Journalism lost (1): the editorial

Valley Voice

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The news today is often about complicated matters that even experts have trouble unraveling. Taxes, budgets, the economy and political madness are among today’s many mazy knots. In another time, newspapers put the facts of such matters into plain language, sifted reality from rumor and let readers take it in.

Opinion pages followed, helping readers to understand difficult truths and reach conclusions about them. The newspaper’s opinion or the editor’s view were guideposts, often subtle, sometimes vivid or sharp.

Most daily newspapers in Kansas are now owned by giant corporations and compressed into midget siblings online or in print. They have abolished editorial pages or squeezed the life out of them.

This leaves readers to the Internet jungle of occasional fact and frequent rumor, a tangled landscape that favors the scroller more than the reader. Hawkers peddle versions of truth and suspicion, click-bait for the unaware, the gullible. The regimen of presenting fact and context is abandoned or smothered.

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Olden editorials had three goals: To persuade, or to analyze and inform, or to entertain. These purposes weren’t mutually exclusive. An entertaining editorial, well-crafted, could be more persuasive than a thrashing from the Daily Planet.

In Kansas, editorials reflected the persuasion of the editor, or of the newspaper. Great editors managed their opinion pages with insight and precision. Among them were the renowned William Allen White of the Emporia Gazette, Clyde Reed ( Parsons Sun), Rolla Clymer (El Dorado Times), Whitley Austin (Salina Journal), Stuart Awbrey (Hutchinson News) and Emerson Lynn (Iola Register). They were ferociously educated , painfully curious, and recognized nationally.

They encouraged readers to write. Awbrey in 1978 boasted that The Hutchinson News published more letters to the editor than any other newspaper in the country. No one challenged him.

The Kansas editors were experienced. They rubbed elbows with serious thinkers, public leaders and perceptive colleagues. They were deeply involved in their communities.

Today’s hired publishers are in the corporate clutch of survey results, policy wonks and profit mongers. They are more inclined to shove a reader’s complaint onto a focus group or a “business model” than to find out what was wrong (or right). They might understand the numbers in a bond proposal or tax rate, but not the thinking or the history that led to them. They are easy prey for technology’s siren chorus.

We are left with the infrequent corporate editorial page, if at all. Thoughtful examination of important matters – our schools, cities and counties, our state, our lives – threatens the ledger. The occasional guest editorial and syndicated columnist are for balance, one view from the far right and one from the far out.

Symmetry (false equivalence) is the word, lest readers think the opinion page is biased.

Editorial “fairness” risks death from an open mind. A good opinion page is not about bias versus balance. It is about helping people think. Editorials, columns and cartoons may not persuade readers to act, and they seldom persuade them to act in the way an editor hoped. But if they stimulate thought on a particular problem, if they prompt reexamination of attitudes toward the world around us and the people who live in it, the editorial page will have served a purpose.

In America’s growing news deserts and opinion jungles, readers are without a guide, abandoned to the dry winds and the storms gathering on the horizon.

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