Public Editor

May 24, 2013

Should pundits put their fingers to the wind?

Readers often suggest The Star’s opinion pieces should reflect what the majority of the readership agrees with. Is that a good idea?

I’ve often said that I don’t think it’s a good use of my position simply to convey the many, many objections I hear to individual pieces of commentary that run in The Star’s Opinion section. While I generally agree with the longstanding critique that the lineup of columnists tilts too far to the left for balance (something that I don’t think is quite as glaring today as it has been in recent years past), I don’t see the value of relaying subjecting opinions about columns in this space. After all, there’s no shortage of outlets for personal views on matters political and societal these days.

One emailer this week expressed a thought analogous to this conversation, and it’s one I hear often:

“When will the powers that be at The Kansas City Star realize that (Pundit X) does not express the general philosophy of Midwesterners and the vast majority of Kansas City Star readers, and in fact offends their sensibilities? Indeed, (Pundit X) reflects a very small minority although it may be the prevalent view at The Kansas City Star.”

The first thing I’d note is that I think many readers have a misconception about what a “prevalent view” would be at The Star, or in any newsroom or especially a group of editorial writers. A careful reading of even the columnists who tend to the left most strongly will show a lot more diversity of opinion than some readers give them credit for. For example, the editorial board’s Yael T. Abouhalkah is a constant critic of waste in public spending — hardly a traditional tentpole liberal concern.

I always believe in the absolute principle that everyone — the reader as much as anyone — is entitled to personal opinions. And I love it when I can funnel an articulate reader concern to the Letters page for it to get a much wider audience than a comment on a Web story. I wish the Letters page received more thoughtful submissions from conservative critics of The Star’s editorial board and columnists. (I worked on the page for eight years, and I can tell you honestly that good, non-religious conservative letters are always at a premium. So you good writers out there, get to it.)

But is it healthy for any pundit, whether an individual writer or the editorial board, to base opinions on what the majority of the audience already agrees on? I find that argument a hard sell.

Some of the biggest successes in the conservative opinion world, particularly in broadcast, have made their achievements as iconoclasts. Isn’t the core appeal of Rush Limbaugh that he’s been willing for many years to air the ideas he suggests nobody else has the guts to say?

The content of opinion pieces don’t fall under my purview, and of course I don’t direct anyone else at The Star. And while of course I acknowledge some conservatives’ wish to see more of their points of view in the paper, I think it is ultimately bad business for any source of punditry that aims itself at a general audience, as newspapers do, to intentionally cater to what it thinks its readers want to hear. Of course openly partisan sources have their audiences, and they can be big ones. But if you subscribe to The Nation or watch Fox News Channel’s commentators because you agree with them out of the gate, you don’t generally expect to see much that will really challenge you there. Newspaper companies, for better or for worse, today generally attempt to present (note I say attempt — not succeed) a wider variety of viewpoints.

People tell me all the time that they love to read certain pundits not because they agree, but because those writers challenge them, make them think, and sometimes even get their backs up. Me, I’d take provocative over comforting any day.

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