It was good of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s Editorial Page Editor, David D. Haynes, to publish an apology in Sunday’s Crossroads section for recently printing an op-ed  which only appeared to be written by a UW-Madison student.

Perspective II

Perspective II (Photo credit: Bart Everson, CC, some rights reserved. Click on photo for copyright information.)

It turns out that the college student did not really write the op-ed on behalf of The Can Kicks Back, an apparent conservative youth group that helps create and whip up deficit-angry young people. TCKB reportedly sent the article to the student as a “template” she could use to write her own op-ed. What the Journal Sentinel received from the group was the “template” with the student’s name attached. A spokesman for the group behind the group–Campaign to Fix the Debt– said the submission under the student’s name was “an inadvertent mistake.”  Haynes tells us that it was the student who revealed the inappropriate byline, not the CFD. Editor Haynes nobly takes responsibility for not checking with the student first, but he was, after all, relying on the word of the organization. Perhaps it was trusting this particular organization that was the real mistake.

It seems that the CFD sent the same op-ed “template” to at least two other college students involved with The Can Kicks Back, and the exact same “template” appeared in two other newspapers under the students’ separate names. The Center for Media and Democracy‘s Mary Bottari provided, back in May of this year, some good reporting regarding Can Kicks Back, its tactics and backers.

But playing the “who funds what” game misses the point; liberals are also not lacking for wealthy backers, however much we support campaign finance reform. More to the point is why the owning of authorship is crucial for a healthy democracy. The Journal Sentinel editorial staff, while making clear they will try to verify the true author in the future, allows, I think, for an overly generous definition of the word “author”:

“We realize that the definition of the word “author” can be a bit expansive. Most politicians employ aides to help them write essays and speeches. So do chief executives. Public relations firms often write pieces for other groups. We would prefer that the person getting the byline actually wrote the article, but we understand that we’d have far fewer opinions to choose from if that was the case. It’s just a fact that busy politicians and executives don’t have the time or the inclination to do all their own work. And they want to put the best possible spin on their words.”

So the new Journal Sentinel standard for judging op-ed authorship will be as follows:

“The people putting their names on opinions should review them before publication and take responsibility for the content. That’s the real purpose of the byline anyway — to ensure accountability.”

As a loyal subscriber to the Journal Sentinel, I trust it is not too much to ask that any politician, chief executive, activist or baker, however busy he or she may be, should find the time and mental acumen to actually write what he or she is publicly expressing under his or her own name. Why are politicians and executives privileged in this regard? Speeches and press releases may be ghostwritten, but doesn’t the press have the responsibility not to become a mere gear in some political PR machine? It is bad enough that vast wealth now controls our broadcast media, which will happily broadcast just about any political commercial, no matter how inaccurate or outrageously false. Newspapers, one of the last bastions of responsible journalism (we hope), must hold themselves to a higher standard on their editorial pages. A more discerning, skeptical and egalitarian editorial policy would, for example, exclude all PR firm and political front group submissions.

Liberals, of course, are not immune from practicing PR manipulation and overzealous partisanship. But I, at least, have an old-fashioned idea of authorship– unless co-authored or described otherwise, the author can only be the individual, the single authority, who has composed the sentences and paragraphs. This matters because it is not just “robust debate” and the opinions of “all sides” that are necessary for democracy; opinions are not created equal, and all we have to judge by, finally, is the intellectual and humane quality of the arguments. Unless we can see and understand precisely how a certain public personage thinks, the person who is doing the actual legislating and decision-making, we cannot accurately judge him or her and what he or she stands for.  It is the work of all Americans, but especially the professional press, to distinguish truth from spin, fact from propaganda in both reporting and opinion.

Free speech and a free press mean little if writers, editors and readers don’t make use of all the critical intelligence our education, culture and media still (we hope) provide.

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