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Saturday, March 29, 2008

'Jumpin' Ugly' Redux

I brought to your attention two weeks ago a story about an unfortunate incident that had taken place inside the Bristol Herald-Courier boardroom one day when a delegation from Wise County met with the editorial staff of the Bristol paper to discuss the merits of that coal-fired power plant that's going up in St. Paul and recriminations started flying. See Jumpin' Ugly.'...

"Accusations of plagiarism, threats of retaliation, hurt feelings ... "

"The meeting must have been a hoot."

Well, there's a follow-up to the story. If the original account was one-sided - coming from the Herald-Courier team, the other side is now revealed - by one of the attendees. It provides a whole different - and clarifying - perspective. From the Coalfield Progress, in a letter to the editor, Mark S. Wooten writes:
Bristol Editor's Attack Offensive

I must respond to [editorial board member Todd] Foster's scathing personal attacks against me and others in that meeting.

First, I most certainly was not looking to buy any favors from the editorial board or the Bristol paper. My remarks on withholding advertising by our company were simply to reiterate what any newspaper company already knows: They sell a product and any potential customer has the freedom to make choices of where they spend their money. Shoddy standards of journalism compromise credibility and that does not go unnoticed by readers and advertisers alike.

Second, our meeting was considered "on the record." We were not looking to hide our positions, far from it; we wanted them known. We wanted them to hear from us and even publish what we had to say.

But instead of fairly reporting both sides of this conversation, the decision-makers opted to simply react on the opinion page.

Indeed, while everyone is entitled to an opinion, Foster is aware that his opinion is published, circulated and carries with it the power and freedom of the press securely protected by the Constitution's First Amendment. His editorial commentary and opinions, therefore, ought to be exercised in a professional and responsible manner in keeping with the obvious power he possesses as managing editor of a widely circulated newspaper.

He has every right to disagree with me and others on the power plant, and to even yield the power of the press by publishing and circulating his editorial disagreement with our opinions, or even our expression of them.

What he has done, however, is breach the very duty of fairness he has as an editor and a member of the press; he has unfairly and improperly utilized the power and freedom of the press to wage an ugly personal attack against me, my company and Ron Flanary, a dedicated and highly respected public servant whose services to the region are immeasurable as executive director of Lenowisco Planning District Commission, past chairman of the Crooked Road and a board member of the Virginia Coalfield Economic Development Authority.

What he wrote, published and circulated in his March 16 opinion column exceeded the boundaries of fair comment. It was offensive, mean-spirited, vengeful, unprofessional and immature. It did not fully inform nor enlighten. It served no public interest at all, only his personal misguided self-interest. (link requires paid subscription)
I'm a bit dubious about that notion that newspaper editors are to play fair. It's been my experience that they simply act out of self-interest - like the rest of us. They just prefer to think their attitudes and actions are "fair." Had he known that going in, Mr. Wooten would then not have been surprised by the reaction he got from those at the Herald-Courier.

Still, he holds the upper hand in this ongoing battle. He has the power of the purse. Wooten has either threatened or suggested to the folks at the Herald-Courier that his company might withhold advertising dollars from the paper. I respectfully suggest that he do just that.

The paper has a formidable power at its disposal as well - that of the printed word. That power was deployed to its fullest in the scathing editorial. But that power exists only so long as the balance sheet allows it to exist (see "The newspaper industry has experienced the worst drop in advertising revenue in more than 50 years. ").

Ask the good people who work ... er, worked at the now-defunct New York Herald Tribune. The Boston Gazette. The Baltimore Morning Herald. The Omaha Bee. The Sacramento Union. The St. Louis Sun. The Washington Herald. The Washington Star ...

The Bristol Herald-Courier needs Mark S. Wooten more than Mark S. Wooten needs the HC.

Something worth remembering.