So far I have received three letters in response to my story about St. John members removing their pastor from office. Two said my report was biased and unbalanced. Both were thoughtful and pointed out ways that I could have made the story more accurate and balanced. What was interesting was that one letter said I was biased in favor of the board and its motion to remove the pastor, while the other letter said I was favoring the pastor.
The third letter said that I should never have written the story, balanced or not, because it was a private family problem that should not have been made public.
I frequently hear complaints about reporting in the Review. Sometimes these complaints are valid. Sometimes they reveal the bias of those doing the complaining. Clearly the Forest Park Review does not always get the story right. Sometimes people believe the topics written about are not appropriate for a smalltown paper. Clearly editorial judgments get made with which not everyone feels comfortable. What, then, is the value and purpose of a small community paper?
If you should want to find out about what the Forest Park schools were like in the 1960s or the circumstances surrounding Jim Ryan becoming Chief of Police or how Mainstreet Redevelopment Corporation helped transform our downtown, chances are that you would go online or to the library and look up articles in this community’s hometown newspaper called the Forest Park Review.
Sometimes the New York Times is referred to as the “newspaper of record,” meaning the one newspaper in the United States that is looked to as the best source of information regarding what “really happened” in events that were of national import.
That is part of the function of a small community newspaper for its readership. It is in many cases the source of record. If you want to know what really happened last month or last year, the Forest Park Review is the best place to look. Now, of course, you could interview all the people involved yourself and come to your own conclusion, but few people have the time, energy or access to all the players that would enable them to get the facts and balance they would need. And, in the end, do you think you would be any more objective?
Does the Review in general and do I in particular get it wrong sometimes? Of course we do. In this regard, it did make me feel better about my fallibility to hear that even the New York Times screws up sometimes. Part of what makes the Review the source of record, despite its lack of perfection, is that if this paper does get some fact or chronology wrong, you can bet that there will be a letter to the editor in the very next issue of this source of record attempting to balance the story. One of the things that is insidious about gossip, is that gossipers are never held accountable in public. And I’ve heard a lot of gossip in my twenty-three years in this town.
In many cases the Review is the only public account the intention of which is to be objective and balanced.
For example, at the St. John meeting where members voted to remove the pastor, the proceedings were run according to Robert’s Rules of Order. According to these rules, discussion follows a motion or a second and must be confined to the motion on the floor. The motion was to remove the pastor, which necessitated that the discussion be adversarial, i.e. either for or against the motion. The rules governing the meeting made it almost impossible for anyone to be balanced in what they said. You had to speak for or against the motion. According to the rules, you had to take sides.
There was one document quoted at the meeting which attempted to not take sides. It was the report of the Ambassadors of Reconciliation, which in my reading of it was very balanced. But that night, speakers at the microphone cited only the sections that supported their point of view.
I’m not faulting them, because it was an adversarial situation, and that’s what you do in trying to win your point in a debate. In the confirmation hearings for Justices Roberts and Alito, the two judges would respond to probing questions from senators about something they had said in the past by frequently saying that they were behaving as lawyers at the time who were speaking on behalf of their clients.
I’m sure many of the people sitting in the pews that night, very much like a jury, were trying to be balanced and fair in their listening, but the Review reporter sitting in the balcony was the only one, as far as I could tell, who was there with the sole intention of making a public statement that was objective.
When you think about it, much of the public discourse we hear is one sided. We’ve learned to be skeptical of everything we hear in commercials. We tend to ask ourselves what the other side would say when we hear politicians speak. And we know we’re not hearing the whole story when we hear about the reasons for a divorce from only one of the party’s involved. It’s not that anything said is untrue, but then we don’t expect it to be a full disclosure either, because we understand that the message we are hearing is trying to persuade us.
It’s not that the hometown newspaper always reaches its goal of objectivity. But often it is the only participant in public discourse whose purpose is to make an objective report rather than to argue for a point of view.