Saturday, November 1, 2008

Barack Petty Obama

Petty, certainly, and even spiteful, are the words that describe Obama's decision to remove from his campaign plane three newspapers who endorsed McCain -- the NY Post, the Washington Times and the Dallas Morning News.

This has been discussed at length by other bloggers, so I'll just make a point that, as a reporter, I consider important that none of the others made: newspaper endorsements are not what they are represented and understood to be. They are much less important.

The common mystique is that a newspaper endorsement or editorial represents the considered voice of a journalistic organization. Those endorsements ring with self-important, august or sometimes Stentorian rhetoric in reflection of that delusion. They aid this deception by not including any bylines, as if the newspaper, as some collective entity, congregated in mind-meld to produce those pearls of wisdom. If you buy into this mistaken view, it might be understandable, if still petty and spiteful, for Obama to rid his campaign plane of reporters whose newspapers have endorsed his opponent.

The truth is newspaper editorials, like everything else in the paper, are ultimately controlled by the newspaper's publisher or owner. If you think of the presidential endorsements as just the opinion of one person, who happens to control a newspaper, you'll usually be right.

In any decent paper, news articles, written by reporters, are free of blatant influence by the owner. But newspaper editorials are another matter. If the publisher or owner doesn't really care about the subject, the top editors can usually get their way and delude themselves into thinking they're great opinion leaders. But the big bosses always reserves the right to step in and impose their views on any subject of great importance to them. And presidential endorsements are considered important. (Yes, I know that the Sam Zell-controlled LA Times and Chicago Tribune endorsed Obama, and Zell gave $40K to support McCain. But Zell is really known for being anyone-but-Hillary. With her out of the presidential race, Zell can afford to humor the editors, while the reporters get sacked.)

That's why I think unsigned newspaper editorials are phony and should be killed. Hugh Hewitt said it well in his masterful piece on what the LA Times and newspapers need to do to survive, Refusing to Bleed Out: "Drop the anonymous pulse-killers of the unsigned editorials. Give them bylines or let them go."

And they are pulse-killers most of the time, valuable space wasted by editors pontificating and bloviating on stuff they often know little about, or so wildly biased as not to even understand there could be another side. Los Angeles Times editorials are masters of the genre. Mere reporters, who have bylines on their work and are as such accountable, can't get away with that stuff. But the reporters get blamed by those who disagree with the editorials, because they are who the public sees, not some self-absorbed clique mentally masturbating.and congratulating themselves on their importance.

We hear a lot about biased reporters, and with good reason. But the public should really be outraged about editors who express their bias regularly, and hide behind the shield of anonymity. -- bravely letting the reporters get blamed. They should blame the editors and publishers, who usually spend their days isolated from the public in endless oxygen-draining meetings about how to better reach the public.

The deceptive conceit of unsigned editorials can produce hilarious results.Years ago, I heard of an editorial page editor who greatly disagreed with the publisher-imposed views on many subjects. To get his revenge, said editor would intentionally write the editorial in such an extreme or pompous fashion as to undercut the publisher's argument. The publisher would give it a look, interpret the ridiculous editorial literally, and be pleased.

This story underscores that newspaper editorials are not the voice of the newspaper, they are the voice of the publisher, who doesn't even write the editorial. Or, to be fair, on a subject the publisher doesn't care about, it's the babbling of hypoxic editors. If this was generally realized, the public wouldn't be outraged by these editorials, they'd just shake their heads at the shabby pretense.

If Obama has any savvy or class, he'll cancel his ill-considered verdict and let the NY Post, Washington Times and Dallas Morning News back onto his plane. Punishing the reporters for the sins of the editors is not only unfair, it's stupid.

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