Tuesday, January 14, 2003

BU J-school prof: Edit pages are partisan. Get over it. The Globe's Mark Jurkowitz today has an overview on the controversy at the Herald over the hiring of longtime Republican politico Virginia Buckingham as deputy editorial-page editor. The editor of CommonWealth magazine, Bob Keough, gets off the best quote, telling Jurkowitz, "If she were going to get a desk in the newsrooom, that would be a problem. I'm not sure it raises that many red flags to be on the editorial page." But Buckingham made me wince in saying, "My dream has always been to pursue a writing career," which only highlights the yawning gap between her complete lack of experience and the plum job she's been handed.

Meanwhile, Boston University journalism professor Mike Berlin can't understand what all the fuss is about. He sent a long and thoughtful e-mail to Media Log, which appears below:

I heard about the Buckingham conflict at the Herald on "Beat the Press," and found myself quite puzzled about why reporters took it upon themselves to voice a protest, and what conflicts of interest there could possibly be for a person whose job it is to reflect the views of the publisher/owner and commit those views to print.

When your boss writes about expanding Fenway Park to swallow the Phoenix office, there are conflicts of interest inherent in his viewpoint. But as the owner he is entitled to express it in an editorial or have an editorial writer express it for him, and since they are his views, it doesn't much matter who the writer may be.

If he were a former state commissioner with some link to a party or a faction, one would expect him to reflect the viewpoint of that party or faction, very much the way that Herald publisher Pat Purcell is linked to various people, issues and ideology and is expected to reflect that viewpoint on the editorial page of the Herald, or through the people he chooses to hire to do the writing for him. If they can't write very well, then that's his problem, and perhaps he will get an editor to look over their copy before it runs, or perhaps he won't and people will think less of his views because they are not well expressed.

Readers should be aware that the editorial page reflects the views of the owner. If they are not aware, that is their lookout, not his. He already has an ideologue of his choosing as the editor of the page, and columnists who reflect the views he wishes to have expressed. It should be clear where the Herald stands. If Purcell is generous enough to listen to other voices before expressing the paper's views, that may be a bonus, but no one should expect it.

But you want people on the edit page who have strong opinions and advocate causes, not people who are neutral, cautious and dull, and write editorials that waffle and don't come down on one side or another.

But why should this matter to the reporters? Their concern is to maintain the wall between news pages and editorial pages; ensure that readers are aware of the difference; and fight to prevent the editorial-page views from slopping into their own copy and their editors' news choices. That is what they should be fighting for. When I worked at Dolly Schiff's New York Post, Paul Sann, the executive edtior, reveled in running stories that made Dolly's viewpoints, and thus Jimmy Wechsler's editorials, look silly. It was his way of showing the city that the news/editorial wall was impregnable.

The bad rap on Rupert Murdoch and his style of journalism is not that he hired frothers-at-the-mouth to run his edit page and sound like ideologues. That was well within the American tradition. The problem with his journalism was that he didn't let the news pages run on the basis of journalistic choices, but forced out stuff that he didn't like editorially (stories about environmental threats, or stories that made Jimmy Carter look good) and forced in stories that were politicized. And in a modified form, that remains true today of both Boston newspapers; readers do think that they pull punches on news stories to match editorial-page views.

By protesting the choice of an edit writer, Herald reporters are suggesting to the public that what is printed there does in fact tarnish the news coverage. They are admitting a link that they should be rejecting and denying.

I speak as someone who wrote edits as a summer replacement both under Dolly and under Rupert, when he attended the weekly editorial meeting personally and had long arguments with Jimmy Wechsler about abortion, afffirmative action and other issues (he was against capital punishment) and then went back to my job as a reporter, fighting as best I could to get stuff into the paper that the boss wouldn't like, and to keep stuff out of the paper that was propaganda for the boss's pet projects.

Buckingham is simply a reminder that all editorial pages are appropriately opinionated, slanted, biased, and reflect the viewpoint of the owner (or the owner's willingness to allow a range of viewpoints to be expressed), rather than fair and balanced and open to all viewpoints, as the news pages should be.

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