Thursday, November 04, 2004

Stuckey for Publisher

Nov. 5: added link to 1st letter which was published today; minor wording; renamed post to reflect current sentiment; appended Editor's comment on this post.

Here we present an email exchange triggered by The Union Editor RS's Oct. 30 attack* on Engles. If you don't have time for the blow-by-blow, skip to Ms. Stuckey's excellent second letter, which is awesome on all fronts. We need more of her ilk in the press.

(Added links, but restrained self from bolding the more interesting passages.)

Letter to Editor:
I have lived more than twenty-five years in small towns and more than twenty years in urban areas, with both left-leaning local papers and conservative-leaning papers. Yet in no community before this one have I seen so much personal attack pass for journalism.

Your report of Eric Engles's critique of this paper (10-30-04) was incomplete and inaccurate. That you misquoted his e-mail and dismissed his criticism without responding to, or even reporting, its substance defines the very term bully pulpit. You've only proved his point.

I join in the call for the resignation or dismissal of [publisher]--and [editor].

Priscilla Stuckey

Editor's emailed response:
Ms. Stuckey:

Regarding your letter to the editor, sorry if you feel that I hurt Dr. Engles' feelings. Certainly, you are correct that I dismiss his criticism. Nor did I respond to it, because it was not addressed to me. However, you say I misquoted his e-mail, and I am curious as to where.

I wrote that Dr. Engles feels [publisher] is divisive because he has different views. The e-mail says [publisher] "doesn't just opine: he accuses, distorts, misleads, slanders and propagandizes." That is just a harsher way of saying he has different views.

I wrote that Dr. Engles keeps counterviews out of the paper. The e-mail says, I'm assuming in reference to [BC]: ". . . did he get to tell his version of the story and rebut the slanderous charges? Not in [publisher]'s paper!" Dr. Engles knows as well as I do - or should - that [BC] has had multiple opportunities to tell his story in The Union. And, by the way, your counterview will be printed as well, weak as it is.

I wrote that Dr. Engles said [publisher]'s role extends beyond the opinion page to include story selection, wording of headlines, etc. The e-mail says, "[publisher]'s abuse of his position as publisher of the sole local newspaper extends beyond the opinion pages . . . " and then goes on to list the ways. Again, of course, inaccurate.

Why would Dr. Engles distort the truth? Or for that matter, why would you? You tell me. (By the way, you may want to point out to Dr. Engles the difference between slander and libel - which, incidentally, you both are doing by defaming me personally in writing. Do you have a good lawyer?



Stuckey replies:

Dear [Editor]:

First of all, let me say how much I enjoyed a couple of your recent editorials [(columns)], especially Wrestling with the Myth of Objectivity (8-7-04) and Deconstructing Jacques Derrida (10-16-04). Thoughtful reflections on the history and theory of journalism are always welcome, and I take a special delight in them.
I also appreciate the conciliatory tone of today's editorial (11-3-04). After twenty years in the business of words (book editor and writing consultant), I put a great stock in the tone of words.

So I was terribly disappointed to see your editorial dismissing Eric Engles's critiques (10-30-04) and equally disappointed in your dismissive letter to me. Your suggestion that I may have thought you "hurt Dr. Engles' feelings" suggests that the worst disservice done was hurt feelings. Feelings are important, but the issue here is not feelings. Reducing the issue to feelings trivializes Eric's critique (and mine) and trivializes also the harm you can do through editorials like that one.

On these points your editorial was inaccurate:
- Eric does not add his credentials "even the most casual of e-mails." I've never known him to do it in an e-mail, and he doesn't even do it consistently in his columns. To say that he "affectedly" does so is to adopt a patronizing and ridiculing tone.

- Eric did not issue a call to "Dump Ack." His said "Dump [publisher]" or "Dump Jeff," and he referred to the publisher in his letter as "Jeff" or "[publisher]." Your misquote adds a belittling tone to Eric's letter that was not there.

- He didn't "demand" that [publisher] be fired. "I request that you consider replacing [publisher]" is the exact quote. A request is rather different from a demand.

- "Mr. Engles' declaration of his values . . . is that since [publisher] has different views than Engles, he is being divisive": This is just the opposite of what Eric said. He said he had no problem with opining but took issue rather with distortions and their like: accusations, slanderings, and propagandizing. That is not "just a harsher way of saying he has different views," as you claim. You are a man of words; you must recognize the difference between presenting an opinion and presenting an accusation.

One more example of inaccuracy. In your letter you say that I am defaming you. I believe one of the requirements for words to be defamatory is that the accusations are false. As you can see, I have evidence of inaccuracies. In a previous letter to the editor I did suggest that the paper was libeling [BC] by accusing him of wrongdoing before investigating the story, and I still believe that to be true. Accusations of wrongdoing that in legal terms amount to criminal misconduct, presented before any investigation and repeated after no evidence of wrongdoing is found: Please tell me what's not libelous about that. The ending of your letter to me-"Do you have a good lawyer?"-does nothing to disprove my claim (and Eric's) that the paper is being used as a bully pulpit. Bullying is hardly appropriate in private correspondence, either, especially from a newspaper editor to a reader who is criticizing editorial policies.

Last night I watched part of Barack Obama's victory speech. With regard to bringing people together, he said, "We found ways of disagreeing without being disagreeable."

In addition to the smearing and character assassinations of recent editorials, it's the disagreeable tone that disturbs me greatly. Words matter, and how we use them matters as well. It matters that [publisher] denounced [BC] as lacking in integrity before reporting the facts-it's unconscionable, in a publisher-and it matters as well that [publisher] riddles many of his editorials with derision-why? to up the entertainment factor?-rather than adopt a respectful tone of disagreement. It matters that your public response to Eric failed to present his criticisms, and it matters as well that it was patronizing and dismissive in tone.

Last night I took a break from election coverage to tune in to a book event on C-SPAN. In it, British author Jan Morris made a plea for kindness as the only thing that in the end matters. Is it possible to have a little more kindness in the official voices of the paper? Kindness needn't mean soft-pedaling or nicey-nice. It does mean, though, a level of civility and fair-mindedness that has been missing from many editorials (like [publisher]'s from yesterday, 11-2-03).

Civility from the powers-that-be at the paper would do two things: it would help defuse tensions (instead of inflaming them); and it would also allow people to absorb more of the real facts of an issue. Because, as we know, emotions running strongly can inhibit thoughtful reflections: readers who agree with [publisher]'s ridiculing, for instance, only end up laughing gleefully, while those who disagree only end up feeling shut out of the public dialogue. Is this deepening of existing divisions really what you want?

Words are serious business, and the misuse of them in the instances I have cited are serious business. I stand by my requests for changes in leadership at the paper. In my Letter to the Editor that you are taking issue with, I call for replacing you and [publisher], and if I see no changes in the paper, I will continue to call for that.

What I really want, though-and what I hear many thoughtful people throughout the community also wanting-are changes in editorial policy, toward greater civility, fair-mindedness, and accuracy as the bases for editorial opinion.

If today's editorial signifies such a change, I welcome it.

Priscilla Stuckey, PhD

Note: Editor RS responded to this last missive with a quite cordial email, the meat of which was this:
My purpose in tacking a few paragraphs [attacking* Engles] on the end of my column was only to open Eric's campaign to public scrutiny, and to clarify two points - the openness of our opinion page to all views, and the separation of Jeff [publisher] from the news operation.

* Note II, added Nov 5: Editor RS disagreed with the wording above, saying this:(reprinted with permission)
I think you're overreaching to call my few paragraphs at the end of an unrelated column an "attack" on Dr. Engles. It was more in the nature of turning over a rock. If I wanted to actually attack him, I would start a community effort to have him fired from whatever job he has.

Suggestions from the blog culture:
1. You gain status if you provide your readers with access to the content that you're criticising.
2. Keep your words sweet; some day you may have to eat them.
3. Threatening legal action in response to reader criticism is not going to look good.

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