“How often we recall, with regret, that Napoleon once shot at a magazine editor and missed him and killed a publisher. But we remember with charity, that his intentions were good.”
Mark Twain- Letter to Henry Mills Alden, published in the
Chicago Daily Tribune, Nov. 11, 1906, pg. 3.
I’ve never been a linguistic purist or obsessed by grammar (or even proper spelling), but I did, years ago, attempt to banish the phrase “of course” from my vocabulary. To say “of course” is to imply something is a universally understood fact that cannot be challenged, and it is used to suggest that you are, of course, correct, and whoever you are talking to needs to remedy their ignorance.
So I was a little surprised at myself when the author of a letter to the editor called to ask if his letter was going to be printed in the paper, and I answered, “Of course!” Indeed, it was already on the page under the headline, “Editor an embarrassment.”
And as usual, “of course” was an untrue statement: The letter could well have been rejected under our stated letter policy, which does not allow personal attacks. Had any other private citizen (or company) been the target, personal references would have been removed or the letter would have been axed.
But the editor (myself) decided quite quickly that he was, at least on the opinion page of the Chronicle, to be treated as a public personality. Granted I do not have the stature of Representative Greg Walden, who was also maligned on the opinion page that day. But it would be grossly unfair to deny a reader the great American tradition of lambasting “the editor.” (We also canceled his subscription, as requested, and gave him a refund. So if he is reading this, he will have had to purchase the paper for $1...and I thank him for his increased support.)
While puzzling over his statement that expressing an opinion on the opinion page was “unprofessional”—it is a longstanding part of the profession for newspapers to publish opinions by its staff—I realized that in my attempt to do away with unsigned “editorials,” I had adopted a traditional news “byline” on the opinion page.
That was a mistake: One of the benefits of the unsigned editorial, especially at a small-town newspaper, is that it obscures the fact that the editor is also a reporter, photographer, page designer...well, pretty much everything. Anonymous opinion relieved some of the inevitable conflict between writing both news and opinion.
Can a reporter/editor with an opinion—printed on the opinion page—be trusted to give fair and balanced coverage? In all my years with the Chronicle, we have never had a full-time opinion writer, and only very rarely an editorial board. But many assume unsigned editorials were generated by one or the other. I prefer to be upfront about it.
The majority of our news coverage has been (and is) factual, fair and balanced—and if you disagree, you are welcome to write a letter to the editor. Will I run it? Of course!