In the Cold War era, an entire industry sprung up around deciphering pronouncements from the Kremlin.
Soviet statements often were so cryptic they could be interpreted in myriad ways. And misinterpretation was potentially cataclysmic.
I couldn't help but think about that period of high-level parsing as I read new Tulsa World President and Publisher Bill Masterson's signed editorial last week, describing the latest wave of changes at the state's second largest daily.
My professional experience -- including three-plus decades working for five urban dailies in Oklahoma, Texas and California -- suggests publishers don't always say what they mean nor mean what they say when making formal declarations.
They're less focused on clarity than on calming their core constituents -- their advertisers and subscribers -- often spinning bad news with the skill and precision of politicos they so often skewer.
So we're amputating an arm. No big deal. We'll be stronger and more nimble without it. You'll see. Just trust us.
Thus, I was struck by two sentences that appeared near the end of Masterson's editorial: "Finally, you will see an editorial page that is loaded with opinion from columnists on both sides of the issues. The paper's editorial position will reflect the community in which we serve."
If you were reading blissfully along, your initial reaction might be, Hooray! The new owners, Warren Buffett's BH Media group, may be newcomers, but they're not going to be interlopers. They're pledging, right here in black and white, to be one of us. To reflect the community.
Reality check, please.
Whatever you may think of its editorial leanings during the Lorton era, you have to admit the World studiously published opinion columns from across the political spectrum.
Think regulars E.J. Dionne Jr. on the left, Pat Buchanan on the right.
The same balanced mix appeared to be true when it came to the Letters section, though only those on the inside -- and the letter-writers themselves -- know whether the World treated all opinions similarly and fairly.
So, for the new publisher to pledge "an editorial page that is loaded with opinion from columnists on both sides of the issues" suggests one of two things:
He's ignorant of his own paper's history and practice. Or he's giving way too much weight to those complaining the World is too liberal (the most common refrain) or too conservative, neither of which is true.
There is no doubt that some on the far, far political right view Buffett as some kind of Obama-loving lefty, primarily because the Omaha billionaire rather pointedly argues it isn't fair for him to pay a lower effective tax rate than his secretary of more modest means.
But Buffett is first and foremost a businessman who's a billionaire today because of shrewd investments. He's now gambling some of his fortune on print media -- including the World -- and it's probably a safe bet he isn't keen on failing.
By committing to a fair mix of opinions, perhaps Masterson is simply attempting to assuage a noisy fringe so far out of the political mainstream that it doesn't know the meaning of liberal or conservative.
It's the second of the two sentences reprinted above, however, that I find especially significant and shouldn't go unnoticed, no matter your political persuasion:
The paper's editorial position will reflect the community in which we serve.
Maybe Masterson merely believes the World's editorial thinking should be more inclusive and less exclusive -- more like the diverse, increasingly cosmopolitan Tulsa rather than the 20th-Century, Southern Hills-centric Tulsa.
We can only hope.
Call me a pessimist, but I suspect "reflect the community" means catering to the dominant political culture. In metro Tulsa, specifically, and Oklahoma, generally, that is code for ultra-conservative Republican.
If so, the Tulsa World's editorial opinions in the immediate BH Media future will be determined primarily by the bottom line -- what is likely to keep the biggest advertisers happy, rather than what's necessarily best for the entire community.
I know what you're thinking: newspapers are businesses. They can't afford to enrage too many advertisers and subscribers at once if they want to remain financially viable. As the owner of a monthly journal of commentary, now in its 45th year of publishing, I get it.
Perhaps it's an old-fashioned notion, but I happen to believe newspapers are more than businesses -- they are public trusts, of sorts. They are where the community gathers to learn about the critical public policy issues of the day.
Look, I'm on Facebook, too. I tweet when the spirit moves. I e-mail. I surf the 'net every day. I'm no Luddite.
But nothing I've found on-line replaces serious newspapers when it comes to the breadth of understanding about the community and state.
My view is newspapers must do more than simply "reflect" the communities they cover. They must inform, yes, but they also must educate, providing readers context and history so that they can make sense of it all. Our democratic republic depends on a fully informed, engaged electorate.
Just as important -- and this may surprise you -- newspapers must lead, in effect helping shape public opinion by sometimes telling us things we don't necessarily want to hear or getting us to consider things we don't necessarily want to consider.
Think back to an earlier era. Would a newspaper have done the right thing by merely "reflecting" the views of a community dominated by the Ku Klux Klan? Of course not. Newspaper publishers with real guts put their lives, careers and bank accounts on the line to stand up for civil rights and against bigotry and racism.
Newspapers with real heart and real courage, newspapers whose principles involve more than just the bottom line help shape the public discussion so that we become communities in which every individual has a fair and equal shot at becoming all their creator intended -- regardless of race, religion, socioeconomic status or sexual preference.
It remains to be seen where the BH Media-owned World ends up, but early indications are not promising.
The recent round of layoffs may satisfy shareholders in the short term, but it's hard to imagine the ever-leaner staffing won't soon become evident to savvy newspaper readers.
In addition, two of the World's key editorial board members, David Averill and Janet Pearson, retired at mid-month, significant departures that occurred on the eve of the new publisher's signed editorial.
If the World takes on a Fox News-like role as the political right's local print echo-chamber, it would be a terrible blow to civic discourse and understanding in Tulsa and across Oklahoma.
Share this article: