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Conference center ommentary out of balance

Andy Stone

In the weeks immediately before and after the recent Vail elections, I received a number of complaints about how the Vail Daily was handling its coverage of the conference center ballot question.The Daily was clearly and strongly in favor of the proposed conference center, and the readers who called and e-mailed me felt the paper had gone too far in expressing that support.What follows is a somewhat lengthy examination of those complaints and the response from the paper’s editor and publisher. Reader complaints about newspaper coverage of heated local election campaigns aren’t unusual. When communities are divided and feelings run high, newspapers can easily be caught in the middle.In this case, the unhappy readers were not objecting to the paper’s news stories about the issue, which are usually the focus for complaints in a situation like this. In fact, one complaining reader took time out to specifically state that the stories by Vail Daily staff writer Edward Stoner were consistently fair.The complaints, instead, were focused on the Daily’s Commentary pages, which are intended to be a forum for opinions and, as such, are not expected to be as neutral as items on the news pages.The unhappy readers argued that the Commentary pages should offer equal access to both sides of an important community debate. They felt that, “since the Vail Daily is a monopoly,” to quote several callers, the paper has a special obligation to balance the contents of the opinion pages.The heart of their complaints was that they felt the Daily fell short on this obligation.Responding to these complaints, I reviewed every issue of the Daily from Oct. 1 through election Day, Nov. 8. In all, I tallied 145 separate items that focused on the conference center: news stories, editorials, “Quick Takes” (which are a kind of “mini-editorial”), letters to the editor, items from the anonymous call-in Tipsline, reprints of comments logged on the paper’s Web site, and front-page teasers for items inside the paper.In addition, I quizzed Managing editor Don Rogers and publisher Steve Pope about the paper’s policies and about the results of my review of those 39 issues of the Daily.I’ll begin by noting that I definitely agree with the caller who said that Edward Stoner’s news stories were scrupulously fair. Stoner often went out of his way to report the positions of both sides in the debate. It was good, solid, well balanced reporting.The contents of the Commentary pages, however, were far from balanced.I counted, for example, 39 Letters to the Editor that took positions on the conference center. Of those 26 clearly favored the center; 11 were opposed, just 2 were neutral.However, both Don Rogers and Steve Pope said that they ran every letter they received. They ran the letters in the order they received them and, taking into account the space limitations of the paper, they ran them as quickly as they could.In short, if there were more than twice as many letters supporting the center as opposing it, that would seem to be the result of the pro-center side simply being more active when it came to generating Letters to the Editor.The anonymous Tipsline comments were divided roughly 50-50 between pro-center and anti-center. The comments from the web site, though relatively few, were actually strongly opposed to the center: 2 in favor, 8 opposed.Columns by the papers roster of regular columnists were also evenly divided. Kaye Ferry wrote four strong columns against the center. Editor Don Rogers, who writes a regular, personal opinion column, wrote two columns supporting the center. Columnist Mike Cacioppo also wrote two columns supporting the center.This brings us to the editorials, including the Quick Takes.Editorials are certainly and properly the paper’s forum for presenting its stand on the issues. The Vail Daily strongly supported the conference center and so it isn’t surprising – or inappropriate – that editorials on that topic were all strongly in favor of the project.There was, in fact, only one full, formal editorial, written by Rogers. It ran at the top of the Commentary page on Nov. 3, just five days before election day. There were also seven Quick Takes that commented on the conference center. Written by editor Don Rogers throughout the month of October and into November, they were also strongly in favor of the center. To some, this may have seemed like an excessively strong drumbeat of support, but, again, it was in no way inappropriate.Finally, and perhaps most in question, the guest opinions, which were written primarily by community members and which generally carried the label “My View.”These were also weighted heavily in favor of the conference center. There were 12 in all – nine in favor, two opposed, one neutral.Clearly, in an election that went strongly against the conference center, these pieces did not reflect the voice of the community.Don Rogers explained that everything that was submitted did run, but that he made decisions whether pieces ran as “My View” columns – with prominent placement, a large headline and sometimes a photo of the writer – or as one among many Letters to the Editor.Rogers explained his criteria for those decisions at some length in an e-mail. Here’s a portion of that explanation:”During election season … I limit more strictly to people who hold positions or serve on bodies that deal with the particular issue. …”The pro-conference center folks expressed disappointment that we ran some (I’d guess about half) of their submissions as letters rather than columns, and I’m sure some of the anti-conference center folks were disappointed, as well. …”I recall that we ran the mayor’s pro-conference center piece, for instance, as a column because he was the mayor and served on the conference center committee. I believe we ran an anti-piece by an ex-mayor … as a letter. To my knowledge, he served on no body studying the issue. … We ran an anti-conference center piece by Merv Lapin, who served on the conference center committee, as a column, and ran pro pieces from some hoteliers and others as letters because they didn’t serve on groups dealing with the center.”This certainly seems to be a coherent and not unreasonable set of criteria for the paper’s decisions on handling these pieces. One may disagree with the rules or the results, but they do not seem arbitrary to me.Continuing, somewhat more generally, on the same topic, Rogers wrote, “Folks who don’t like our opinion about a subject do have an open invitation to respond in the opinion section. We believed strongly, and wrote strongly, in the editorial pages that Vail would benefit from a conference center. We’ve done that for years, not weeks, incidentally, and welcomed all dissenting views.”Later, he added this comment:”We have possibly the most open commentary forum on the planet. We accept letters at up to two and three times the standard length. We print Tipsline. We print comments off the Web. We don’t decline guest column submissions. We’ve gone out of our way to run opinion that runs counter to ours on all sorts of subjects. And, of course, we’ll continue to do so.”But we do not reject submissions because the one side has not participated as fully as the other. In the conference center debate – as with others – the forum is open to those who choose to use it. As such, I believe we treated both sides fairly. I got more complaints from pro-conference center people who wanted letters printed as columns.”Speaking as ombudsman and an outside observer, I recognize the clear imbalance of the pieces presented on the Commentary pages, whatever the reason for that imbalance. I can see how those who opposed the center could feel that their side of the issue did not get equal treatment – even if some of the apparent inequality was the result of their own failure to take advantage of the Daily’s extremely open policy for letters and opinions.I have said that editor Rogers’ criteria for deciding which pieces are presented as more prominent “guest opinion” columns seems fair and reasonable. However, in circumstances such as these, I can also see a strong argument for a paper trying to balance its presentations of the two sides of the debate. The fact that the pro-center side was the “official” position meant that its supporters were often people on official panels and boards. As a result, the rule that gave more prominent display to the opinions of “people who hold positions or serve on bodies that deal with the particular issue” resulted in an imbalance.I think a strong argument could have been made for changing that rule to allow more equal presentation of both sides in the debate. Certainly, a former mayor of the town is someone whose position and dedication to the community could merit more generous treatment of his opinions.However, while I might think that approach would be appropriate, Publisher Steve Pope made a strong argument on the other side. Pope did agree that open debate is good. He wrote in an e-mail, “I believe that good discussion in the light of day ultimately brings the best decisions for the community. … We actively solicit input from all sides of an issue. This is consistent with our belief that a good conversation gets the best decisions.”But the publisher took a strong position on the role of the paper as an advocate. Pope wrote, “At the end of the day the key issues you highlight all come down to the strong positions the Vail Daily took in support of the center. …”I take the position that our newspaper needs to take strong, even very strong positions on issues that are vital to the well being of our community. This issue is one of them. We do want to encourage strong discussion from all sides of these issues and did in this case. But at the end of the day we have to decide which way we are gong to lean. We have to decide how strongly we feel about it and what the stakes are. If we feel really strongly we need to be prepared to fight for what we believe. We did in this case and would again if we had to do it over.”Some may well disagree with what the Daily’s publisher has said here and with the results of his position. However, without question, his stance is part of a long and honorable tradition of activist newspapers that take strong stands on issues that are important to their communities. Some of America’s best journalism has come from crusading newspapers taking unpopular positions.One can argue that a more careful, more “nuanced” approach might have been wise, might have had a better political result, might have left better feelings in its wake. Personally, I might well lean toward exactly that gentler approach.But no one can dispute that, in fact, when our nation’s founders wrote the First Amendment, guaranteeing freedom of the press, the newspapers they were protecting were virtually all rabidly partisan, highly opinionated publications, with no sense of fair play. The Vail Daily’s approach to the recent election was certainly far, far gentler than that. Some feelings may have been hurt, but certainly no ethical rules were broken.(Final note: Despite the length of this piece, there were a number of more specific concerns about the Daily’s election coverage that I did not have room to discuss. I will get to them in a later column.)Andy Stone is the ombudsman, or “reader’s representative,” for Colorado Mountain News Media. He can be reached by telephone, toll-free, at 866-557-6397 or by e-mail at ombudsman@cmnm.org


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