Columnist quits over edited column

Scott Burgess, Detroit News auto writer, has quit his job because a highly critical column was edited, according to Ray Wert of the popular auto blog, Jalopnik. The blog claims that the edit was due to pressure from auto advertisers who did not like Burgess’ assessment of the Chrysler 200. The Chrysler 200 is the focus of a multi-million marketing campaign meant to symbolize the rebirth of Detroit.

Changes were made to the online version of Burgess’ review, but it was too late to change the print version, already published. While the changes did not convert a negative review into a positive one, it “softened” the barbs which included such comments as, “…Band-Aids on sheet metal never really stick.” and “Regrettably the 200 is still a dog.”

Remember that Detroit is Motor City and people have motor oil in their veins instead of blood. Anything negative about a highly-promoted car is a stab in the soul of the hyper-sensitive automobile industry, not to mention a stab in the bank account. However, a newspaper letting pressure from outside influence what they print is usually seen by those in the media as a violation of widely upheld journalistic standards that demand neutrality.

A high-profile columnist, such as Scott Burgess, expects to be able to operate with complete freedom of expression and to express strong opinions without restraint. Letting advertisers influence what is published in the paper is “selling your soul.”

Columnists, as we know, have fragile egos and do not like their words changed. Editing a columnist’s opinion hurts as much as editing the facts of a news story, even if the thrust of the story remains the same. But quitting a good job over one column seems extreme in these days of newspaper lay-offs and cutbacks. We have to wonder if perhaps other unreported issues were involved.

Editors at the Detroit News say the changes were made to improve the journalism of the piece after complaints called it to their attention. They claim they would respond the same to any reader complaint. Frankly speaking, the story reads better after the edits, but that’s beside the point.

One NSNC columnist sagely observed that as things become worse and worse for the newspaper business, we might as well get used to the idea that the dividing line between advertisers and editorials is going to become thinner than in times past.

The News publisher, Jon Wolman, somewhat apologized: “Our intent was to make an editing improvement and we obviously handled it poorly. We should have let the online version of his review stand as written, as we did the print version.”

Perhaps a simple disclaimer would have served the purpose better. In this badly botched situation, both writer and paper have suffered a blow to credibility. As we are all too aware as columnists, once words are printed in ink, they can’t really ever be taken back. It is a bit late to edit a piece after it has already been published.

~Sheila Moss, NSNC WebEditor

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