Friday, January 30, 2009

Opinion, Not News

There exists a substantial number of readers who would prefer we keep our opinions to ourselves. They don't want to see — and I won't tolerate — our opinions in news stories. And some readers get burned up because we get opinionated on our Opinion page. They just don't understand how we get off thinking that anyone cares what we think. They wish we would simply print the news and not raise the hell.

Opinion pages are long-standing traditions in newspapers. Mostly, they are meant to generate community discussion about topical issues. We think of our own editorials as base-line opinions that, hopefully, will present readers a point of view from which they can opine their own opinions, in letters to the editors or with an occasional column.

Based on the number of letters we receive, we are well aware that our Opinion page is among the more contentious but best-read sections of the paper. We are blessed to be operating a newspaper in a community that is fully engaged, very educated and exceedingly opinionated.
We love it -- and we welcome opinions different than ours. We like to think of our Opinion page as the last bastion of civilized discourse, where reasonable people can agree to disagree.

On Sunday, you'll notice that we took our opinion off the Opinion page. This is a rare occurrence for us, but the issue at stake is too great to leave hidden in one of our inside pages. California government has reached a state of calamity, and its leaders have embarrassed us all.
Most newspapers in California owned by MediaNews are running similar editorials on their front pages.

In this case, we do not seek to generate public discussion. There's been plenty of that already. Instead, on behalf of residents who are sick of the deadlock, we hope to get the attention of California leaders. It's likely futile, but worth the effort.

Along for the Ride

The Herald is having a fine time carrying Elliot Vallejo's daily journal as he absorbs the overwhelming Super Bowl experience. The daily feature has been a terrific read for those of us who wonder what it must be like to participate in America's most-hyped annual sporting event. His observations and his humor are a hoot.

Vallejo, born in Monterey and schooled at Palma, is a backup offensive tackle for the Arizona Cardinals. He's a member of the scout team and he won't play on Sunday. In his self-deprecating way, he admits to being "Mr. Irrelevant" around Super Bowl camp. "Being the worst player on the two best teams isn't that bad," he wrote. And his lowly status on the team certainly hasn't kept the media jackals from approaching with some wacky questions.

Read his journal entries:
Jan. 27: 'There are Super Bowl XLIII signs everywhere'
Jan. 28: 'There were some really weird things'
Jan. 29: 'We're not here for a vacation'
Jan. 30: 'I'm floating through it'


Thursday, January 29, 2009

In case you missed "Throwdown" ...

Mike didn't want to give away the ending in his story on Wednesday, but for those of you who missed the show last night, here's a glimpse:

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Fun with Phil & Flay

We had fun watching three of our favorite local foodies on the Food Network tonight.

Phil's Fish Market was the victim of sublime deception on Throwdown with Bobby Flay, but it worked out (predictably) when his prized ciopinno won over the judges, John Pisto and The Herald's very own Mike Hale.

It was all fun and games, of course. But it was also great promotion for Phil DiGirolamo, Moss Landing and Monterey Bay fisheries. 

We were amused to note that the Food Network misspelled Phil's last name (DiJirolamo). But we were proud of Mike, who looked great and hammed it up appropriately for the TV cameras. We especially enjoyed the introduction of the judges, standing back-to-back, arms crossed, on the beach of Moss Landing. 

Mike has earned respect and a following with his weekly restaurant reviews. While the work of a critic is thought subjective, his credibility as a reviewer is beyond reproach, which is likely the reason the Food Network sought him out as a worthy judge for Throwdown. There are times, of course, that a review will create internal issues at The Herald, particularly among our advertising staffers. Painful as that can sometimes be, Mike has developed a reputation of trust among readers -- and his reviews hang proudly in a growing number of restaurants throughout the county.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Gran Snubino

It's just gotta be said . . .

Our admiration for the body of Clint Eastwood's work is not mitigated by the fact that Clint constantly refuses interview requests from his hometown paper, that he won't say boo to us, and that he brushes us off with such regularity that we're starting to feel like home plate. We know he has his reasons, but . . .

So it's not like we're provincial clodhoppers when we say that Eastwood was robbed by the Motion Picture Academy this year. His terrific and tragic "Gran Torino" received not a single Oscar nomination. This seems a travesty, considering that even "Australia" managed at least one nomination.

"The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" is a nice gimmick, well-crafted and jammed with sweet performances, but wasn't "Forrest Gump" nominated 15 years ago?

If it's any consolation, "Gran Torino" remains box-office gold and has already earned $78 million. Also, "The Changeling," which wasn't quite as successful among movie-goers, was nominated for three Oscars.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The BS Express

The daily community newspaper comes with a tacit understanding that it won't offend its readers with a lot of BS. Some readers will swear we are offensive enough, even without the BS.

It's not an easy task, upholding basic community standards for decency.

The latest case in point is the news we carried this week about a publication recently released by one of our more popular columnists, Dr. Carl Alasko. The book is titled "Emotional Bullshit: The Hidden Plague to Destroy Your Relationships — And How to Stop It."

As our deputy features editor, Mike DeGive, prepared the story for Sunday's edition, he felt obliged to ask: "Do we use the word 'bullshit' if it's in a book title? And if we don't, how should we refer to it?"

These are the sort of questions that editors dread. On the one hand, a newspaper wants to be able to provide its readers with the full and useful truth, and doing a shorthand number on a book title is not fully honest. On the other hand, we are aware that readers invite us into their homes and schools and we are expected to mind our manners. The BS word isn't the sort of language many, if not most, of our readers want to see in their daily paper.

It didn't help that the best photo we had to accompany the story depicted the author holding the book, which obviously had the BS word all over it.

Journalists are told, quite strenuously, that they are not to mess around with anything they publish with quote marks around it. We don't consciously change quotations and we shouldn't fool with book titles.

As we mulled our dilemma, we debated our options. Running the title was not an option. But how do we present the title without offending many of our readers? I argued, for a time, that we should simply change it to "Emotional BS." The handy "bullbleep" was another possibility. But others argued, and I eventually agreed, to go with "Emotional Bull***t." And we cropped the book out of the photograph, which left us with only Alasko's mug shot, essentially dropping it from consideration as the "centerpiece" story the front of Sunday's Leisure page.

We figured most readers would prefer seeing pretty pictures of Oahu than have their consciousness slapped with BS.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Raw Feed

This blog is generally designed to weigh in on the challenges and issues we face in The Herald newsroom to produce, on a daily basis, the equivalent of a paperback book.

With the well-documented reductions in resources that newspapers are dealing with in these tough economic times, the challenges and issues in all newsroom are becoming more difficult. We recognize that readers do not want to hear excuses; they want news and we are well aware of our responsibilities.

So I want to use this opportunity to publicly thank our copy desk for their front-line work, on deadline, every day of the year. Led by Christy Hoffknecht, the copy desk is the production end of the newsroom. They are not the "feet on the street" and they do not get bylines and they do not often get the credit they deserve. They compose pages, edit copy, plow through reams of wire stories, tend to our Web site and write headlines as the clock ticks down to press time. It's the worst sort of job: They are typically only noticed when something goes wrong.

More often lately, they must scramble to make the important late calls. Late Thursday night, for instance, details were sketchy about the numerous shootings in Salinas, but our copy desk continued to plug away on the phones until they were able to verify much of what readers got on Friday morning.

The subject of Thursday night's shootings should not pass without extending professional kudos to Dan Green at KSBW. His live six-minute interview with Salinas Mayor Dennis Donohue about the increasing incidents of violence in the city was great to see, a reminder that Green has not lost his journalistic chops and that he is capable of asking the right questions. It was tense, raw and challenging, and Green did not let Donohue off the hook. Viewing the interview, it reminded me of what our reporters go through with sources virtually every day — except that our interviews are not broadcast live.

Monday, January 12, 2009

A post about a turtle

 This is not the first time we have been accused of being unwitting accomplices to the dissemination of inappropriate commentary regarding our next president.

 A letter to the editor last July referred to Barack Obama as a "post turtle." It went on to explain that when you're walking down the road and spot a turtle stranded atop a fence post, you can be rather certain that it didn't get up there all by itself.

  It apparently is a Southernism, one that I must have missed during my middle-school years in Virginia. (At Jefferson Davis Junior High School in Hampton, Va., in the early '60s, the racism was not subtle.)

 After receiving some criticism for allowing post turtle it into the paper quite near Obama's name, I checked a database of news stories and found the term had been applied with some regularity to the current president, less often to Sarah Palin and fairly often to many other people, none of them black, as far as I could tell.

 Checking further, I found that it is meant to convey the view that the person being so labeled wouldn't be where he/she is without help from others but that the meaning can be somewhat meaner, that whoever is being called a post turtle doesn't deserve to be where he/she is.

 I learned all of this shortly after a frequent letter writer complained that "post turtle" obviously is a racist term. If I remember our subsequent conversations correctly, I believe he accused us of A. Knowing it was racist and B. Using it anyway. 

 They say ignorance is no excuse, but actually it can be a darned good one.

  I'm not convinced at all that it is a racist reference and I certainly wouldn't have allowed it into the paper if I thought it would offend more than a handful of reasonable readers.

 What I conclude from this is that the Obama administration is going to get its fair share of criticism and that we'll need to be on the lookout for letter writers who feel compelled to put a racial spin, obvious or not, on their commentary. 


Is Mister Bluebird harmless, innocuous and exceedingly treacly? Or blatantly racist?

The questions arise after an author of a Letter to the Editor wrote that Barack Obama will be our "Zip-a-dee-do-dah" president. In several subsequent letters we've received, the writer has since been called a racist and we've been accused of racial insensitivity for printing it.

In this case, context is the key issue. The lyrics of the song itself is all happiness and light. I can feel my blood sugar rising just reading the following lines:

"Zip-a-dee-doo-dah, zip-a-dee-ay,
My, oh, my, what a wonderful day.
Plenty of sunshine headin' my way,
Zip-a-dee-doo-dah, zip-a-dee-ay!

"Mister Bluebird's on my shoulder,
It's the truth, it's 'actch'll'
Everything is 'satisfactch'll.'"

The problem is that the song was featured in "Song of the South," a 1946 Disney production, and presented by Uncle Remus, a character rife with racial stereotypes. As presented in 1946, the depiction of Uncle Remus reeks of the era's white ignorance toward post-Civil War reconstruction and the African-American culture. So the ditty, on its face harmless in its thick corn syrup, is considered by some a relic of America's racial divide.

For others, it's an anthem of optimism that has been covered by everyone from Michael Jackson to Billy Ray Cyrus to Louis Armstrong to The Hollies. And the term itself has wedged its way into English vernacular, usually as a signal to others that they're communicating with a hopeless square.

So was the Letter to the Editor inappropriate? Given the breadth of sarcastic rhetoric throughout the letter -- land of milk and honey, the fiddling Nero, blue bird of happiness -- I doubt the author had racist intent. And, given the ubiquitous use of the term among a certain generation, it never occurred to us that it might have negative connotations.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Welcome to Ask the Editors

The folks at The Herald will occasionally, if not inevitably, do something that a lot of readers can't figure out. The natural response by some readers is to complain to friends, place angry telephone calls to the appropriate editor, write letters to the editor, bang out an outraged comment on our Web site or cancel subscriptions.

As with newspapers everywhere, we are accused of every sort of wacky conspiracy. It is assumed we kowtow to advertisers. Advertisers complain that we aren't nice enough to them. Liberals assume every story we do promotes establishment conservatives. Conservatives assume every story we do promotes the radical left. We ignore the righteous. We play up the negative.

For the most part, the editors suck it up, chalking it all up to having the misfortune of being the messenger. For decades, we have allowed both the legitimate concerns and the utter nonsense to pass without comment, which is a disservice to our readers — and to ourselves. Rarely have readers been given an explanation for the things we sometimes do that might seem odd.

Most recently, for instance, we were ripped a new one by the anonymous haters who lurk in the comments section of our Web site, charging that we are part of some silly conspiracy, because a small item in a Prof. Toro column did not include the name of the ice cream shop owner in Pacific Grove who told a soldier that he wasn't welcome in his shop.

In that case, we thought we had good reason not to include the name of the shop or the owner and we would have loved to explain our rationale.

We are aware that our explanations will never mollify the temple-throbbers who habitate the cowardly confines of anonymous Web comment boards.

However, our explanations might provide a better understanding to the greater sphere of rational readers about how newspaper professionals grapple with our rights and responsibilities.

We might not always be right, but our loyal, rational and engaged readers at least deserve to know what we were thinking.

Which is why we are unveiling our Ask the Editors blog.

In this blog, we will discuss the challenges we face in The Herald's newsroom. We will answer readers' questions. We will address some of the nonsense that goes on in our comment board. And we will likely go off on the occasional weird tangent.

Executive Editor Joe Livernois will host the blog. But other editors at The Herald will also participate, answer questions and go off on their own occasional weird tangent.