The point of these commentary pages
Today, a chief tenet of journalism is objectivity. Reporters strive to tell all sides of a story and give every player in a storyline the chance have their say.
That wasn’t always the case.
The forefathers of newspapering launched their publications not as fair arbiters of the day’s issues, but as partisan vehicles to promote their causes and rail against their opponents. They weren’t widely read by the general populace. They were more like company newsletters, read by the faithful so they could rile themselves up.
It wasn’t until the 1830s, according to Stony Brook University’s Center for News Literacy, that Benjamin Day launched the New York Sun as a general-interest “penny paper.” Losing the partisan slant broadened Day’s subscriber base and allowed him to sell more ads and make more money.
Today, objectivity is a hotblooded, bedrock moral for most reporters, but it started as a purely economic endeavor.
Horace Gray’s New York Tribune, in 1841, was the first to print a dedicated opinion page, clearly separating fact-based reporting from opinion-based essays. The concept was eventually adopted by newspapers everywhere until the modern opinion page seen in most publications — with syndicated columnists and guest essays and editorial cartoons — was spawned in the 1950s by New York Times editor John B. Oakes.
The idea of commentary pages, in the minds of most editors — including yours truly and every editor I’ve worked for — is that the commentary page can act as a sort of town hall, a place where townspeople can exchange ideas in a civil way.
And, just like a town hall, it’s a forum that is open to everyone. To paraphrase the late, great Hunter Stockton Thompson, even a werewolf has rights — and our neighbors are our neighbors, even those who are unpleasant and express unpleasant opinions.
Just like a town hall, there are rules and limitations. One person’s rights end where another’s begin, so name-calling and personal attacks have no place in a town hall or on a commentary page. Town halls are for discussing the issues of the day and the public work products with which we all interact, not personalities or personal lives.
And special care should be given to non-public figures. In a town hall, you can go after a mayor for how well he or she fixes the roads, but you can’t call him an idiot or criticize the way he’s raising his kids.
Xenophobia, sexism, racism and other pejorative language have no place in a public square.
There’s only so much time — and only so much space in a newspaper — so people can’t go on and on.
Opinions are meaningless if they’re faceless, so people have to give their names.
As long as a voice speaks within those ground rules — in the case of letters to the editor for The Alpena News, 300 words or fewer, no personal attacks or attacks on private businesses, and written by residents within our four-county coverage area — that voice should have a place in the town hall that is the town paper’s commentary section.
Newspapers don’t pick and choose the opinions they print any more than a mayor picks and chooses the constituents who speak at city council meetings.
And that is why newspapers freely and regularly print letters critical of themselves. In my short tenure as managing editor of The News, I have printed letters from conservatives accusing us of being liberal “fake news” and from liberals accusing us of being a “GOP newsletter” working to protect President Donald Trump.
You won’t see Coca-Cola publishing letters accusing it of being flavorless poison or Nike publishing letters accusing it of being a socialist propaganda machine.
Newspapers, like Coca-Cola and Nike, are private, for-profit organizations. But, unlike those and almost every other business, newspapers consider themselves an avenue for the people, a vehicle to give voice to the voiceless.
Even when we personally disagree with those voice.
Justin A. Hinkley can be reached at 989-358-5686 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @JustinHinkley.