Are you curious as to why I write this column each week? Many people are. They want to know how much money I am spending to disseminate my views; it strikes them as an expensive ego trip. They are usually surprised when I tell them that I pay nothing. In fact, the owner of this newspaper provides the space gratis as part of the settlement to an antitrust lawsuit I brought in 2006. Many readers already know the details of my battles with media companies to preserve vigorous competition among paid subscription daily newspapers in our Bay Area. In a time when consumers are bombarded by paid messages, I am happy to say that my column is not another piece of paid propaganda.
In addition to this column, the settlement granted me the right to work with this newspaper’s staff to appoint a citizen to the paper’s editorial board. This is an exciting opportunity for the community, but it is not unprecedented. The Marin Independent Journal has long enjoyed the successful contributions of citizen board members during editorial meetings. In opening up the editorial process to citizen representatives, a new voice and an outside perspective will join the important deliberations that determine this newspaper’s position on critical issues impacting your city, county, state and nation. In addition, the new appointee will be a full participant in editorial choices, ranging from local and regional planning to the endorsement of political candidates and propositions.
This three-year experiment in citizen editorial board participation will occur in all 11 daily newspapers owned by MediaNews Group in the Bay Area. Dean Singleton – the founder of MediaNews Group – and his executives at each newspaper deserve to be commended for their leadership. You will soon read an announcement which identifies the citizen editorial appointee for each MediaNews-controlled newspaper in your community.
Why is this development so important? In short, editorial oversight keeps the government honest. Editorial pages host well-informed arguments over public policy and stand up for “We the People.” In fact, the best editorial boards are ad hoc think tanks for the public interest. They sift the arguments for and against key public issues and print their best judgment in full daylight for all to read and evaluate. In many cases, they print multiple opinions from diverse sources, a practice that arms readers with the knowledge they need to make informed decisions for themselves.
In decades past, owner/publishers like J. Hart Clinton of the San Mateo Times, Tony Ridder of the San Jose Mercury News and Floyd Sparks of the Hayward Daily Review held a tight rein on editorial policy. But times change, and today they have been replaced by professional editorial page editors in many cases.
My years of experience as a political consultant for prominent public figures taught me that elected officials pay close attention to the views of newspapers on hot issues. I personally attended dozens of editorial board meetings with Bay Area politicians and interest groups as they tried to garner a newspaper’s support.
Candidates’ pre-interview anxiety is a clear signal of an editorial board’s power to significantly influence public opinion. The sessions are often as electric as important campaign debates. Well informed journalists and board members face off against candidates and quickly eviscerate the shallow platitudes of paid television commercials and mailings. In many ways, these highly attuned editorial boards are the citizen’s last defense against the phalanx of paid propaganda that passes for dialectic at election time. In between elections, they are a citizen’s most accessible and consistent public policy resource on exploding and simmering crises like transportation, housing, water and air quality, crime, fiscal accountability and more.
Newspapers keep us informed on the events that shape our lives. They offer up information, which is the raw material of democracy. Information is power. But only if we use it.