Editor column: Commentary on Beck shows separation of news, opinion
A recent commentary in the Sunday Tribune Opinion section has triggered an onslaught of response, enough that we want to clarify for our readers how we work to keep opinion separate from news reporting.
Alexandra Karl, an educator and art historian, wrote about the exhibit that conservative radio/TV personality Glenn Beck brought to town in conjunction with his "Man in the Moon" show at USANA amphitheater over Independence Day. She noted that the exhibit, which included some items owned by Beck, was an odd combination of Nazi memorabilia, including a copy of Mein Kampf signed by Adolf Hitler, along with U.S. presidential memorabilia and an early edition of Anne Frank's diary, among other items.
"Surely, harboring such items adheres to a personality cult and suggests a sympathizer rather than a critic," Karl wrote of Beck's Nazi memorabilia.
Those are fighting words to the legions of Beck supporters, many of whom hold that The Tribune has endorsed Karl's viewpoint by allowing it to appear. Web traffic to the commentary has topped 65,000 page views, and it has received more than 2,000 reader comments. It also erupted on social media, including thousands of tweets. Most, but not all, feedback has criticized both Karl for writing it and The Tribune for running it.
The decisions on running reader commentaries are handled by The Tribune's editorial department, which operates independently of the news-gathering side of the business. With rare exceptions, such as the front-page editorials two years ago opposing HB477's anti-open government scheme, the commentaries and opinions are kept to the editorial and op-ed pages in the back of the A section daily or in the Opinion section on Sundays. (Online, they can be found by clicking the Opinion section tab near the top of the page.)
The editorial department exists to offer and encourage opinions and to stimulate the discussions that ensue from those opinions. Like letters to the editor, the commentaries allow our readers a voice on the issues and events of the day, and the editorial page editors strive to present a wide range of opinions. The writers do not work for The Tribune and are not compensated, and their opinions are independent of The Tribune's editorial voice. Karl submitted her piece unsolicited.
On the news side, we do not run unsolicited submissions from readers. We do have a few paid freelance writers in specialized areas like arts reviews and prep sports coverage, but in general we rely on our staff of professional journalists to investigate and report stories. What they write about is decided by the reporter and his or her editors on the news side, and the editorial side has no input on those decisions, just as the news side has no input on which opinions to run.
Karl's piece did have a couple of small factual errors that were corrected online and in a print correction. (It originally called the show "Man on the Moon" and said it was at Rio Tinto stadium, not USANA.) But otherwise questions about the piece are in the realm of opinion, although admittedly a provocative one.
Editorial writer George Pyle has been fielding calls and letters all week from angry Beck fans, and he said outside of the two corrections no one has pointed out factual errors in Karl's piece.
Letters to the editor in response to the piece have appeared in the letters section, and more response may appear later.
"It seems to me a little bit odd that people who are very strong followers of somebody who makes his living with his personal opinion would be upset about allowing somebody to express their personal opinion," Pyle said.
Some things we publish cause people's blood to boil, a consequence of bringing people together for lively discussion. We just want to make sure our readers know what comes from our reporting and what comes from our readers' opinions.
Tim Fitzpatrick is the deputy editor of The Salt Lake Tribune.
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