Monday, November 01, 2004

"Dump Jeff" letter from Eric Engles PhD

Also available: Engles' "cover email" (which he sent to his email list, introducing the letter)

Here is the letter (advocating a change of publisher) that The Union's editor criticized in his most recent column (emphases and links added):
Debbie Spieker-Martin
Swift Newspapers, Inc.
500 Double Eagle Ct.
Reno, NV 89521

Dear Ms. Spieker-Martin,
According to Swift Newspapers' mission statement, the publishers who run your various newspapers are "leaders in their communities." In complete agreement with this laudable goal, I feel compelled to express my concern that Jeff Ackerman, publisher of The Union, is not running the paper in a way that befits a community leader.

A publisher who is also a community leader would strive to gain the respect of both conservatives and progressives. He would be fair-handed and civil, focus on issues instead of personalities, give those he disagreed with the benefit of the doubt and the opportunity for rebuttal, not react defensively in the face of criticism. Mr. Ackerman does none of these things. His tenure as publisher has been bad for the citizens of Nevada County, and, as I'll argue below, bad for Swift Newspapers.

As the only local newspaper in western Nevada County, The Union has a key role in disseminating information about the issues facing our community and being a forum for public discussion of these issues. Under Mr. Ackerman, the paper is handling this responsibility very badly.

Mr. Ackerman feels free to use the paper as his "bully pulpit" for preaching his politics, helping out his influential friends, and advancing his version of reality. 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. The problem is that Mr. Ackerman doesn't just opine: he accuses, distorts, misleads, slanders, and propagandizes. And he does so in an intellectually dishonest way, using self-righteous sarcasm and sleazy innuendo, playing fast and loose with the facts, refusing to acknowledge alternative points of view, and selecting only those pieces of evidence that fit his version of any story.

In the last few months, Mr. Ackerman has seen fit to get even deeper than before into the business of character assassination. One case involved a Grass Valley planning commissioner who organized, through his church, a community forum on growth, probably the #1 issue in western Nevada County. The intent was explicitly educational, and people with varying opinions were invited to speak. Mr. Ackerman got hold of a pre-event document designed to elicit feedback, and immediately launched into an attack on the organizer and his cohorts, accusing them of using "fear tactics," calling the event a "political rally," and arguing that discussion of the four proposed large development projects was somehow premature (this latter claim was patently ridiculous; the Union itself had reported, more than a year previously, that the city of Grass Valley was "getting down to details" on the proposed projects). In his writing about this issue, Mr. Ackerman managed not only to denigrate a well-meaning and honorable member of the community, but also to actively discourage what our community needs the most-for citizens to become better informed about community issues and get more involved in making decisions about them.

In another more recent case, Mr. Ackerman has blatantly acted as a media hatchet man for his conservative power-broker friends. For almost a month, he has engaged in a relentless smear campaign against one of the candidates running for a county supervisor seat. I know this candidate as a highly principled man who has made a career of working tirelessly in the public interest. He has very strong support in the community. Knowing that it would be less effective to attack this candidate's policy positions-they enjoy wide support-or to champion one of his two opponents, Mr. Ackerman resorted to attacking the man himself. He dredged up a two-year old issue-one of those stories that can be told in two entirely different ways-and proceeded to tell (and tell again, and again, and again) the slanderous version, the one full of innuendo, half-truths, and unfounded accusations. The alternative interpretation of the events would show the candidate acted in good faith throughout, at worst making a few errors of judgment-but did he get to tell his version of the story and rebut the slanderous charges? Not in Mr. Ackerman's paper! [Actually, he did once, back at the start.]

[Presumably this is the paragraph that gave The Union's editor fits.]
Mr. Ackerman's abuse of his position as publisher of the sole local newspaper extends beyond the opinion pages. In the selection of stories, the choice of whom to quote, the wording of headlines, and all the many journalistic practices that can give a slant to the news, the Union all too often practices politics rather than news delivery. Although there are now some good, balanced and objective pieces in the paper (thanks to the hiring of some competent reporters), there are other pieces that clearly show Mr. Ackerman's influence.

Mr. Ackerman's editorials and the paper's journalistic practices increase the divisiveness in our community. We certainly hold strong and disparate opinions anyway, but we also share many common values, such as a desire to preserve our quality of life and rural, small-town lifestyle. Mr. Ackerman has moved the paper in a direction that makes it increasingly difficult to use these common values as a basis for constructive dialogue.

Constructive dialogue depends on both parties treating each other as real people-acknowledging their concerns, taking seriously their feelings and fears. Under Mr. Ackerman, the Union works directly against this goal by feeding conservative misconceptions about the goals and values of progressives and environmentalists. (In his columns, all advocates of managed growth are "NIMBYs" or "chicken littles," anyone who cares about the environment is a tree-hugging hippie, and so on.) At the same time, the paper takes seriously-and thus works to legitimize-the paranoid fantasies of right-wing extremists [URL?]. As a result, each "side" sees the other as a caricature of its real self, and all we end up doing is yelling at each other.

Under Mr. Ackerman, the paper also works to squelch public involvement in government. Because of an emphasis on "fluff" stories, people don't have access to the information they need to feel properly informed, and Mr. Ackerman's columns and editorials make it clear that if you get involved you risk becoming the object of his sarcastic ridicule.

In all of these ways, Mr. Ackerman has managed to completely alienate a large segment of the community during his few years as publisher.

I know dozens of people who have cancelled their subscriptions or refuse to subscribe to or even read the Union because of the ills I listed above. (I have not cancelled my subscription only because my involvement in local politics requires that I keep abreast of what's going on, and the Union's version of current events, as flawed as it is, is the only one available.) I regularly hear people criticize the Union and Mr. Ackerman in particular, and scoff at any suggestion that they read it or take it seriously. At a recent event attended by many in the local arts-and-literature community, a biting criticism of Mr. Ackerman by the master of ceremonies received a warm reception from virtually the entire crowd (and when notified of this, the thin-skinned Ackerman and his editor initiated an exchange of emails
with the master of ceremonies, a well-respected and popular figure, calling him at one point a "chickenshit" and threatening to essentially censor any event he was involved with).

The Union has made it clear that it is attempting to grow its readership, modernize, and become more like a big-city paper. Mr. Ackerman is clearly handicapping this admirable goal. He has angered and offended literally thousands of people who might otherwise be subscribers-and the majority of these folks are of that demographic most coveted by advertisers: they are well-educated, literate, and culturally sophisticated, and have healthy disposable incomes.

What's more, this demographic group-dominated by left-leaning urban refugees who can't stand Mr. Ackerman-is growing rapidly in Nevada County. A recent study by the Fannie Mae Foundation documented that Nevada County is now one of 24 "cappucino counties" in the West. These are counties that, in contrast with "cowboy counties," are being rapidly transformed by an influx of well-educated professionals, artists, engineers, computer programmers, self-employed people, and other "cultural creatives" involved in the new economy. These people are bringing with them new values, tastes, buying habits, and political views; any business that wants to grow cannot ignore them, and it certainly can't afford to actively alienate them.

With Mr. Ackerman at the helm, The Union can never be more than a small-town, parochial newspaper, and it will become increasingly anachronistic as Nevada County changes. I encourage you to consider replacing Mr. Ackerman with someone who can gain the respect of the entire spectrum of Nevada County residents. Nevada County, The Union, and Swift Newspapers will be the better for it.


Eric W. Engles, Ph.D.
cc: Jeff Ackerman, publisher, The Union
Arne Hoel, president, Swift Newspapers, Inc.

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