by Pete Mazzaccaro
Editors of newspapers and websites everywhere probably hear the question more than any other: “How could you publish that?”
As a general rule, it’s the first volley by an angry reader who has been mortally offended by something he or she has just read. Often the offending piece is a letter or an opinion. And almost always, defending publication of the piece to someone who has been offended by it is really tough if not impossible.
These discussions quickly become faith-based. Both the reader and the editor believe in their conclusions – the reader in having the right to be offended and the editor in having the right to publish the offending piece – and are not easily going to back down.
I recently found myself in just this situation. The particulars are not as important as the general issue. A reader was incensed by statements made in an opinion piece. The writer’s conclusions were wrong. The writer wasn’t making logical sense. The whole piece was just a big lie. I should never have published the piece, the reader said. In fact I should retract the whole thing.
Now it’s probably worth mentioning something that I think many readers don’t understand. When an editor publishes a piece, it does not mean the editor agrees with its contents (Fox News and Al Gore’s network excepted). It means only that the editor finds the arguments within compelling and/or timely.
Editor’s want debate in the pages. Strong opinion and debate is what keeps an opinion page lively. If readers are not driven to respond, you’ll quickly have an opinion page that’s as lifeless as computer manual.
Because of that, I regularly run opinions I don’t agree with. I run opinions that I think are are hyperbolic. I run opinions that I think are loony. But they are opinions. Which brings me to my next point. Opinions writers should not misstate facts, but they are allowed to draw their own conclusions no matter how wrong those conclusions appear to be.
This is where defending the offending opinion can get tricky. How do you explain the fine points of opinion to a reader who was so maddened by the piece that it compelled him to burn all his copies of your publication in his backyard?
That reader isn’t interested in the fact that you want to keep your opinion page lively. He wants an explanation as to how such falsehoods could appear in print. He will quickly point out D. Patrick Moynihan’s axiom on opinions: “You are entitled to your own opinion, but you are not entitled to your own facts.”
And this is true. There is such a thing as a wrong opinion. You can’t, for example, believe that the world is flat and be right at the same time. But those sorts of statements aren’t generally the kind that offend.
What often offends people, what readers take exception to time and again, are statements of opinion that express causal relationships with which the reader simply doesn’t agree. We see this in politics all the time, where there are two views and those who hold one particular view believe those who don’t aren’t just “of a different opinion” but dead wrong.
There are those who believe the Constitution protects gay marriage. And there are those who don’t. By printing those last 16 words, I’m sure I’ll provoke response by advocates of either side.
The thing is this: There is definitely subjective truth. And there are definitely people who will purposefully bend and ignore subjective truth to work an agenda. But I think we’re often wrong if we jump to the conclusion that opinions we don’t agree with are purposefully doing just that. I think we’ve all become so skeptical that it is the first conclusion we come to.
I, for one, am pretty sure I disagree with nearly everything Republican Presidential candidate Rick Santorum says. But I think he really believes what he says. He’s drawn conclusions from experience and facts that are in direct opposition with the conclusions I’ve drawn from some of the same things.
Yes, debate and argument can be exhausting. And it’s not fun to read things you don’t agree with. Happens to me every day. Yet having these debates are important. Reading opinions we don’t agree with is important. Progress is built by arguing about these things until we do finally begin to agree on things that we allbeleive are true, like: Women should be allowed to vote and work (right Rick?).
So I am sorry I if offend from time to time with opinions published here in the Local. But offending you is not my intention. Only by debating these things in the open can we get anywhere at all. That is exactly what a paper, or any other forum anywhere, should be doing. Anything else just isn’t worth it.