Thursday, August 21, 2008

Just because they say it's so ...

Column published in The Suffolk Times, Aug. 21, 2008

If something is repeated often enough, it becomes "true," right? That's why I'm compelled to answer the spin being spun about The Suffolk Times by various letter writers. The current flurry of criticism started with our "Gay on the North Fork" series in June and hit a crescendo following the publication of a reader's "Guest Spot" denouncing the use of torture of prisoners of war by the U.S. military.

We've found ourselves on the receiving end of many letters and e-mails -- some sent anonymously, so they never made it into the paper, because we require all letters to be signed by their authors -- accusing The Suffolk Times of all sorts of things, including printing only letters to the editor that conform to the editor's opinion about the president, or the war, or __________ (fill in the blank); of "slanting" our "reporting"; of having a "liberal agenda" instead of being "fair and balanced" (like Rupert Murdoch); and of not "reporting local news" (in favor of national or international news) in furtherance of our liberal agenda.

The Suffolk Times consists of about 100 pages each week, give or take. There is nothing but local news between its covers, except on the commentary pages, which are reserved for editorial and reader opinion. Local news is what we do. It's all we do. And it's what we've been doing for 151 years, since August of 1857. It's what community journalism is all about. It's been, and continues to be, this newspaper's formula for success.

We don't "report" on the war or, generally, the federal government, except as its actions and policies affect local people and issues. Yes, we have opined about the war, though not as much as some folks would have you believe. But news articles and commentary are two different things.

I'll readily admit I'm not a fan of Mr. Bush or the war. So I started wondering whether we've printed more editorials and op-ed columns criticizing the president and the war than I realized. I decided to do some research.

I searched The Suffolk Times Web site for all instances of the word "Bush" in editorials and columns between Jan. 1, 2004, and Aug. 7, 2008. That's roughly 238 editions of this newspaper.

In that time, in those 238 weeks, the word "Bush" appeared in editorials 12 times. One was in an editorial about the Iraq war, on the occasion of the U.S. military death toll's reaching 2,000. One was reflecting on the 2006 midterm elections. One was an endorsement of John Kerry for president (an endorsement, as I recall, some unhappy readers complained we, as a local paper, had no "right" to make.) One mentioned the president's name in passing, in an editorial about a former supervisor's "taking a page right out of the Bush-Cheney campaign handbook." The other eight all referenced the president in connection with local issues, such as Broadwater (four editorials), the effect of budget cuts on local hospitals (three), and immigration reform (an editorial in which we praised the president's position opposing a bill passed by the House.)

The word "Bush" also appeared in "columns" 36 times during the past four years and seven months. Seven of those references were completely unrelated or were mentions in passing in "columns" that were not commentary columns, such as the garden column or the Southold Seniors column; the search picked up references such as "under the bushes" and mentions of a local couple getting a tour of the White House but not seeing the president. The other 29 references were in op-ed columns in the commentary section.

The vast majority of those 29 columns had little or nothing to do with Bush or his policies -- they merely mentioned his name. Nine were "guest spot" or "equal time" columns submitted by readers. Of those, one, on Nov. 15, 2006, defended the Bush administration and the war in Iraq. One was about humorous campaign bumper stickers and one was about the number of Bush lawn signs versus the number of Kerry lawn signs.

Of the 20 columns mentioning Bush that were written by staff members, only six were actually about Mr. Bush or his administration's policies, and I wrote all six of them. Their topics? Two were about Broadwater, one was about Plum Island, two were about the war, and one was about the proposed marriage amendment. All of these big issues have big local impacts and I make no apology for thinking about them or speaking out on them.

I believe the commentary section of The Suffolk Times is a valuable forum for community discourse -- even discourse on non-local topics. It's one of the few forums where Southolders can publicly debate issues with one another.

We don't "censor" letters or op-ed columns. We do edit them, which can be a hefty job. We get lots of them, and I read and edit every one myself. I bend over backwards to help many letter writers make their points (whether I agree with them or not), taking a lot of time to correct grammar, syntax, usage and spelling, to make some letters more readable and others comprehensible. I ask people to tone down personal attacks. And I suggest substitutes for obscenities that some letter writers use (because this is, after all, a family newspaper).

What don't we print? We don't print letters that are libelous, because by publishing a libelous statement we bear legal responsibility for its libelous nature. We don't print letters to the editor generated by letter-writing campaigns mass-mailed to media outlets across the nation. (We get these every week.) And we don't print "open letters" to public officials or the community at large or letters to specific people (other than the editor).

If you would like to see more commentary supporting Mr. Bush, or the war, or expressing an opinion on any topic that interests you, then contribute something. This is your forum. Write a letter (350 words maximum, please), or an op-ed column (about 750 words). Put your name (no pseudonyms, please) and hamlet of residence on it, provide a contact phone number where you can be reached, and e-mail it to (Documents in Word format, attached to the e-mail message, please.) If you're not computer-savvy, we still accept letters the old-fashioned way, addressed to: Editor, The Suffolk Times, P.O. Box 1500, Mattituck, NY 11952 or faxed to 631-298-3287. Please type or print. If we can't read it, we can't publish it.

We look forward to hearing from you, even if it's to tell us how wrong we are or how stupid our opinion is. It reminds me of how much I cherish my freedom of expression.

Copyright 2008 Times/Review Newspapers


Jennifer said...

I believe it's journalism's job to lead us toward questioning what's right and wrong. It's a shame more journalism hasn't exposed the war for what it is. You are a terrific journalist. The folks that want to hear more positive reporting on Bush and his cronies should look toward them to start doing something praise-worthy. Sometimes the truth isn't balanced or fair. But we have a right to it, regardless. Americans who enjoy the info-tainment at Fox news really might consider its source and content with the energy they've directed toward your paper.

Ceil said...

Hi Denise, sorry I missed this one!

I can't even! My words, and you know I have many, are tumbling out of my brain faster then I can type.

So, now its your job to print lies in order to satisfy folks political agendas?

What do they want to hear? GWB is a great president; our county is doing fantastic even with gas prices off- the- wall; spending 4 million dollars a day for an ill begotten war , not to mention lives lost and troops and civilians maimed is a good thing? Jeez! The economy is is good shape? It's ok for folks to be without health care?

I know folks like this..they will defend ( it is their right) this

If they need GWB fix, Go to Fox news there they can get you all the spin they need so that they can continue to live in the twilight-zone.

I applaud your dedication to the truth Denise...Keep on keeping on...

Robin Flannery said...

Apparently the same is not true of the Riverhead News Review.

Mr. Stefans is the editor there, correct? Because it was he that decided my Op-Ed piece about the Middle Class didn't have "enough meat." He claims "Decisions to run column are based on our judgment of reader interest." sic

You claim "We don't "censor" letters or op-ed columns" instead you use your "judgment."