Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Who Is Watching the Watchdogs?

What a wonderful, hot, lazy August it’s been. It is almost a shame to ruin it by actually writing a post. So as not to give myself a heatstroke, I will serve up something I wrote earlier in the month, and just add a few lines of mis-en-scene so it makes sense.

Thomas Jefferson made a notable observation about the role of the newspaper in a democracy:

The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter. -- Letter to Edward Carrington, 1787.

On August 6, The Montgomery Advertiser ran an editorial in which it attacked the Republicans for violating the so-called “ethics reforms” Bob Riley ran through with the new GOP Legislature as his parting gift to Alabama. Fair enough. But they succumbed to the journalistic weakness of being unable to condemn the murderer without heaping equal opprobrium on the jaywalker. In other words, they had to say some bad things about the Democrats. Which is fair enough, if what they said had been accurate. Not only was it inaccurate, but they only had to look to their own front pages of a few months earlier to see it was inaccurate.

Silly me, I thought if I shot a letter to their editor, pointing out this problem, they would print it, with perhaps an editorial note trying to defend the editorial. No chance. I guess the lesson here is that if you want to write the Advertiser, it’s best not to prove them so wrong that their fragile egos won’t let the truth see daylight.

One of the joys of blogging is that you are not dependent on the whim of a mendacious editorial board to have your say. Without further ado, here is the letter the Advertiser could not find a reason to print:

Dear Editor:

Your editorial, “PAC Debate Hypocritical,” of August 6, 2011, is correct to call out the Alabama Republican Party for violating the so-called ethics reforms they enacted in the waning days of the Riley Administration. However, to accuse the Alabama Democratic Party of “hypocrisy” because, in your words, “they killed PAC-to-PAC reform year after year when they controlled the Legislature,” is to make a plain misstatement of fact. It adopts and repeats a Republican lie that was used in several campaigns by that party.

Consider the fate of House Bill 85 in the 2010 (Democratic-controlled) Regular Session. This bill, sponsored by Democratic then-Representative Jeff McLaughlin of Guntersville, would have banned PAC-to-PAC transfers, period. As you reported in a story on January 24, 2010, quoting Democratic then-Senator Zeb Little, “the Democratic caucus supports a ‘true PAC-to-PAC ban,’ but there are always people, including business organizations and the political parties, that want exceptions.”

That is indeed what happened to House Bill 85. The Republican minority in the Senate filibustered, blocking that bill and other ethics reforms passed by the Democratic House, because Senate Democrats refused to carve out exceptions for “religious” and other groups that overwhelmingly support Republicans. The Democratic votes were there to pass it, but it died at the hands of GOP filibusters. The Republicans then ran an election campaign calling Democrats “anti-reform,” largely unchallenged by the fact-checking function of the news media. I ask you, in the future, not only to avoid sacrificing editorial accuracy in the name of balance, but to have the news pages more closely check to see that the Republicans’ deeds match their rhetoric.

I don’t want anyone to walk away from this post with the idea that we shouldn’t write letters to the editor - or even that we shouldn’t write them to the Advertiser. On the contrary, what this shows is that we need to write more of them. The Advertiser did not print a single letter (that I saw) taking issue with its misleading editorial. One reason for that may be that mine was the only one they received. The dynamics of editorial boards are such that it is difficult for them to ignore a large volume of letters calling the paper out on a given issue. Your letter might not be printed, but it might lead to a similar letter from another Democrat making the paper. The Advertiser is not, like some newspapers in this state, a hidebound rubber stamp of the Republican Party. It may be that they just need some encouragement to be more careful in the future. So by all means, make good use of the emailing links on the right of this page, and let your voice be heard!