Is That a Change of Tone We Detect?

The first day of Todd Culbertson’s oversight of the RTD editorial pages arrived Thursday with no marked fanfare, just a change of names in the newspaper masthead . . . and also, it seems, a change of tone in the paper’s unsigned editorials.

Today the RTD doesn’t just criticize Frank Hargrove’s “get over it” barb; it also notes that Jews and people of color (“those who have endured history’s persistent discrimination and abuse”)  are most often the targets of contemporary smears, and argues that the “refusal of ancient sentiments to die emphasizes the need for public vigiliance.”

In other items, the RTD also calls the notion that Christmas is under attack “pathetic”; notes that it is finally now “possible to question progress in Iraq without being soft, faint of heart, or even anti-American”; and provides an informative preview of Gov. Kaine’s upcoming trip to India. It even includes an item gently mocking the obsession of some neocons with the notion that the U.S. and China are destined for military conflict sometime later this century.

To be sure, the RTD takes a shot at an old familiar whipping boy, liberal Hollywood, but even here the substantive point made is quite fair: that the the moral authority of the film industry to comment on environmental issues would be enhanced if the industry took a greater leadership role in minimizing its own environmental impact.

Obviously, we can’t leap to conclusions after just one day, but today’s batch of editorials provide reasons to be hopeful that the RTD’s editorials might just move in a more moderate direction, with respect to both content and tone,  in the months ahead. Stay tuned.

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Published in: on January 18, 2007 at 3:31 pm  Leave a Comment  

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. 

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

If You Ain’t Got a Friend, You’ve Still Got the Radio

Just a quick note to let readers know that this blog will be the subject of a radio interview Tuesday at 12:30, on WRIR. I’ll be on the Richmond Indymedia News show, hosted by Rebecca Farris. Tune it at 97.3 FM, or listen to the site’s live web stream.

Published in: on December 11, 2006 at 8:05 pm  Comments (1)  

Rebuking Rush

The Times-Dispatch this morning uses one of its editorials to criticize Rush Limbaugh and his “serial vulgarisms.” Inspired by the recent Limbaugh-Michael J. Fox controversy, the newspaper writes that “A conservatism that took itself seriously would not lionize Limbaugh and his ilk.”

That may be true, but a Republican Party that is serious about winning elections is not likely to disassociate itself from Limbaugh and his millions of listeners anytime soon. George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Condoleeza Rice, and (most recently) Dennis Hastert all have been on Rush’s show, and there is no question that Rush has served the GOP’s agenda well over the years. Limbaugh has been a key factor both in branding conservatism as a populist ideology, and in putting into circulation literally thousands of soundbites, half-truths, and put-downs designed to advance conservative aims. It is seriously disingenuous for conservative Republicans to now portray Rush as some sort of a renegade crazy cousin, when in fact he has been an integral part of the party propaganda machine for over a decade.

The RTD also uses the editorial (for the second time in a week) to celebrate the apparent financial downfall of Air America, the liberal talk radio network. Two observations: first, one should be deeply skeptical of the RTD’s attempt to assert a moral equivalence between the way Rush talks about his political opponents and the way even the most strident liberals depict leaders like Bush. I’m sure folks on the air at Air America sometimes have gone overboard the bounds of civility, but they’d have a tall order to attempt to match Rush’s well-established jargon for belittling opponents.

Second, count me as one not deeply surprised by Air America’s problems. It may be that liberals prefer reading and making their own efforts to form their own opinions rather than have them presented ready-made for them by a radio show host. There probably is a market out there for informative, news-based radio and commentary from a left-liberal perspective aimed at relatively well-educated audiences, but it’s unrealistic to think such shows are going to generate millions of listeners or obtain a wide populist following (particularly to the extent that such shows comport themselves according to norms of decency which have never much troubled Rush et al). Going mass market and populist would require an entirely different approach (and set of expectations as to the quality of content), I suspect. Currently Air America is not planning to go off the air, but once they get squared away with their creditors they are going to have to reorganize themselves and adopt a more realistic near-term business model.

Air America itself is claiming that its financial problems are hardly unprecedented in this field, pointing out that conservative broadcasters in the past often ran at a loss for many years without the plug being pulled by patient investors–the kind of patient, politically commited investors the network now lacks.

Published in: on October 26, 2006 at 10:36 am  Comments (1)  

Welcome and Mission Statement

The purpose of this blog is straightforward: to periodically respond to and critique columns and editorials appearing in the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

The RTD famously maintains a very conservative editorial page–you’d never know from reading the paper that Richmond is a city that votes Democratic by about a 70-30 margin. Moreover, the limited range of opinion typically offered in the RTD’s pages has a negative effect on public discourse in this city, and constrains wide-ranging, serious public discussion of the many severe problems and issues the city and region face.

Instead, readers are treated to a parade of syndicated right-wing columnists, along with contributions from two local writers (one a moderate conservative, the other an extreme conservative). The paper’s own editorials also are quite conservative in orientation (with occasional exceptions). To be fair, the paper does print Paul Krugman, probably the most important liberal columnist on the national scene at the moment, as well as Ellen Goodman, Leonard Pitts and Molly Ivins. But that’s about it; more radical points of view (be they local or national) are off the RTD radar completely.

In short, readers of the RTD are too rarely exposed to the wider array of voices that characterizes American political discourse, let alone exposed to international views. This limited discourse reinforces overly-parochial views on fundamental social questions such as poverty, race, war, and the American role in the world. Equally troubling, only a small amount of the material that appears in the RTD’s op-ed pages reflect the views and interests of the citizens of this city, especially poorer and African-American citizens. The world of the RTD op-ed page is overwhelmingly white, conservative and (to a slightly lesser extent) male; the actual city of Richmond is very different.

This blog, then, will try to provide a broader perspective, usually in the form of critiques of material appearing in the RTD. The blog is not intended to be simply relentless criticism: we’ll also give credit when credit is due, and try (to the extent possible!) to avoid vitriolic language and rhetorical excess. (Occasional sarcasm will prove unavoidable, I suspect.)

Initially, the blog will focus primarily on how the RTD opinion pages address national and global issues, but I hope to devote more critical attention to its coverage of local issues as times goes along (and would welcome suggestions from readers on how to do so). To the extent that this blog takes up issues of concern beyond Richmond, I certainly also welcome readers who don’t live anywhere near the region.

Published in: on August 20, 2006 at 8:47 pm  Comments (4)