Dissenting voices help make papers strong
For 13 years, James Goldsborough was a popular, at times controversial columnist for the San Diego Union-Tribune. Liberal readers in particular found his columns attacking President Bush, especially over the war in Iraq, a provocative and comforting antidote to the steadfastly Republican perspective of the paper’s editorial page.
But Friday was Goldsborough’s last day at the Union-Tribune.
Last month, David Copley -- the publisher of the paper and the president and chairman of its parent company, Copley Press Inc. -- killed one of Goldsborough’s columns, and Goldsborough says he felt he had no choice but to resign in protest. The incident has triggered heated debate in San Diego media circles.
Goldsborough’s columns appeared twice a week on the editorial and/or Op-Ed pages. The spiked column consisted largely of a pre-election, dinner-table exchange between Goldsborough and an old friend -- a professor of political economy -- about whether significant numbers of Jews would vote for President Bush in the Nov. 2 election.
Goldsborough’s friend, a Jew, essentially argued, “It’s impossible Jews could ever vote for Bush.” Goldsborough disagreed but -- writing his column after the election -- he noted that the Jewish vote ran 74% for John Kerry to 25% for Bush, compared with 79% for Al Gore to 19% for Bush in 2000.
“Bush’s pandering, his Iraq war and complete abandonment of ten years of progress toward Middle East peace picked up some Jewish votes for him,” Goldsborough wrote. “But if my friend ... is right, the strong Jewish vote for Kerry indicates a hunger among them not just for peace and justice in the Middle East but for the same thing at home.”
According to Harold Fuson, vice president and chief legal officer for Copley Press, the publisher killed that column because he thought it might offend some in the Jewish community.
I’m Jewish. I read the column, and I was not the least bit offended. Nor were many San Diego Jews who e-mailed Goldsborough their support and/or signed on to a local website, Jewishsightseeing.com, which posted the spiked column.
But some members of the Jewish community had been very critical of some of Goldsborough’s previous columns on Mideast issues, and Copley may have been reluctant to risk offending them anew.
Goldsborough thinks there’s more to it than that. He says Copley had been “upset for a long time about a lot of my anti-Bush columns, and this was payback,” part of what Goldsborough calls a broader effort to rid the paper of “independent, anti-establishment, moderate and liberal views.”
He cited the relatively recent departures -- one voluntary, one not -- of two longtime Union-Tribune colleagues as evidence of that “purge.” I spoke with both men, and while they agreed with Goldsborough, I didn’t find any of their arguments terribly persuasive. And Fuson, whom I know from his days many years ago as an in-house counsel at The Times, denied the charge and told me the paper is “actively looking for someone to fill Jim’s spot” on the ideological spectrum.
Besides, Copley didn’t fire Goldsborough. Goldsborough quit. And when Goldsborough e-mailed Copley to tell him he’d quit, the publisher e-mailed back to urge him to reconsider, Goldsborough says. “He said we’d disagreed in the past and gotten beyond those disagreements and we could get beyond this too,” Goldsborough told me.
Goldsborough didn’t think that was possible.
“I’ve never had a column killed before,” he said. “You don’t do that without discussing it. I couldn’t continue as a columnist, worrying every time about what I would have to do to get my column past David Copley.”
Copley’s not talking
What does Copley have to say about all this? I don’t know. When I called his office, his secretary asked what I was calling about, and when I told her, she said Copley was on medical leave and wouldn’t respond to my questions.
He has had serious health problems this year, but they did not keep him from reading and killing Goldsborough’s column, and I thought I could avoid taxing him too greatly with my questions. No chance, she said.
I also tried to reach Karin Winner, the editor of the Union-Tribune and the person who both showed Goldsborough’s column to Copley and then told Goldsborough of Copley’s rejection. But she didn’t return my phone calls.
Fuson, however, said he’d spoken with Copley -- whose health seems to fluctuate depending on who wants to talk to him -- and he was happy to defend him and, on his behalf, to reject Goldsborough’s theory of why his column had been killed.
Copley succeeded his mother, Helen, at the Copley helm after she retired in 2001 (she died in August), and he “takes genuine pride in having our opinion pages represent a broad spectrum of opinion,” Fuson said. “He’s not reluctant to have his newspaper offend people as long as the analysis is worth the risk. He didn’t think it was worth it in this case. He thought there was a lack of sensitivity in the way [Goldsborough] handled the issue ... painting Jewish voting patterns with a broad brush.”
Fuson said he couldn’t recall Copley’s ever having killed a column before, “but he’s more involved in editorial board meetings and decisions than most owners, and I think it’s not that uncommon for him to see some columns before publication.”
But seeing a column and killing a column are two very different things. I’ve spoken with editors about this often over the 30 years I’ve been writing about the media, and I spoke with several again this week in response to the situation in San Diego.
All agreed that columnists are given wide latitude in what they write about and how they write, and none could recall ever having killed a column by a regular staff columnist.
“Columnists get paid to have strong perspectives, and they’re going to be offensive on occasion,” said David Yarnold, editor of the San Jose Mercury News. “Being offensive is not enough reason to kill an opinion column.” Yarnold and other editors I spoke with said that if a column were egregiously and harmfully offensive, indulging in cruel and unfair racial stereotypes, for example, they might ask the columnist to try to rework the column. But none said he or she would just kill a column outright, without discussion, as apparently happened in Goldsborough’s case.
Last year, New York Times editors ignited a firestorm of controversy when they killed two sports columns dealing with the Augusta National Golf Club’s refusal to admit women, and the Times’ view that Tiger Woods should publicly attack that policy.
The columns, somewhat revised, were ultimately published, but the top editors’ mishandling of the situation contributed to a growing disenchantment with their leadership and may have been a factor, albeit a relatively small one, in their ouster after the Jayson Blair affair.
No one can oust David Copley. He is, as Fuson says, “the owner of the paper. He doesn’t have to answer to 300,000 nameless shareholders.” But I don’t think he should have killed that column without discussing it with his columnist and trying to resolve his concerns to their mutual satisfaction.
I don’t want newspapers to emulate the shouting heads on television and talk radio or those bloggers who spew thoughtless venom into cyberspace. But it’s important for newspapers to have strong individual voices -- distinctive and disparate voices -- if they are to survive in an increasingly competitive and personalized media environment. Goldsborough is just such a voice -- and I’ve thought that even when I’ve disagreed with him. Copley was wrong to allow that voice to disappear from the pages of his newspaper, whatever his motivation.
David Shaw can be reached at email@example.com. To read his previous “Media Matters” columns, please go to latimes.com/shaw-media.
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