The other day we talked about the New York Times public editor's discussion of the factually challenged work of Edward Luttwak. Courtesy of Eric Alterman's column on Media Matters, we were alerted to the Chicago Tribune public editor's response to the Kathleen Parker column of a couple of weeks ago (which we discussed here). In brief, the column argued that Obama was not a "full-blooded American." Many, according to McNulty, wondered why such a column could be published in a major newspaper–rather than say, the Klanly Times. This is McNulty's response:
Responding first to Nielsen, I wrote that as ridiculous and repugnant as that full-blooded sentiment is to many, if not most, Americans, I would rather see it on the op-ed page so that people can hold it to the light and repudiate the notion rather than deal with it as a whispering campaign.
Remember McCain was the target of whispering in his 2000 primary race against George W. Bush in South Carolina. While McCain traveled with the daughter he and his wife had adopted from Bangladesh, an anonymous telephone smear campaign asked voters whether they would vote for McCain if they knew he had fathered an illegitimate black child.
Anyone who believes that the race issue will be dormant in the general election—presuming that Obama is the Democratic candidate—is hiding from reality. It remains a divisive issue and, as Parker noted, some fear that "their heritage is being swept under the carpet while multiculturalism becomes the new national narrative."
I think it is the news media's responsibility to highlight not just the political stratagems but the attitudes that help create them.
The aim of the Tribune's Commentary page is to display a wide range of subjective opinions, even those some may consider offensive. Printing a column is not the same as sanctioning it.
The same need to speak plainly but objectively is true in the news pages. An article Tuesday by Tribune reporter Rex W. Huppke examined how residents in the rural Kentucky town of Munfordville felt about Obama versus Clinton.
"They won't vote for a black man," Huppke quoted one white Obama supporter talking about his neighbors, "That's all there is to it. They just can't bring themselves to do it."
Another resident explained bluntly why he wouldn't support Obama: "It's his color."
Those statements reflect racist views, but does that mean the news media shouldn't report them?
McNulty draws an analogy between the "news" part of the paper and the "opinion" part–that somehow they have the same goal of "reporting." He also makes the accompanying claim that the opinions are "subjective" and may be "offensive." Fair enough. But the analogy, I think, does not hold.
The reporting part of the newspaper ought to inform readers of claims of fact–verifiable, one would hope, by the newspaper's fact checkers. There will of course be editorial decisions to be made–which news stories to report? What questions will our reporters ask of politicians? Do we run the R. Kelly story on the front page every day for the next several months? And so forth.
There are editorial considerations to be made on the op-ed page as well. Which opinions form part of the "wide range" of public opinion? Shall bin Laden be allowed to write a "his turn" column about the Great Satan? Shall we allow obvious factual distortions and groundless hyperbole just because it falls into a "wide range" of public "opinion"? Which opinions in the wide spectrum deserve a column of their own? Many don't. The editorial judgment, one would presume, determines which opinions fall within the spectrum of reasonable civil discourse.
Besides, it's obvious that some opinions are better informed than others. Some opinions are more well grounded in fact and in reason than others. Parker's was one of those that wasn't. And it's up to the Tribune editors to know the difference.
One final point. The alternative to publishing Parker's column is not "a whispering campaign" somehow abetted by the media's silence. The alternative rather is that Parker's argument is not claimed to represent part of range of reasonable civil discourse.