Op-Ed

by Roger Pynn

My Partner Dan Ward’s earlier contribution here on the subject of opinions in newspapers sparked an exchange with Fast Horse founder Jorg Pierach about the value of opinion to the vanishing newspaper world I came from … and to businesses in general.

Pierach seems to feel a company risks too much by having an opinion. When it comes to newspaper companies I would agree.  When it comes to purveyors of other goods and services, I’m not so sure.

Companies that sell widgets may want to express a political opinion because it impacts their business.  Or, they may be expressing an opinion that impacts their employees, the communities in which they live and work or a social issue important to the owners.  And, while there may well be times that newspaper publishers wish to do the same, they too often run the risk of expressing their opinion about things that are important to widget makers but not the publishing company.

My partner and I disagree on this subject, and for a number of reasons, I’ve long held that newspapers ought to get out of the business of editorializing:

Expressing a corporate opinion runs the risk of undue influence and pressure upon news reporters to tow the company line;

Recognizing that journalists are trained to write for consumption by a fairly uneducated common denominator, newspapers might also recognize that those readers could find it difficult to distinguish between reportage and opinion; and,

Publishing its corporate opinion could amount to an abuse of power when considering that public officials could feel compelled to curry favor with journalists and editorialists alike to secure their positions by election at the expense of doing what they truly believe is best.

Many a newsroom resident will stiffen at the suggestion they could be influenced by what goes on the editorial page, but in an era where jobs are being deleted on a daily basis, it seems a relevant concern.  Why would a reporter or editor want to risk losing their job by writing an article that might be counter to their employer’s position?

Pierach says “The world has changed.  The model is broken.  And newspapers are dying.  In that environment there can be no scared cows.”

To the contrary, I say newspapers are so important to our society’s well-being that we very well ought to treat them the way cows are treated in Hindu cultures.  It isn’t journalism that has changed … it is the practice of journalism that has changed.  We need publishers to return to their roots and see that they report news and keep us informed so we can make good decisions.  We need them to serve as watchdogs of government, business and individuals to be sure laws are followed.

And we need them to encourage thoughtful exchange of opinions.  But isn’t that the role of the op-ed page … to offer a place for opposing views to be shared?  I’d just prefer the corporate entity behind the publications leave their opinion to the imagination and use the space to inspire civil discourse from a public not unduly influenced by the power of the press.

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