There is a great American song that goes like this: "Once there was a silly old ram, thought he’d punch a hole in a dam. No one could make that ram, scram. He kept buttin’ that dam. Cause he had high hopes, he had high apple pie in the sky hopes. So any time you’re feeling bad, instead of feeling sad, just remember that ram. Oops! There goes a billion kilowatt dam."
I thought of that Frank Sinatra song when I considered the value of a great American newspaper tradition that now seems to be endangered: the editorial.
Newspapers in this country began as editorials that pushed the views of whoever printed the paper. Colonial newspapers helped galvanize people generally loyal to their mother country to rise up against the British.
In 2004, the Sacramento Bee published 14 editorials calling for the restoration of the Hetch Hetchy Valley in Yosemite, which would require the destruction of the now 85-year-old, 430-foot tall O’Shaughnessy Dam. Tom Philps’ editorials won the Pulitzer Prize. More important, they got the attention of Gov. Schwarzenegger. He ordered a feasibility study. And they spurred several state legislators to publicly support the taking down of the dam. Since then studies have shown it to be not only feasible but practical.
While the dam that encloses the Hetch Hetchy Valley still stands, the Bee managed to get a Republican governor and the U.S. Congress to consider something once thought ridiculous. It shifted the argument from why to how.
That’s the potential and responsibility of the newspaper editorial, and these days it is a responsibility the Times-Standard shirks. In August it ran just two editorials, aside from its "Roasts and Toasts": One that cautioned the county’s Code Enforcement Task Force not to broaden the scope of its responsibilities and another urging support for the Eureka Skate Park. On other days it runs editorials from newspapers in other parts of the state.
When a newspaper chooses not to run an editorial it says one of two things to the community: We have found nothing important enough to comment on; or our voice isn’t important. The first can’t possibly be true and the second sends a bad message. Regardless whether people will agree or disagree with the editorial, people expect a newspaper to print an editorial.
In making the case for editorial endorsements in political races in particular, Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, argued that the newspaper's role is to sift through information its readers don’t have time to adequately consider and help them reach conclusions. "Most of us, most citizens, don't sit down and say, 'You know what, I'm trying to figure out who to vote for for judge, let me sit down and write about my thoughts in an argument to decide,'" he told the American Journalism Review in 2004. "We don't do that. Dentists are busy being dentists and gardeners are busy being gardeners. It's not your job to sit down at 11 in the morning and hash it out around a table and write that argument out. Well, that's what editorial writers have the luxury of doing for the rest of us. And [readers] can then look at those arguments and say, 'Those guys are idiots' or 'That's a pretty good argument.'"
People hunger for leadership and direction. President Teddy Roosevelt coined the term “bully pulpit” to describe a platform so big, that from it one could effectively propel people to action. Presidents, governors and strong mayors all have bully pulpits. But small communities often lack a forceful leader, and in that absence, it is the community newspaper that stands at the bully pulpit.
In March, an opinion piece in the journalism trade journal The Masthead argued that there is no longer a need for institutional, unsigned editorials. That generated a slew of responses from editors across the country. Some argued that in the age of the unlimited blogs, the newspaper editorial is superfluous, an unaffordable luxury and serves only to hurt the credibility of the reporters who work hard trying to gather objective news. But others emphasized the good that editorials can do.
Herb Field, the editorial page editor for a community newspaper in Harrisburg, Penn., said that a strong editorial voice serves as the conscience of the community and region it serves, sometimes reflects the community’s outrage, prods the community to do better, points a finger at injustice and the downtrodden, pokes fun at power and calls attention to the future and its challenges.
When you have a divided community and everyone seems to be screaming at each other, the newspaper editorial can be the calming voice of the reasonable man we all know, an Atticus Finch who can convince an angry mob to go home to bed.
When the Times-Standard chooses to not run editorials, it cedes the bully pulpit to the other newspaper in town. That paper has argued for drilling in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge. It argued that feminists should stop worrying about social conditioning of gender roles because research at an Atlanta primate lab found that boy monkeys naturally play with trucks while the girl monkeys like dolls. And it suggested that readers attend religious services to curb adultery.
Recently, the Times-Standard filed suit against the Eureka Reporter, arguing that the ER stole advertisers through uncompetitive business practices. What will it do when it realizes that the Reporter has stolen its leadership role?