Robert Price

Friday, Aug 15 2014 03:32 PM

SOUND OFF: Police the political endorsements in those letters

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    Robert Price is The Californian's executive editor. Email him at rprice@bakersfield.com.

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By Robert Price

Reader: As we near the date for our next election, we are already seeing reader opinions printed in The Californian that endorse specific candidates. While I completely understand the urge to do this, it seems to me that this becomes free advertising for candidates. Obviously, it is difficult to know if the writer is expressing true feelings, or is acting as a surrogate.

The paper has an obligation to provide background and essential facts on all candidates, and even editorial endorsements. But until the election has concluded I would hope we could separate factual information and inquiries from individual endorsements.

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This feedback forum is designed to give readers a way to voice criticisms and compliments or ask questions about The Californian's news coverage. Your questions -- which may be edited for space -- are answered here each Saturday.

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-- Charlie Powell

Price: You are absolutely correct. We don't allow candidates or their supporters to campaign in the letters section of the Opinion page during the run-up to Election Day. We do allow readers to correct what they perceive to be erroneous accusations against themselves or others. But the Aug. 12 letter "Councilman has improved city," whose author defended Bakersfield City Councilman Bob Smith from an opponent's criticism, read like a straight-up endorsement. We should have declined to publish it.

Our policy has gray areas. Consider the frequent stories in The Californian that quote and sometimes feature Congressman Kevin McCarthy, who actually has an opponent in the general election this fall. It would be a disservice to readers for us to invoke a McCarthy blackout because of November's approach; news coverage is simply one of the benefits of incumbency. But when we can moderate the politicking, we will -- and do.

I'm not aware of any other endorsements we've allowed to slip through, though, as you seem to imply. If you can point out other examples, please do.

***

Reader: Great job by Herb Benham on the Robin Williams piece ("Palpable pain at passing of a funny, gifted man," Aug. 12) ... It amazes me that he could put together such a thoughtful piece in such a short amount of time.

It was a very poignant tribute to someone who brought so much joy and laughter to so many. Well done!

-- David L. Morton

Price: Herb had already filed his Tuesday column and gone home when we got word of Williams' death Monday afternoon. I knew Herb was a dialog-quoting fan of Williams', so I texted him and asked if he would like to write a few words. He showed up in a sweat-streaked polo shirt within minutes and cranked out a replacement column. I agree: It was a touching tribute. He was feeling it, so to speak, so the words came easily, as was evident in the next morning's paper.

***

Reader: This is in response to Lois Henry's usage of my post on Jim Trino's Facebook page to further her personal anti-firework agenda (in the "Bomb party" item of her Aug. 10 column). A few points that I wish to make to clarify my position (a good reporter would have called me to get this information before publishing something out of context):

1) I fully stand by my statement that every welder, mechanic, and most other men in Bakersfield either have or know how to make an Oxy/Acetylene noisemaker.

2) Hold a poll and see for yourself.

3) This has NOTHING to do with personal fireworks, these are everyday materials used by a majority of Bakersfield's construction workers.

4) I never condoned this act, I just stated a fact.

5) Before she discloses my friendship of a local comedian in a negative way, she may want to also disclose the fact that she has worked with me previously and so is "a friend of a friend of this horrible ex-felon."

6) A "bomb" is designed to destroy by concussive forces or shrapnel, and an "Incendiary Device" is designed to ignite surrounding materials, the devices in question are "Noisemakers" and tragically resulted in injury (burns).

In today's paper a toddler was reported burned by hot water in a criminal way ("Toddler hospitalized, 2 held in scalding case," Aug. 10), but I do not see bail for these horrific injuries set anywhere near as high as for these "big kids setting off noisemakers."

In closing I have always respected Lois' bulldog approach to fighting for the public against the local bureaucracy even when I did not agree. But for her and Mike Hart to use their position in the public eye to forward their own agenda resulting in someone being charged with crimes more serious than a terrorist (over a noisemaker) is ludicrous and inexcusable.

Lois, we know you don't like personal fireworks, but please play by the rules and do not twist the facts to fit your personal beliefs, be fair and balanced and more like a reporter, not the columnist you are. Shame on you on this one.

-- Rick Clemmons

Price: You have me scratching my head over a couple of things. For one thing, your line "to use (her) position in the public eye to forward (her) own agenda" is pretty much Lois' job description. Second, I would like to take this opportunity to educate those who may be unsure about the term "out of context." If Lois had taken a line from your Facebook post -- "Every welder, mechanic, and most other men in Bakersfield have done this at one time or another" -- and used it in a column about people who beat their dogs, she would be taking your words out of context. But she was writing about homemade incendiary devices, and so were you.

For more on those issues and some of your other points, here's Lois:

Henry: It's true that in 2011/12 Mr. Clemmons contacted me regarding some properties and water concerns. I didn't recall that connection when I included his Facebook comments with my story. But even if I had, I wouldn't have felt compelled to include that information as it's irrelevant to the issue at hand.

I did not publish anything out of context or unfairly. Nor did I twist any facts to fit my agenda.

Mr. Clemmons made statements on a public Facebook page about Mr. Trino's actions. In this letter, he reiterates those statements. It's pretty cut and dried.

Finally, I am a columnist. I write about local events/people and look at them through my own lens, offering my opinion. That's completely fair and is noted at the end of every column I write.

I believe the Trino event is symptomatic of a firework mentality that permeates this community. Which is why I said this event is a prime example of why personal fireworks should be banned.

Sorry, Mr. Clemmons, I feel no shame.

***

Reader: If I read another article about fireworks it won't be too soon. The Californian has had so many articles denouncing fireworks since the 4th of July, it's nauseating. Find some other crusade to jump on, but for the majority of us who have fun with fireworks cerebrating July 4th, leave us alone.

All those negative articles in The Californian are written about a small minority of people who have abused fireworks, and use illegal fireworks like bottle rockets, guns, M-80s, etc.

Back when I was a kid we had sparklers, slinkies, firecrackers and cherry bombs to celebrate the holiday. If I used fireworks like this now, I'd be branded a pyromaniac, given a ticket or thrown in the slammer.

I grew up in Southern California, and can't remember one article in the L.A. Times of anybody blowing off their fingers, shooting guns, or celebrating until the wee hours of the night. Neighbors didn't complain that their pets were spooked or ran away like one letter writer wrote. People back then had enough sense to keep their pets inside the house because of the noise.

Why jerk the privilege of using fireworks out from underneath the majority of us, just because a few nitwits abuse the privilege. They say we have a free country, but I see our freedoms gradually leaking away from us one step at a time.

-- Dennis Tope

Price: If you still read the L.A. Times with any regularity you might have seen "Man with hands mangled by fireworks unlikely to work, family says," published July 7, or "Authorities seize a ton of illegal fireworks before Fourth of July," published July 3, or "More than 1,000 pounds of illegal fireworks seized in L.A.," published June 27. In fact, run an Internet search for "Los Angeles Times" and "fireworks" and, like me, you'll get about 581,000 hits. One will be an October 1986 editorial urging voters in Anaheim and Yorba Linda to "vote an overwhelming yes" on banning fireworks.

You're right that those negative articles focus on a small minority that abuses fireworks. The same things happens with articles on guns, cars and a million other topics.

***

Reader: It was wonderful to read Lois Henry's characteristically feisty response to unjustified criticism of her stand on personal fireworks. She said what I have often contended -- some Californian "readers" don't "read" the paper, or much else for that matter, unless it conforms to their particular ideology.

Interesting that today's (Aug. 9) paper included more information about the personal fireworks "aficionados" and their exploits -- four injured in illegal display -- a story Lois noted fell between the cracks, so to speak.

Then I found the article on page 6 about computer science and the quest for chip that can mimic the "speed and efficiency of the human cortex." There's just something about all that metaphoric whistling of "If I Only Had a Brain" that bothers me. As evidenced by some of your readers (and most obnoxious critics), having a human brain doesn't ensure intelligence.

-- Pamela Wildermuth

***

Reader: This is in regard to the (July 30) story "Couple married almost 62 years die four hours apart."

The reporter who wrote this story did a fantastic job! The lede (sentence) was perfect!

-- Peggie Evans, Austin, Texas

Price: Reporter Jason Kotowski usually writes about mayhem but he definitely showed his sensitive side on this one. The story got some play around the country and then found a wider audience when the Associated Press wrote its own version, crediting The Californian.

***

Reader: A protestor was inaccurately identified as an "anti-immigration protestor" on page A8 instead of an anti-ILLEGAL-immigration protestor!

-- Beth Pariseau

Price: The Aug. 3 photo caption could have been more specific, yes. The protester in question was almost certainly on the anti-undocumented-immigration side of the debate, not anti-immigration-in-general. In the context of the Bloomberg News article that accompanied it, however ("Lack of border funds may cost GOP Latino votes), it was abundantly clear that the impassioned conversation between opposing protestors depicted in the Conroe (Texas) Courier photo was over "the surge of children arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border from Central America." None of those children are carrying passports or travel visas, so yeah, that means their presence here violates the law. So I'm not particularly worked up over that photo caption.

***

Reader: Your sentence: "Some readers seemed to think the photo, or its publication, inferred some sort of endorsement of one position or another."

I would prefer that you use "implied," which is a word that can apply to a photo or other object, its placement or existence, and almost anything. "Infer" is a word that refers to a mental process.

I didn't care too much for your response about the word "arguably." It seems to have been used perfectly. The use of "unarguably"&dcThree; would have resulted in a completely different sentence.

When I say "arguably" Nikki Blue is the best, I mean just that: It wouldn't be embarrassing to make that assertion. Facts could be amassed to counter any objections, but you wouldn't be required to agree. Clearly, the writer of the sentence expects pretty thorough agreement with the claim, but wouldn't attack anyone who chose to disagree. When I say "unarguably," I am making a statement of my belief, and saying that any argument will be ignored. In fact, there can be no disagreement. That is not normally the journalistic mindset.

-- Larry Dunn

Price: I had "implied" and changed it to "inferred"! Argh! You're correct, of course.

As for "arguably": That's exactly the point I was trying to make. Evidently I failed. We did indeed use the word correctly. I just happen to dislike the word. It strikes me as imprecise. I would have written "Few would disagree that Nikki Blue was the best" or some such thing. Why must we argue? Anyway, Nikki Blue was a really good basketball player and probably still is.

Executive Editor Robert Price and The Californian welcome your comments and suggestions. To offer your input by phone, please call 395-7649 and leave your comments in a voice-mail message or send an email to soundoff@bakersfield.com. Please include your name and phone number. Phone numbers and addresses won't be published.

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