In the movie Madagascar, Alex the Lion and Melman the giraffe loved their zoo. The crowds adored Alex and the animals had all needs taken care of with little effort. Who doesn't love a zoo?
That's the question the Times-Standard should have asked before publishing its Feb. 14 editorial titled "Some things have to remain sacred." It argued that the city of Eureka should not cut off some $700,000 in funding to the zoo to close a budget shortfall.
And it said that the T-S stood behind its May editorial, in which it first described the zoo as sacred.
If anything is sacred, it is the newspaper editorial. Newspaper editorials helped unite a doubting public to revolt against the British in the years leading up to the American revolution. Editorials by a few brave Southern editors helped spotlight the reality of racial discrimination and violence during the civil rights revolution in the 1950s. Editorials can serve as the leadership voice that can help unite a divided community and push a community to better itself. The editorial in the local newspaper is the one thing I can't find elsewhere -- it is the unique voice of the newspaper.
That's why I groaned when I read the editorial about the zoo, and not because I hate zoos because I don't. When I lived in Washington, D.C., I loved cutting through the National Zoo to get from one end of the city to the other. A zoo always makes me feel like a kid. One of my few happy memories as a teenager was the day I cut school with a friend; she had her parent's car that day and for a lark we decided to spend it at the zoo. I have taken my daughter to the Sequoia Park Zoo and I will likely take her again.
But that doesn't mean I love zoos. The older I get, the tougher it is to not care that zoos confine animals in an unnatural existence -- even at the best zoos, where they have space to roam. At the Sequoia Park Zoo, they don't have much space to roam. And there are many people who deplore zoos. There are an awful lot of animal rights activists in this county.
My problem with the editorial wasn't that it argued for continued support of the zoo. My problem was that it failed to acknowledge any other side to the argument. It negated any controversy on an issue that has to be controversial. We are talking about caged animals. And it framed it as the most important issue out there.
The Times-Standard, unlike most regional newspapers, doesn't always print an editorial. In the last two months it published at least 14 papers with no editorial. At least another seven papers featured the "Roasts and Toasts" format, where the paper devotes a short paragraph each to a variety of issues, either roasting an action or development or toasting it. In March 2007, the paper roasted this column, for example, for my short-sighted view regarding the importance of small town news.
When a paper only sometimes prints an editorial, each editorial it prints gains in significance. Perhaps if the paper printed an editorial every day, I might not have minded the zoo column as much. But even so, to run two editorials on one subject and to describe it as sacred says that this subject is very, very important. Clearly, to someone at the Times-Standard, it is. In August, the paper ran a three-part feature series on the zoo written by Melinda Booth, the development director for the Sequoia Park Zoo Foundation.
But just when I decided that this is a personal issue to someone at the T-S, I found an editorial Dec. 23 that said this:
"The fact is, nothing can be held sacred anymore. Everything the city does has to be examined thoroughly -- from the funding of outside organizations to the continued support of the Sequoia Park Zoo. We are not advocating that these or any other expenses necessarily get cut, but we as a city have to do away with the idea that some of budget line items are holy, and above consideration."
So then I muttered: "Is it sacred or isn't it sacred?" If you say that it is sacred, well I think a bunch of people in town might question your priorities: Those who rank neighborhood safety first; or the parents of schoolchildren who want to keep schools from cutting teacher's aides in the classrooms; or those who work on any number of our county's vital services, all of which are in jeopardy of getting cut right now. Because no matter how much you love a zoo, in times of great distress vital services come first. And the $700,000 has to come from somewhere. And if it isn't, then why do you then say it is? I don't know what is worse: Being too strong on an issue that doesn't deserve that kind of unquestioned support, or going back and forth on a stand you take.
If so many people felt that the zoo was sacred, they would pony up the money so that it could run without government support. That's how they support other sacred institutions, like churches and temples. That they might not do that for the zoo and want the government to do it instead, says something. But on that point, the T-S said little.
Still, I'm not saying that the T-S was wrong to support the zoo. But if a paper is going to take a strong stand on something, it needs to fully argue the issue and acknowledge all sides. It needs to point out clear solutions to the problems it spotlights. And it needs to put it in the proper context and give it the proper weight. Then, and only then, should it roar like a lion.
Marcy Burstiner is an assistant professor of journalism and mass communication at Humboldt State University. One of these days you will find her at the zoo with her kid, a balloon and a camera.