Changing of the Guard at the Times-Dispatch Editorial Pages; What Todd Culbertson Should Do

The Richmond Times-Dispatch today announced that deputy editorial page editor Todd Culbertson will take over the reins from retiring head editor Ross Mackenzie, who retires January 17. Columnist Barton Hinkle also gets a bump up to the deputy position.

At first glance, this succession appears to be an endorsement by the RTD publishers of the status quo. In the news article discussing the transition today, Culbertson praised MacKenzie and in effect promised “more of the same.”

That could turn out to be the case, which would be most unfortunate for the newspaper’s readers and the city of Richmond itself.

But until proven otherwise, I’d like to hold out the possibility that the tone of the RTD pages might change. Sometimes reformers come in unlikely clothing. Few predicted the demise of apartheid when F.W. De Klerk took power in South Africa, just as few predicted the fall of Soviet Communism when Mikhail Gorbachev gained control in the USSR.

This not to say that a dramatic overhaul of the RTD’s editorial philosophy is a realistic possibility. The newspaper is still going to maintain a right-of-center orientation; that much is clear.

But there are few things Culbertson and Hinkle could do over the next year or so that would dramatically improve the content of the editorial pages. Here are my top five “doable” reforms for the RTD:

1. Stop writing and printing intellectually lazy editorials and op-eds that are poorly researched and feature significant inaccuracies. (Case in point: this fall’s unsigned editorial about food stamps, which falsely implied that California is trying to get illegal aliens signed up for food stamps.)

2. Stop making illogical, off-the-point comments or attacks that add nothing of substance to the debate. (Case in point: the recent Election Day editorial which cited the 1989 Central Park jogger attack as an argument against New York City’s proposed ban on trans fats in restaurant food.)

3. Print more guest columnists who represent the true face of Richmond.  Poverty and all that goes with it is a grinding reality in the city of Richmond, yet how often do we hear the voices of the poor, especially of poor African-Americans in the RTD’s editorial pages? How often do we hear from leaders of groups who work with and on behalf of the poor? Not very often. Far more frequently, we’re treated to explanations from syndicated conservative columnists of why poverty isn’t such a big deal or is the poor’s own fault.

4. Draw more on the intellectual capital in the city. Between VCU, UR, VUU and neighboring academic institutions, there’s a wealth of substantive knowledge in this city about practical problems facing the city, state, nation, and world. Very little of this finds its way into the Times-Dispatch, and I don’t think it’s unfair to suggest that many local academics feel utterly alienated from the newspaper. Culbertson and Hinkle could change that by actively reaching out to local experts.

5. Hire a regular columnist representing a liberal point of view. Finally, the RTD, which it claims it prints a variety of perspectives, should follow up its words with concrete action. Take the plunge, and hire a regular columnist who dissents from the paper’s own editorial philosophy. Print that person twice a week, and give him or her complete editorial freedom. Nothing could do more to enhance the intellectual credibility of the newspaper than taking that step.

Moreover, there’s a natural candidate for the job already on the newspaper’s staff: Metro columnist Michael Paul Williams, a lifelong Richmond-area resident who is deeply knowledgeable about this region and also more than capable of commenting on national and international affairs.

That’s my agenda for change at the RTD; I sincerely hope that in time, at least some of it becomes Culbertson and Hinkle’s agenda as well.

Meanwhile, here at Richmond Talks Back, we’ll keep on doing what we always do: responding to whatever the paper chooses to print, trying to hold the paper accountable when it makes bad arguments or presents misleading information, and giving credit when credit is due. 

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Published in: on December 15, 2006 at 4:30 pm  Comments (1)  

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  1. #3 of the Do-able Reforms I agree with, wholeheartedly. Right now — and I know this because my friends and associates tease me about reading RT-D — the contemporary view is that RT-D is for old, retired busybodies with loads of money stashed in their walls.


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