Many readers responded to a recent column in which I described some of the trends that have made life difficult for newspapers, including The Bulletin. By and large, they’ve been supportive. Central Oregonians clearly value local news.
Of those readers who did push back, at least online, many focused their anger at The Bulletin’s editorials, which express the views of the paper’s editorial board on a wide range of state and local issues. The consensus among the dissatisfied is that The Bulletin’s editorials are too conservative.
“When Erik Lukens and the far right editorials are gone I will be excited to start my subscription,” wrote a fairly typical online commenter, who wondered why “it’s a good strategy to have your editorials drift farther right in a community that is purple and drifting left.”
I have absolutely no idea how well the views expressed by The Bulletin’s editorials match up with those of most Central Oregonians. I suspect that varies on an editorial-by-editorial basis, and it’s not something I worry about. The belief that a newspaper should seek to determine its community’s evolving ideological bent, then reinforce it through its editorials is a misguided one. That’s what a Facebook news feed is for.
The editorial boards that best serve their readers, rather, are those that are willing to challenge the kind of groupthink that can take over when a community drifts closer to one ideological extreme or another.
That isn’t to say that an editorial board should set out to be contrarian. Rather, it should have the courage to take forceful positions even when doing so will be unpopular. At the same time, those who oversee editorial pages must be willing to run letters to the editor from people who’d like to tell readers why a given editorial is the dumbest thing they’ve ever read. The Bulletin does so routinely.
The Bulletin could eliminate complaints about its editorials by eliminating them, some might argue. Fortunately, such people aren’t in charge here. Not only would ditching editorials make The Bulletin less interesting and useful, but it would do little, if anything, to eliminate ideological fault-finding. For instance, readers tell us regularly that we run more letters to the editor on one side of an issue than the other, and those who complain tend to see this as evidence of our bias rather than, say, an unequal supply of motivated letter writers.
Neither is such criticism confined to the editorial page. Conservative readers complain, especially since the election of Donald Trump, about our use of certain wire-service material. They complain, too, about what they consider bias in The Bulletin’s own reporting.
“If I see an article that is written by AP, LA times, NY times, etc. I don’t waste time reading it because I know it is ideology not journalism,” one reader explained in a recent email. “You also might try hiring actual journalists rather than young indoctrinated liberals.”
Readers who complain about the anti-Trump excesses of The New York Times, Washington Post and other national news organizations have a point. I say that, by the way, as someone who didn’t vote for the president and, in fact, wrote The Bulletin’s endorsement of Hillary Clinton. But such readers tend to be less interested in scrupulous neutrality than in news coverage skewed in a direction they prefer. Why, the critic of liberal media asked, “don’t you do something original and maybe pull some articles from sites like the Patriot Post, Daily Wire or even the White House emails”?
It’s natural, I think, for readers to cringe in response to an editorial with which they disagree or a news story in which they, perhaps accurately, detect bias. What is worrisome, though, is the desire by some readers on the left and the right to receive a newspaper that perfectly mirrors their views in both its editorials and, more subtly, its news coverage.
To some degree, this desire may always have existed. But I wonder whether the rise of Facebook and other instruments of social media “filter bubbles” has eroded not only the advertising base upon which newspapers rely, but also the tolerance for opposing viewpoints their architecture demands.
The Bulletin isn’t about to eliminate its editorials or, foolishly, tailor them to echo prevailing community sentiment.
Neither will we eliminate our use of the best wire-service providers available simply because they sometimes go overboard. Instead, we’ll continue to use such content as judiciously as possible on our news pages, and we’ll continue to welcome opposing viewpoints on our editorial page.
—Erik Lukens is editor of The Bulletin.