Thursday, May 21, 2009

No, we're not anti-teacher or pro-Scricca

We're working hard at the News-Review to come to terms with new technologies and figure out how to best use them in news gathering and reporting. We've enhanced the Web site in some ways already, but later this year we'll be launching a completely new site ¬­-- now in development -- that will be much more powerful, more interactive, and easier and more fun to use.

Among the enhancements we've made to our existing site is the ability of site users to comment on stories. This is supposed to help get a dialogue going in the community and (I think) improve communication between readers/users and the newspaper staff.

"Experts" tell us we (at the paper) should respond to people's comments online. We haven't done that yet. Lack of time is probably one reason why not. But as reporters and editors, we don't much like the idea of getting into debates with people about the issues we cover. Reporters of course have opinions about the subjects of the stories they write. But generally, they're supposed to keep those opinions to themselves. That's tough in the community newspaper business, where newspaper editors often double as reporters. We don't have editorial departments per se, so editors can't avoid writing editorials and opinion columns. It can get tricky. We have to be very careful about not letting our opinions seep into our news reports. Most of the time, I think, we do OK.

In spite of our sensitivity to such matters and redoubling our efforts to make sure we play news items down the middle -- especially if it's something we've opined about on the commentary pages -- people are cynical. Indeed, their level of cynicism sometimes amazes me. When people are passionate about a point of view, they tend to forget that reasonable people can, in fact, disagree.

Our editorials the past two weeks -- and the comments made about them on our Web site -- illustrate this point. (Though I should point out that in the case of education coverage, the reporter, Tim Gannon, never writes editorials, and the editors never do any reporting.) We published editorials on the proposed school budget and school board candidates. In them, we disagreed with some of the opinions expressed by the teachers' union.

"This paper seems to have fallen under Scricca's spell," wrote one anonymous poster on our site.

"Is Dr. Scricca writing these editorials herself? With the half truths that have been written in these last two editorials, it seems so. She definitely has someone's ear at the News-Review," wrote another, also anonymously.

Nobody, anywhere, has anyone at the News-Review under any spell. And certainly no one but us is writing our editorials. No one but our staff ever even sees them before publication.

Can't reasonable people disagree? And can't disagreement be expressed and debate undertaken without people smearing those who express opposing points of view?

I'm afraid the mode of communication on the Internet, with the proliferation of anonymous messages like this on Web sites, has debased public discourse -- even more than the 24-hour cable "news" networks had already done with their endless, mind-numbing offerings of people shouting at one another about this or that. That, to my mind, is a very unfortunate result of this new communication technology. When people don't have to take responsibility for what they say by putting their name to it, people will say all kinds of things. That's why we don't publish anonymous letters in our newspaper. And, although our editorials are not "signed," they are written by editor Michael White or me, or, more often, by both of us in collaboration.

For the record, I think the superintendent seems earnest, hardworking and smart. She seems to be doing a pretty good job in a tough situation. That doesn't make me anti-teacher or even insensitive to their plight. My children have had some truly wonderful, amazing and dedicated teachers in the Riverhead school district. And some of them have used their classroom as a soapbox for espousing opinions about their contracts, the administration and the school board. One of them recently complained in class that my daughter's mother's newspaper was "anti-teacher." That kind of thing is just plain inappropriate. Nobody should be pulling our kids into the union-administration tug of war -- even if the kid happens to be the daughter of the newspaper publisher.

Call me idealistic, but I'd like to see the administration, teachers and parents all work together toward the common goal of giving our children the best education we possibly can, within our district's financial means. There's been way too much "politics" for way too long in the Riverhead school district -- to the point of dysfunction. And in that kind of situation, the best interests of the kids can get lost in the shuffle.