Before I get into the main topic of today’s column, I want to thank the many people who responded so positively to my column last week regarding suicide. It’s a tough topic, but it would seem that many people were grateful for my writing it. I truly hope it helps someone; if nothing else, I hope it helps start some very much needed conversations.
In the meantime, Thursday (yesterday, for those of you reading this column on its publication date of April 19, 2019) was National Columnists Day. Sponsored by the National Society of Newspaper Columnists (NSNC), the observance “marks not only the tragic death of iconic American newsman Ernie Pyle, but is also a day for journalists everywhere to unite in solidarity.”
About a month ago, NSNC Vice President Chandra Bozelko reached out to columnists and other journalists across the country to participate, and I decided to respond.
Let’s start with some quick background. Who was Ernie Pyle? If for some reason you’ve never heard the name, Pyle was a World War II correspondent who died on April 18, 1945, in the line of duty while covering the Okinawa campaign. After studying at Indiana University, he worked for a small-town newspaper, went on to do some editing jobs and then became a roving reporter/columnist for Scripps Howard. Even before WWII, his column ended up in as many as 200 newspapers across the country. According to the NSNC, Pyle covered campaigns in North Africa, Italy and France, for which he earned the coveted Pulitzer Prize that was just handed out again this week, by the way.
As for the journalistic solidarity the NSNC celebrated yesterday and that is spilling over to today and over the weekend depending on newspapers’ printing schedules, this year’s National Columnists Day is, unsurprisingly, somewhat focused on the need to respond to various attacks on the media.
One of the things the NSNC wanted folks to do was write a column about why we publish opinions -- what’s the point of, in our case, pages 2 and 3?
For me, these two pages are the true expression of part of the First Amendment to the Constitution: “Congress shall make no law ... abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press...”
In addition to the freedom we have to publish front page stories that examine our government, from city hall to the White House, we also have the freedom to publish cartoons, editorials, columns and -- here’s where your individual right to the freedom of speech comes in -- letters to the editor critiquing that same government.
With those freedoms come responsiblities. We can’t print fake news, which I define as either the deliberate or grossly negligent attempt to mislead readers into believing things that aren’t true. We make mistakes, yes, but we work very hard not to as opposed to just printing anything we darn well please.
We also can’t allow you, in your letters to the editor, or columns written by regular or guest writers, to libel an individual, group, corporation, organization or even the government. Opinion is one thing, defamation is another.
For example, we have three letters to the editor today, two of which focus on economic development issues we’ve been covering for some time now. Both are critical of the county’s efforts in that arena; one even asks whether or not a change in leadership is necessary.
However, at no point does either reader make a personal attack on anyone or make any claims that could easily be proven false. We could print these letters because they meet the standard of responsible free speech. That is subjective, yes, but based on years and years of having to make such decisions using our knowledge and experience with such issues.
Editorials are this newspaper’s “collective” opinion on a particular matter. Columns are one individual’s opinion, sometimes on the same matters, sometimes about things that are personal to them. Letters to the editor are the same, but by readers rather than regular or guest columnists. Cartoons help shed a light on issues as only art can.
All of these types of opinion pieces help us to highlight things that are going right as well as wrong. They help us understand our communities and the world around us. They help us understand each other better, hopefully fostering unity in our communities rather than further deepening divides.
Sometimes, they even help bring about needed change in concert with front page stories that dive deep into the nuts and bolts of an issue.
So, why do pages 2 and 3 matter? They offer opinions for you to think about so you can form your own. They serve as your voice -- a voice that would otherwise be silent if it weren’t for the First Amendment -- to express your own opinions on those same and other matters.
Free press. Free speech. Pages 2 and 3 are, perhaps, their most sacred expression.