers for publisher regime change at The Union.

Please compare and contrast Engles' letter with the editor's characterization below:
(emphases mark those sections that would have benefited from a rewrite in a calmer frame of mind)
Readers may be familiar with Eric Engles (who affectedly follows his name with "Ph.D." even in the most casual of e-mails) [disputed]. He has an occasional "Other Voices" [e.g. here, or search the archives for Engles] guest column published in The Union.

He apparently has taken an intense dislike to the weekly opinion column published by our publisher, Jeff Ackerman, and has started what he calls the "Dump Ack" [disputed] campaign. It's goal is to blitz our parent company, Swift Newspapers, with demands[disputed] that Ackerman be fired.

I came across a copy of his e-mail to 80 or so of his friends asking them to join in the campaign. The list includes many people active in the community whom readers would recognize as having their opinions frequently published in The Union. Mr. Engles may see himself as a Mel Gibson-esque savior, although there is an un-American whiff[disputed] to his crusade.

Swift Newspaper is a strong believer in local autonomy, and in practicing journalism without fear or favor. Or, as its statement of values vows, "We apply our values in our actions. We believe there should be no difference between what we say and what we do."

Mr. Engles' declaration of his values, in the letter to his friends as well as his lengthy entreaty to Swift, is that since Ackerman has different views than Engles, he is being divisive[disputed] His arguments are insubstantial, but a couple of points are worth a response:
  • He claims[disputed] Ackerman keeps counterviews out of the newspaper. Observation of almost any edition shows that to be phony.
  • He says[disputed] Ackerman's role extends beyond the opinion page to include story selection, wording of headlines, etc. Nonsense. Ackerman hired me to direct the news staff, and while he's not afraid to let me know what he thinks, he follows the tradition of this business and leaves me free to do it.

So if you don't like a story or a headline, better start a campaign to get me fired, because it's not Ackerman's fault. And if you like Ackerman and the job The Union is doing in covering our county, the president of Swift Newspapers is Arne Hoel, 500 Double Eagle Court, Reno, NV 89521.


Engles' letter of response:
Mr. Somerville,

Your column on Saturday contains at least eight examples of a marked decay in your ethical and journalistic standards:

1. You say that I "affectedly" follow my name with Ph.D. "even in the most casual of emails." I don't do this in either casual or formal emails. I have added the degree to my name when I sign letters to the editor and Other Voices columns, which I think is entirely appropriate. It is possible I signed an email to you in the past with the degree included (although I don't recall doing so); if so, it certainly didn't reflect any habit on my part, and it definitely doesn't provide a basis for your snide aside. Is it possible that you're jealous of my degree?

2. You say that I call my efforts the "Dump Ack" campaign. This is not true; I have informally referred to it as a campaign to "dump Jeff." The difference is not substantial, but it shows how little you care for the truth and for checking your facts.

3. You say that the goal of the campaign is to "blitz our parent company...with demands that Ackerman be fired." The word 'demand' puts a very misleading spin on how I broached the idea of Mr. Ackerman's removal, and how I suggested others put it in their letters. In my letter I wrote the following: "I encourage you to consider replacing Mr. Ackerman with someone who can gain the respect of the entire spectrum of Nevada County residents." The words "encourage" and "consider" do not equate with a "demand," or even a demanding tone. In my "cover email" to others, I wrote: "If this argument is presented to the management people at Swift Newspapers, and echoed by a fair number of Nevada County residents, they might actually take the suggestion of replacing Jeff seriously." Again, usingthe word "suggestion" is very far from indicating a demand.

4. You say there is "an un-American whiff" to my "crusade." You don't explain very well why you think this to be true, but I infer that it has something to do with a mistaken belief that I oppose Ackerman's right to express his opinion. In my letter, I went out of my way to emphasize that I support Mr. Ackerman's right to his opinion: "Of course it is Mr. Ackerman's prerogative to express his opinion in his own signed columns and the paper's editorials--and if that's all that he did I would have no quarrel with him, despite that fact I disagree with his political positions most of the time." In addition, since democracy is as fundamental an American ideal as freedom, criticizing Mr. Ackerman's role in squelching participation in government and in creating barriers to civil community dialogue should be considered patriotic.

5. Rather than deal with any of my criticisms directly, you chose the intellectually dishonest route of distorting them beyond recognition. You don't strike me as a person who has difficulty with reading comprehension, so I have to assume that your distortions and misrepresentations are deliberate and intended to deceive your readers.

5a. You paraphrase my critique of Ackerman's tendency to increase divisiveness in the community with the following: "since Ackerman has different views than Engles, he is being divisive." This statement has absolutely no relationship to anything I wrote in my letter. First, as mentioned above, I acknowledged Ackerman's right to have and express views different from mine. Second, I devoted two paragraphs of my letter to explaining how Jeff's columns increase divisiveness by helping to create an environment in which constructive dialogue becomes increasingly difficult because "each side sees the other as a caricature of its real self." This argument is completely independent from any differences of opinion on the issues.

5b. You say that my letter to Swift claimed that Ackerman "keeps counterviews out of the paper." As you note, it would be ridiculous for anyone to make this claim, and I did not do so. Perhaps you were (inappropriately) extrapolating from the paragraph in which I wrote that Ackerman did not give Mr. Conklin the chance to defend himself. I have recently become aware that I was in error on this point--on the day Conklin's defense was published, I was away on vacation and did not read the paper. If I had known that Conklin had this opportunity, I would have written something like this: "The candidate got to rebut the charges, but this was like training a howitzer on him and then handing him a slingshot. After that, Ackerman continued his assault." The basic point--that Ackerman pursued a relentless campaign of character assassination--is still the same, and doesn't depend on opportunities for defense. Further, nothing in this paragraph was intended to even suggest the idea that keeping counterviews out of the paper generally was part of my criticism. (In connection with this point, you should know that I am grateful that the Union has published most of the columns and letters I have submitted. In the past, in recognition that the Union's opinion page policies allow many opinions to be voiced, I actually defended the Union when friends gave their very low opinions of it.)

5c. You say that I claim "Ackerman's role extends beyond the opinion page to include story selection, wording of headlines, etc." Another fraudulent distortion. I said that some stories show Jeff's influence. That's different. And if you'll examine the paragraph in question, you will note that the sentence that mentions selection of stories and wording of headlines does not contain Mr. Ackerman's name; instead, the grammatical subject in the main clause is "the Union." In the last sentence, I used the word "influence" with regard to Jeff very deliberately because of the breadth of possibility it allows in explaining the link between Jeff and the paper's political slant. The paper does have slant (are you going to claim that Arne Hoel doesn't tell his rich and powerful conservative friends that he is proud to own papers that put forth a conservative view?) and as publisher of the paper, Jeff must have influence over that slant. And he doesn't have to attend news meetings to exert it. He exerted it by hiring you, and he exerts it by creating unwritten expectations among the staff about how to present the news. (I see now that you probably took this paragraph of mine very personally, and I'm sorry if that's the case; but having an emotional reaction to it doesn't excuse you from responsibility for presenting an accurate rendition of what I wrote.)

6. You failed to acknowledge or engage with my major points. By mentioning only secondary points such as the critique of Jeff's influence over the news, you misrepresented the essence of my message to Swift--which was that Mr. Ackerman is a failure as a community leader, renders his opinions in ways that should be embarrasing to an ethical journalist, and alienates a large number of people who might otherwise be Union readers.

So, are you going to allow me to present a condensation of this rebuttal in print, or are you going to prove that you too are a worthy target for a replacement campaign?

-Eric Engles
Nov. 11: Editor has offered Engles 300 words to respond.As of Nov. 3, the editor has not responded to this request for space in the paper to rebut the editor's claims.

On the Editor, credit where credit is usually due: while publisher does not deign to respond to emails, editor has - usually - responded with minimal delay and answered my questions in some fashion. Sometimes he's cranky as hell, but he answers.

Disclosure: I believe I corresponded with E.E. about a year ago, and we spoke on the phone about the current incident, but to my recollection we've never met.

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