My brain is rapidly calcifying and the repartitioning of its hard drive to college life is still incomplete, and so I forgot that yesterday’s mini-rant about lousy headlines and boring newspapers was touched off by something I didn’t even mention: The apparent caning the Sacramento Bee is administering its political columnist, Daniel Weintraub. For the life of me, the only reason I can see for the crackdown is that Weintraub dared to speak an opinion in a forceful fashion that offended some people, and God knows we can’t have that.
On the paper’s political blog September 1, he wrote:
If [the California Lt. Governor’s] name had been Charles Bustmont rather than Cruz Bustamante, he would have finished his legislative career as an anonymous back-bencher. Thus there is reason to wonder how he would handle ethnic issues as governor.
And while people can debate forever whether MEChA and its more virulent cousins do or do not advocate ethnic separatism, it’s indisputably true that the Legislature’s Latino Caucus advocates policies that are destructive to their own people and to greater California, in the name of ethnic unity.
The whole entry is here. It’s strongly worded, but by no means crazy or off-the-wall. But, as you might expect, it started a chain reaction. Romenesko has been following the story — you can find links there, anyway — but this ombudsman column from the SacBee seems to sum it up, if you can parse newsroom politics the way a Kremlinologist can the May Day photograph. The problem, the column politely says, isn’t what Weintraub said; it’s that no editor had a chance to wring the life from it before it went up on the blog. (OK, I’m paraphrasing, with extreme prejudice.)
And Mickey Kaus, here, claims the problem wasn’t public reaction to Weintraub’s comments (as the ombudsman states), but newsroom reaction, and that I can believe. Wrote Kaus, His provocative anti-Bustamante comments were enough to trigger a newsroom-led bureaucratic Thermidor. (It was as if he was criticizing affirmative action!) Executive editor Rick Rodriguez says "folks on the staff brought" the issue to him after Weintraub’s posting. They "wanted to know if it was edited," he says, though he adds he suspects they mainly wanted to "yell at some editors" about it. Rodriguez volunteers the ethnic makeup of the angry newsroom "folks": "Some were Latino, some Anglo, some black." The result was a review of Weintraub’s status. "Our policy at the Bee is that everything’s edited," Rodriguez declares.
Amazingly, this may be the Bee’s best defense–in effect, "We didn’t let the Latino caucus muzzle Weintraub because we muzzled him first!" …One obvious test of the new arrangement: Would Weintraub’s new pre-clearance editors have allowed the offending sentence through? "Maybe, maybe not, but I think that conversation ought to be held," says Rodriguez. Other informed sources agree that some editors would OK it, some wouldn’t. That’s enough to confirm my suspicions that Weintraub doesn’t have the freedom he once had.
So, it seems the original question here — Daniel Weintraub can’t say that, can he? — has been obscured by the second one: Can he say that without an editor? It’s perfectly reasonable for a newspaper, which has much deeper pockets than Joe Blogger & Co., to want to edit every word that goes into it, for obvious reasons. But the implication here is that editors would want to "have a conversation" about saying such rude things about a Latino politician. Why? You can figure that out yourself: Because it would offend people, that’s why! And a newspaper must never, ever offend anyone! Especially over race or gender issues!
(Weintraub, who is a columnist and hence is permitted to have opinions, offers one example of the Latino caucus’ short-sightedness here.)
I’m not surprised newsroom elements — black, white, Latino or otherwise — were upset. There’s a deep-seated feeling in many newsrooms that while readers may call and complain over a photo from "Queer as Folk" on the cover of the TV book, they just need to get with the program. But if they call to say they’re offended on an ethnic question, then we need to improve our outlook. A few weeks ago, a Hollywood screenwriter who spoke to our class said the one thing you must never, ever do in a movie is hurt an animal. There’s a similar rule in journalism — do not arbitrarily offend on the basis of race or ethnicity.
And given that race is the elephant in the national living room, the one subject hardly anyone can discuss honestly, this doesn’t bode well for honesty arriving anytime soon.
I have a reader in California who’s a Weintraub fan. He wrote: Bad newspaper decisions? Look at the Sacto Bee over the weekend. They decided to hamstring their great weblog guy, Dan Weintraub, the "insider". I commended him to your attention some weeks ago as the guy with the word on the recall business here in California. He had become what amounts to the national person of record on the recall and was bringing an enormous amount of attention and status to the Bee. They looked like real forward thinkers in the newspaper world: a medium daily finally getting with it in the electronic arena. Then the Bee received a little complaint from Cruz Bustamante’s henchmen and bang! Just like that they knuckled under to the first peep from the first pressure group and took a dive back into mediocrity.
So you see, it’s not just me. It’s readers, too. Will editors ever figure out that for any discussion to move forward, it has to be discussed the way people discuss these things over their own dinner tables? I doubt it. And again, I’m reminded of what Susan Ager told us in Detroit last summer: People don’t cancel their subscriptions because they’re outraged. They cancel because they’re bored.
But we need to leave this subject smilin’. Another note from Deb: the headline at the top of sunday’s food page:
"spice keeps ’em cumin back for more"
ahem. is it just me, or was this ill-advised?
one of the first caveats I remember from j-school was this pearl from dr.ralph izard: "copy editors need to have dirty minds." tell it, bro.
Why am I bitching? I just got back from dinner at the director’s house. Duck on the grill, lentil salad, mixed fall greens, selection of cheeses. Oh, mama, but that was a meal. And all in the name of collegiality! Whatever our problems in the newspaper business, I’m sure we can solve them, if we eat enough grilled duck in the process. Also, we heard the news that one of our fellow Fellows has a best-seller in Turkey. The Turkish Jay McInerney! And I had dinner with him. Ain’t life sweet?