2004-04-16 / Columnists

From the Editor's Desk

By Howard Schwach

From the Editor's Desk

When I taught Journalism to middle school students, one of the most difficult concepts to get across was that there are basically two different types of editorial material in a newspaper.

There are, of course, news stories, designed to present the facts and dedicated to telling all sides of a particular issue or event. That is the type of material that most people think of when they think of a newspaper.

There is another element to any newspaper, however and that is the inclusion of the opinion pieces that often spice up a paper.

Opinion includes both editorial and columns. The difference is, the editorial belongs to the publisher (although it is often written by somebody on staff), while the columns are the opinion of the people who write them.

What brings this up is the letters we get here at The Wave saying that one column or another is "unfair," "unbalanced," "does not tell both sides of the story," or is simply "wrong."

Well, folks, that is what opinion means. By its definition, opinion is un-provable, unbalanced and, sometimes, unjust.

In fact, opinion is inherently unfair, especially if the opinion does not match your own.

William Safire, who writes for the New York Times, told the paper's "reader's representative," An opinion might be wrongheaded, but it is never wrong. A belief or a conviction, no matter how illogical, crackbrained or infuriating, is an idea subject to vigorous dispute, but it is not a assertion subject to editorial or legal correction."

Daniel Okrent, who now fills the reader's representative spot at the Times, wrote, "Columnists also attract a crowd radically unlike the audience that sticks to the news pages. Judging by my mail, the more partisan of the Time's columnists draw two distinct sets of fanatic loyalists: those who wish to have their owns views reinforced, and those who enjoy the hot thrill of a blood-pressure spike."

When I write a column that calls for the words "under God" to be taken from the Pledge of Allegiance," that is my opinion. As much as people complain that I am anti-Catholic or just plain stupid, it is my opinion and I am entitled to write it in this space.

Those who disagree have their forum as well. They can send a letter to the editor with a reasonable guarantee that it will be published no matter what they may call me.

That is what democracy and journalism are all about.

For about a year now, Stu Mirsky has been writing a column called, "Rockaway Irregular" for this paper. It is decidedly on the right and it often angers many of our readers. Of course, many others support his views.

Mirsky supports President Bush and the war in Iraq.

Is he wrong? He cannot be wrong about his opinion because it is his alone to have.

Those who believe that he is wrong, however, often write letters to the editor about him and his beliefs. They say that he is absolutely wrong and that The Wave should not publish such wrong ideas.

Are they wrong? Of course not. Their letters are their opinion and therefore, by definition, cannot be wrong.

Last week, we began the run of another columnist, John Paul Culotta, who will write "The Progressive" on a bi-monthly basis. His column is decidedly liberal, a counterpoint to Mirsky.

That is what makes a newspaper.

Of course, there is one caveat on this subject. The opinion in the paper has to be grounded in facts. It cannot be made up out of whole cloth.

One letter writer to the Times made that point in last week's paper.

"Regardless of whether I agree with William Safire that there can never be a wrong opinion, I can hold that only opinion pieces consistent with the known facts are worthy of consideration. All else are works of fiction or fantasy."

Another wrote, "All opinions purport to be based on facts. If a columnist's facts are false, the opinion dependent on them must also be false."

There you have it. Are columns inherently unfair? Can an opinion be wrong?

Those are things that you, the reader, have to decide for yourselves.

In fact, your answer to those questions matters little to the columnist.

The columnist's mantra must be, "love me or hate me, but never ignore me."

That is what real journalism is all about, even in a relatively small-town weekly such as The Wave.

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