Peering into the maelstrom of the Opinion page

By Jayson Jacoby December 14, 2012 12:59 pm

By Jayson Jacoby

Baker City Herald Editor

No section of the newspaper prompts as many questions, and leads to as many complaints landing on my desk, as the page with “Opinion” printed at the top.

(That’s this page, 4A, by the way, and much of its fallout doesn’t literally land on my desk, with an audible thud, but instead arrives in my email inbox with silent, binary stealth.)

That the Opinion page would have such an effect is hardly surprising.

As its title implies, it’s the place where opinions are unleashed to mingle freely with facts — a sort of coffee klatch, only less visceral and without maple bars.

And since, as the saying goes, we’re all entitled to our own opinions but not to our own facts, the temptation to wage rhetorical warfare proves too powerful for many opinionated folks to resist.

I think this is a fine thing.

Maybe the finest thing, in fact, in our land where the freedom to express yourself is so vital our founders put it right at the top of the list of rights.

I hope I never become so jaded that I’m unable to appreciate the simple yet inestimable value of being able to have a go at the City Council’s latest endeavor and have your take printed and hand-delivered to thousands of households.

And it’s free.

The inky maelstrom of deeply held beliefs and occasional antipathy that is the Opinion page tends to be rather messy. Rarely does the page exemplify the sort of ostensibly objective balance of a “point/counterpoint”-style debate.

This is especially true for the letters to the editor section.

I field fairly regularly the complaint that the letters on a particular page lean strongly toward one side of an issue. This came up most recently during the Baker School Board recall campaign that concluded this week.

That one opinion predominates in a certain Opinion page has nothing to do with the Herald editorial board’s opinions, nor with some other unstated bias inside our office which conspires to silence alternative viewpoints.

It’s coincidence.

Or, rather, a matter of timing.

Our system for letters is simple: We publish them in the same order we receive them.

Only rarely does the volume of letters exceed the available space, so most letters run in the first issue that’s published after the letter arrives.

As an example, if Monday’s and Tuesday’s mail (both traditional and electronic versions) bring a total of four letters, it’s likely that all four will appear in Wednesday’s issue.

Here’s another rarity: We receive a local letter that we decline to publish.

(By “local” letter I mean one written by a local resident, which means the letter is more likely to deal with a local topic. I prefer to reserve the space on Page 4A for them. We don’t often publish letters from, say, Texas or New Jersey; these missives, I suspect, are emailed to every newspaper that has a website, in a sort of shotgun approach.)

We give writers considerable latitude, which seems to me appropriate since opinions, being rugged individuals, don’t thrive under the confinement of sentence parsing and heavy-handed editing.

We don’t of course permit gratuitous profanity, or character assassinations which lack even a veneer of sober thought or legitimate purpose. We do limit writers to 350 words per letter, and at least 15 calendar days between letters. 

I mentioned the editorial board several paragraphs back. I don’t much like that term — attaching “board” to an entity confers on it an elevated status which in this case is not warranted — but it’s the commonest way to refer to the people who come up with a newspaper’s editorial positions.

The Herald’s editorial board is rather smaller than what you’d find at a larger publication, consisting of three members: the publisher, Kari Borgen; reporter Chris Collins; and me.

This roster isn’t ideal, and not only because there are so few of us.

Reporters, generally speaking, don’t participate in formulating opinions — which of course is what editorials are — because reporters strive, in writing their stories, to be objective.

To avoid conflicts, then, when the editorial board is pondering a topic that Chris covers as a reporter, her role is to give Kari and me information — just as she does in her stories — but not to contribute toward the crafting of an opinion.

That crafting, by the way, is a democratic process rather than a dictatorial one.

The Herald’s editorials do not convey my personal opinion, or Kari’s, or Chris’.

Which is not to say, of course, that we never publish editorials that each of us agrees with, with little or no reservation.

Sometimes our individual opinions are pretty much identical.

Frequently, though, our three viewpoints diverge. So we discuss. Sometimes we argue and cajole and (at least in my case) gesticulate. The goal, in any event, is to conceive an opinion which is rational and reasonable.

Perhaps it’s even persuasive, although none of is either naíve or arrogant enough to expect anything more than occasional success in that sense.

I write most of the editorials, although my efforts to put on paper our combined work are always subject to editing from Kari and Chris (and inevitably, the better for it).

The other common elements on the Opinion page, with the exception of guest editorials from other newspapers, are generally the product of a single person.

These include columns and editorial cartoons.

The latter tend to be the most, well, flamboyant items on the page — not only because they are opinions rendered in pictures rather than just words, but also because editorial cartoonists, who don’t have a couple dozen paragraphs to make their point, tend to prefer the blatant over the subtle.

The satire in an editorial cartoon usually is more overt, too, and some readers are offended by the exaggerations that satirists necessarily employ.

But I don’t think the page would be earning its keep if nobody ever muttered epithets while reading it.

I’m not talking about opinions designed only to inflame or to anger. 

But one byproduct of a logically expressed viewpoint can be that it frustrates people who, though they disagree, recognize the validity of the opposing arguments, and even admire the skill with which it was put forward.

That’s a healthy thing. Moreover, it can lead to spirited but respectful exchanges between people who agree on almost nothing, save, perhaps, the importance of whatever topic it is they’re tussling over.