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"Because I say so.".

We've all heard the horror stories. Some us have had the honor of actually living them:

* The publisher who decrees that a discouraging word never be heard - on the opinion page, at least - about a particular politician.

* The circulation manager who insists that your newspaper's "too liberal" or "too conservative" editorial stance is to blame for declining readership.

* The local car dealer who threatens to pull advertising if you ever run an editorial, letter, or column critical of the auto industry - and who happens to be your ad sales director's brother-in-law.

The Publisher From Hell and other threats to journalistic and editorial independence are as old as publishing itself. A.J. Liebling's hoary truism needs only slight revision for the new millennium: "Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one (or to their corporate minions)."

My earliest exposure to the ugly exercise of the publisher's prerogative came at my first newspaper on the day that the on-site manager for the chain literally ripped the editorial page editor's Sunday column off the flat. The column - which represented the editor's opinion, not the papers - was mildly critical of a local group of business leaders who had been pushing for development of a suburban shopping mall; the publisher, as the editor was well aware, was a member of that group.

The spiked column was leaked to a local TV station and attracted much more attention than if it had simply run. The editor, one of the smartest and most conscientious journalists I've ever known, was demoted and eventually moved on to work for better papers. The publisher left town, too, and no doubt has risen to ever-greater heights in the chain's corporate stratosphere - perhaps running its billboard division or something. And the mall eventually got built.

No harm, no foul? I don't think so. Readers were denied a valid perspective on an important community issue. The newspaper lost a valuable editorial resource. The public was given one more reason to doubt journalistic integrity. I'm sure the publisher would argue that he was responsible as well for the paper's financial integrity, and that anything that might have derailed the mall and its huge advertising potential was in neither the paper's nor the public's best interests. I wouldn't buy that reasoning, which probably precludes my chances of becoming a newspaper publisher.

A few examples of editorial/management conflicts are detailed in this month's Masthead symposium, Publishers and other problems from on high. These probably don't rank among the most egregious that our profession has ever witnessed. Most of them represent the sort of straightforward professional disagreements that are inevitable.

I'm fortunate to have a boss who actually owns the paper, who recognizes the value of a provocative, diverse opinion page to our customers and the community, and who takes an active interest in but rarely dictates - what we say in our editorials.

Far too many publishers, however, view opinion pages as nothing more than a way to anger readers and advertisers unnecessarily; their idea of an editorial page is a collection of inoffensive cartoons, letters of praise for the Cub Scout litter patrol, and canned thumbsucker "infotorials" generated by the chain, all thrown together by a copy editor in a few spare hours.

It is those sorts of publishers, far more than the ones who spike columns or get too cozy with the local Chamber of Commerce, that our profession most needs to worry about. In the cable/satellite/Internet era, an opinion ain't worth much and even an informed opinion can come pretty cheap. Unless we make the case to our bosses, emphatically and every day, that strong opinion pages are the vital heart of every great newspaper, readers will simply go elsewhere.

Were I a publisher, I might add, "Because I say so." But because I'm an editorial writer, I recognize that statement as an argument, not a rationale.
COPYRIGHT 1999 National Conference of Editorial Writers
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Title Annotation:publishers
Author:Zuzel, Michael
Publication:The Masthead
Article Type:Editorial
Date:Mar 22, 1999
Previous Article:Responses vary to end-of life dilemmas.
Next Article:The endorsement that wasn't.

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