President’s Column: “Brakes”

Ben PollockBy Ben S. Pollock
NSNC President

A huge columnist controversy — looking to be the worst in years — began in mid-March, only it turned out to be so puny it ran its course in days.

It seemed a microcosm to our desperate economic times and the end of newspapers as we know them: A metro daily surrendered its independence to an advertiser; a columnist resigned in protest.

While that is what happened, the tempest in the teapot shrank to where there was plenty of room for milk and honey, which cooled the tea off, let me tell you. So sit over here and let me pour you a cup.

Chrysler Crisis

Scott Burgess is auto critic of The Detroit News. (Find his work at http://tinyurl.com/burgess-page)  Sometimes he’s reporting, but in the first person, making it a column. He analyzes trends, making him a commentator. He also critiques the new models. Most of the time, he’s reviewing, which shows how close the two genres often are. In a March piece he panned the new Chrysler 200, introduced with a stunning Super Bowl commercial narrated by hometown rapper Eminem, comparing the model with the renaissance of Detroit. Burgess noted technical specs with confidence and also sparsely for the lay audience, yet he was as colorful with similes as any Broadway critic.

A car dealer complained to the paper about the print version, and editors put on the brakes, toning down the Chysler 200 column for the paper’s online edition. Burgess resigned in protest, and news of this went viral, first in the Gawker outlet Jalopnik, http://tinyurl.com/burgess-out.

To a newsie, this is black-and-white, with little gray. U.S. newspapers for over a century — as well as the Big Three networks and the top weekly newsmagazines when they came into play roughly eight decades ago — gain and hold subscribers by reputations of fairness and independence. This theoretically may sting the occasional advertiser, but retailers take their lumps because all they’re after is the attention of those subscribers.

Reporters, photographers and columnists of good media outlets yearn for the chance to boast, “My publisher (or editor) had my back.”

The gray: Detroit’s post-publication deletions were minor. Every criticism Burgess had of the 200 stayed in, and most of his colorful phrases remained as well. I’ve been an editor for most of my three decades in journalism, and the cuts made the column, “Chrysler 200 Falls Short of the Competition”, leaner and stronger. (The link above shows the struck-through changes.) Burgess still writes, strongly, that Chrysler failed to design the car that it should have.

If the edits had been made before the first edition, no reader would have been the wiser, and Burgess might not even have minded.

Not too long ago, a reporter or columnist resigning in protest was not that rare. If they were any good, they’d find a comparable job somewhere in the country soon. This century though, when full-time journalists turn in their employee IDs, voluntarily or not, we assume we’ll never find a job remotely similar.

I don’t know what Burgess thought or even if he was confident enough to assume his employer might show up with a bouquet of roses.
The arrangement was composed of a dozen red American Beauties: The Detroit News published a story (http://tinyurl.com/detnews-return) explaining how it apologized to Burgess and that he rescinded his resignation. The News even reposted the column, “2011 Chrysler 200 Falls Short of the Competition,” as originally published. Jalopnik reports the conclusion at http://tinyurl.com/burgess-back.

Seems like the only time my newspaper might apologize to any of us is when the pop machine in the breakroom jams.

Proving the Exception

One thing learned early in adulthood — if you listen to peers outside the industry — it’s not just journalism, but everyone sucks up. Oh, you have no boss because you’re in business for yourself? Then you suck up directly to the customer.

Running parallel, newsroom novices, from all those journalism classes, soon figure out that Freedom of the Press doesn’t seem to mean them. The publisher owns that civil right. We’re pawns.

During The Week That Wasn’t, this First Amendment reality was hauled out as one defense of The Detroit News’ initial actions. Corporate owners of news media are scared, and if some old ways (like ink on paper) are fading, maybe other old principles (editorial independence) are outmoded, too.

There’s a problem though with the saw about the guy who buys ink by the barrel and paper by the ton. Publishers don’t exercise their rights.

They hire people for that.

Publishers contract out their freedom of the press. They pay people to find facts. They pay people to make opinions. (And take pictures, draw maps and design pages.) And to do it with a flare that gets attention and wins eyes. The more eyes the more advertising dollars.

Scott Burgess was hired, and rehired, for his proven fact-gathering, writing clarity and boisterousness. Guys like that are hired precisely to skate on the edge. Editors keep watch not only to keep their charges’ imaginations in check but to motivate them when they get soft, boring, repetitive or, heaven forbid, derivative (plagiarism).

The Rest of Us

We all dance on this line of how far to go. We’re columnists as employees (staff), as contractors (freelance) or as sole proprietors (blog). Even lovers of snarky putdowns and imaginative metaphors worry that their views hit home and that readers will want to see the next piece. Every one of us makes judgment calls on taste and offense.

Whatever the avenue, the larger the publication the more the writer can get away with.

In New York, you could note as Dorothy Parker did in 1934 of the opportunity to “watch Katharine Hepburn run the gamut of emotions from A to B.”

In Podunk, everyone knows everyone in town, or at least within its arts community, and what can a fair critic demand of Podunk Little Theatre? Should he avoid that tangle? Is it worth writing the hero had to slam the door three times to latch and nearly knocked the set down? Is just that observation worth years of repercussions? Sometimes yes and sometimes no.

In 1991 I reviewed an anthology of a literary magazine whose editor, a faculty member, also worked part-time on my copy desk. It deserved the rave I gave. Yet I also wrote: “Many of the 104 poems and 15 stories concern professors or students. … [Apparently] most creative writers these days are college teachers, not insurance sellers, homemakers or even journalists.” My colleague avoided me for the rest of the time he worked there. I apologized, without retracting my observation, but it didn’t work.

Most columnists are not critics, are not out to do anything but entertain or examine local issues closely. Some of us are thick-skinned enough to handle sore feelings, but what’s worse than being misunderstood?

Me, Mr. Big Shot

That’s how I find fault with Burgess, The Detroit News and comments on their blow-up, yet maybe I’m less than sincere.

Y’all know I’ve never been a full-time columnist. When I have written a newspaper column off and on, it’s been a weekly on the side of various jobs. I had a chance at a full-time three- to four-day-a-week gig, though.

I interviewed at a small daily in 1998. The executive editor and managing editor took me to lunch at a country club. I already knew the executive editor and the paper, as I interned for him in 1979.

I probably would have turned down the offer due to its tiny salary; that may have been the intention of their lowball. What freaked me out was the chief’s job description.

“Names, names, names,” he said. Oh. An items column was not my first pick, but I was sure I could excel and come to enjoy it. Then he said, “You know, we have an all-but-written policy, ‘Thou shalt not make fun of advertisers.'”

Fair enough, I said, but what if a source had a good story about fixing a flat on Goodyears he just bought at the local Sears? We’d cut it, he said, you’ll always be edited closely.

They wanted me to write about gardening clubs and give the address of Yard of the Month. That’s what readers wanted, they said. To illustrate, the men described the last columnist. She covered those, sure, but she “overcovered” a group working to create an annual blues festival, which caused too many arguments with them.

I said it sounded like the music fest, or similar endeavors, would be not only reader-friendly but chamber of commerce-friendly. I didn’t understand, I was told. Readers prefer “names names names.”

So I chose an editing position with a column on the side in another city. Over the 33 months that job lasted, my editor killed one column and severely edited another. A third column, we both wish he had returned to me, as a couple of flip comments were not worth the complaints. The readers were right; I was unfair. That column gig was about as free reign as Burgess’ has been.

That items columnist? She had resigned to start a monthly city magazine for that community, and she’s still publishing it. The blues fest continues to run every summer. Months after that lunch, the managing editor was gone. A couple of years after that, the executive editor was arrested and though later acquitted, it cost him his job (but ironically kept his column a few more years).

I respect the editors who succeeded those two, so if I had taken the job and held on, it sure might’ve turned out sweet.

Those are the breaks.

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