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The Un-Editorial Page

[UPDATE: (Dec. 9)–Sun-Times Commentary page editor Cheryl Reed and Yours Truly, er, remember things differently in the comment thread of this post…]

Someone else in the audience asked the question, but I was certainly thinking it. A lot of us were. What’s the use of an editorial page when the editor admits they only write what their readers want to hear?

Ok, I’m paraphrasing. But that was the gist of the $64,000 question posed to Chicago Sun-Times Editorial Page editor Cheryl Reed at yesterday’s monthly Publicity Club of Chicago speakers’ luncheon. Up on the dais with Reed in the banquet room of River North’s Maggiano’s Italian eatery were Bruce Dold, Editorial Page editor at the Chicago Tribune, and Sally Eisele, managing editor for Public Affairs at WBEZ Chicago Public Radio.

The program began simply enough. Before a room full of publicity professionals, Jeff Bierig, head of Media Relations at IIT, asked the three panelists how their media outlets came up with the opinions that lead their editorial pages. That immediately left Eisele out–public radio doesn’t editorialize.

Dold spoke quietly but fiercely of the Trib’s desire to help make beneficial change happen in the world by using its editorial pulpit for the highest good and giving voice to the most influential opinion leaders.

And then there was Reed’s response. In fact, it turned into something of a mantra, a phrase repeated in almost every answer she gave yesterday: “We try to agree with our readers.”

Speaking as a longtime fan of the local reporting in the Sun-Times’ Metro section (as I said to my colleauge during the event, “You don’t read the Trib to find out what’s going on in your neighborhood”), I was floored. And so were a good many other people I spoke with after the event. At my table of 12 before coats were even on, six of us were already busy repeating our own phrase: “Did she really just say what I think she said?”

I’d love be able to answer that with a heartfelt, “Oh no she di’int!” But yes, truly, she did. Cheryl Reed, head honcho of the Sun-Times editorial page (not to mention its recent re-design), stood before a room full of PR people and explained, in detail, how she insists that the opinions that appear in the paper’s printed and online Commentary pages be only those opinions that a “working class, southwest side Chicago resident” would agree with.

When pressed for her reasoning by the questioner from the audience, Reed said that the Commentary page needed to be as relevant to Sun-Times’ readers as the paper’s “big-gorilla” sections, Sports and the aforementioned Metro. And the best way to do that? According to Reed, endorse for the readers only the opinions they want to hear.

Did anyone else’s sense of good ethics just go, “Huh?!”

In an age when many newspapers can’t even afford the staff to craft editorials anymore, I understand the business side of Reed’s position. However, coming on the heels of Bruce Dold’s journalistic integrity-laden comments on helping bring good change into the world, Reed’s words left a lot of us in the room wondering where, exactly, such journalistic integrity intersects with a decision to run an editorial page that simply mirrors the status quo.

Not once did Reed give any hint of a public-spirited or socially enlightened agenda driving the Sun-Times Editorial page. Not a word, not in an hour of Q&A. But those of us in the audience sure got to hear a lot about how agreeing with your readers keeps you selling papers.

Or should that be selling out? For a Chicago daily claiming to be the city’s new Progressive voice, refusing to actually be socially progressive (much less socially proactive) in the crafting of its own daily editorials seems a lot more Populist to me.

Not to mention hypocritical.

Back in November, I wondered the same thing: when will the Sun-Times show some evidence that it’s putting its journalistic integrity behind its Progressive aspirations. (And you’ve really got to wonder when liberals like me start grousing about the same ethical issues that religious conservatives and right-of-center bloggers were grousing about all summer). After Reed’s comments from yesterday, I’m still waiting. And now I’m a lot less confident that evidence of good sense will arrive.

I’m more sure that before the week is out Sun-Times readers will be treated to yet another shock-value front-pager about the Stacy Peterson case. But even sensational journalism eventually loses its power to entice.

Whether it’s on page one or below the editorial banner.

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Michael Thaddeus Doyle

I'm a NYC-native, Latino, Jew-by-choice, hardcore WDW fan in Chicago with an Irish last name. I believe in social justice, big cities, and public transit. I do nonprofit development. I've written this blog since 2005. Believe in the world you want to live in.

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Contact: mikedoyleblogger@gmail.com

8 replies

  1. A Change in Opinion at the Sun-Times

    (Photo: Controversial Sun-Times opinion page editor Cheryl Reed has left the building. Credit: PostPunkKitchen.) In December, the former editor of the Sun-Times Editorial page, Cheryl Reed, and I threw down here on the pages of CHICAGO CARLESS. I call…

  2. Cheryl (no relation to Reed) Powell, thanks for being a regular reader of Carless. The Sun-Times editorial you refer to was an ignorantly homophic rant penned by Sun-Times editorial board member Deborah Douglas that appeared on the October 28, 2007 Commentary page.

    In the piece, Douglas justified homophobia on allegedly religious grounds. I would love to link you to it, but the Sun-Times pushes all content older than 30 days into its paid archive, unlike other leading papers in Chicago and beyond.

  3. That’s funny. Though I don’t live there now, I grew up on the southwest side there and the Sun Times was the paper of record. Then came the Murdoch years, and its hasn’t recovered from that.

    I haven’t bothered reading the editorial pages in a long time, but last time I checked, they were skewing toward hysterical neo-cons. Maybe that’s changed, I don’t know.

    The last time I read an opinion piece it was some woman simultaneously announcing there are no black homosexuals (or something) and that everyone knows all the gays in church are in the choir.

    Or something like that. All I know is they killed a great newspaper sometime in the 80s.

  4. Cheryl Reed Writes In to Chicago Carless

    (Photo: Taller than the original, but not necessarily loftier. Credit: PostPunkKitchen.) On Friday, I opined about the deliberate lack of editorial direction on the Commentary page of the Chicago Sun-Times. My criticism stemmed from comments made by C…

  5. The Un-Editorial Page

    [UPDATE: (Dec. 9)–Sun-Times Commentary page editor Cheryl Reed and Yours Truly, er, remember things differently in the comment thread of this post…] Someone else in the audience asked the question, but I was certainly thinking it. A lot of…

  6. Points to Cheryl for pithiness. However, I and the rest of my table heard what I quoted.

    That’s the danger with getting up on a podium. Sometimes in trying to come across as relevant, you stray far from your originally intended notes, in some cases engendering visceral and negative responses from your own allies. I would give Reed credit if that were the case here.

    According to Reed it isn’t, but I know what I heard at last week’s event. And no matter how wryly the editor of the Sun-Times Commentary page wants to frame her response, I was not the only person disappointed with her comments.

    In fact, the woman seated to my left, a PR professional working in the finance industry and living in the Chicago suburbs felt markedly insulted by the “southwest side” comment. She let me and others at my table know that if the Sun-Times didn’t care about suburban readers maybe she shouldn’t bother buying the Sun-Times anymore.

    Reed’s comments indeed included numerous references to putting only that content on the Commentary page that a Sun-Times reader would agree with. In fact, Reed made a point of noting that Sun-Times research shows that readers are more interested in hearing each other’s opinions than the newspaper’s opinion.

    That may explain Reed’s comments (last week and noted in her above response) that she doesn’t want readers to expect the editorial opinions they read on the Commentary page. However, a surprising editorial page is not the same thing as a relevant one.

    An inconsistent stance on the pressing issues of the day is neither a hallmark of journalistic integrity nor of the fight for socially progressive change. I fail to see how a newspaper with a deliberately inconsistent editorial voice can be taken seriously on either playing field.

    I would have more faith in Reed if she had just come out and said her job on the Commentary page is simply to sell more newspapers, nothing less, and nothing more.

    If there’s a more socially redeeming aim hidden in Reed’s comments, I can’t find it. And I can stand behind that comment without a smirk on my face. No matter how good the chicken was.

  7. Mr. Doyle,

    I understand now why you are not working at a daily newspaper, you obviously don’t know how to take notes. You have completely misrepresented and misquoted what I said. I never said “we write for people on the Southwest side.” That’s totally inaccurate. What I said was that we are aware of who our readers are and we don’t try to preach to them as early generations did. We try to engage our readers on issues that are relevant to their lives. In fact, I made a big issue about how we don’t just check off a list of topics that everyone expects from a liberal paper. As I said, we want people to pick up the paper not knowing what we will say, but certainly that we will make them reconsider issues. Perhaps you should have been paying better attention instead of chewing on your chicken.

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