During my 20 years at The Kansas City Star, the news industry has gone through two massive upheavals. The first is obvious: the worldwide shift of reading patterns to digital delivery. Goodness knows I’ve spent plenty of column inches here sharing readers’ excellent thoughts on that topic.
The other may be less evident, but I’m convinced it has actually changed how people consume their news even more than the Internet. I’m referring to the rise and institutionalization of openly partisan news organizations.
They are a primary vector for how many people find out what’s going on in the world, and there’s certainly nothing wrong with that. But there are also many readers who remind me regularly that they look to sources such as The Star for the alternative to the echo chambers, both left and on the right.
Does that mean The Star is always impartial in its news coverage? Obviously not — and that’s why there has been someone in my role as an ombudsman, the readers’ voice in the newsroom, since 1982 when Donald D. “Casey” Jones first took the job.
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Having me here is a real commitment to making every attempt at reporting the news fairly and accurately, with a variety of viewpoints.
To use a metaphor I employ often, does Kraft have someone letting the public know when it ships a case of bad-tasting but not dangerous cheese? Of course not. But in the news business, airing your critics’ fair points makes for good business.
Of course, there is no such thing as an issue that has only two sides, and that is the biggest danger I see in people who get a lot of news from partisan organizations such as Fox News on the right, or Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show” on the left. (And please, spare me the often-repeated pablum that the show is bipartisan in its pursuit of stupidity.)
In the real world, things are murkier. I think we all tend to forget that people hold complex beliefs that some may consider in conflict with one another.
A personal example: I know a woman who is very active in a variety of civil rights causes, and especially those related to race. But she also strongly believes that gay people should not have rights equal to heterosexuals’, from employment policy to marriage. “It’s a sin, not a minority,” she once said.
“Left” and “right” don’t exactly apply, do they?
The Star’s opinion pages try to reflect a range of this imperfect spectrum, and I always get lots of reader comment about the mix that runs there. Editorial page editor Steve Paul had this comment:
Alternate opinions and arguments appear in the letters, in columns by editorial board members, in staff and syndicated cartoons and in syndicated columns. Every reader ought to find their own views represented somewhere on those pages over time, and if they don't see enough of that, then they should sit down and write a letter.
There are ultimately some points of view that I don’t think the section should give voice to. I believe most readers would find it offensive to read an op/ed from a Ku Klux Klan member, just as there would be widespread objection to one from a leftist revolutionary calling for violent overthrow of the government.
However, I also disagree with those who argue that the section should censor opinions from people who believe the prevailing wisdom in climate science should be questioned, or those who support Bernie Sanders, two objections as I’ve recently heard.
An elevated, thoughtful public discourse is best served by reporting and opinion that go beyond the misleading idea of “sides.”
New voices out there: Write letters. Get some novel ideas into the section. It isn’t all us versus them. Help mix it up.