Monday, December 26, 2005

Does Chestnut Hill want the Local to survive as an independent voice?

This editorial appeared in the Chestnut Hill Local in mid-November of 2005. Given the recent events with staff firings and the editorial voice of the Local under its present leadership, we think it appropriate that people re-read and consider what is happening with the newspaper today.

Nineteenth century American populist sage Mark Twain once wrote that the primary function of a newspaper should be “to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” Tragically, recent events concerning this newspaper have done just the opposite: they have afflicted the afflicted and made the comfortable even more comfortable.

In last week’s Local there was a very brief statement on page 4 under the name of Maxine Maddox Dornemann, president of the Chestnut Hill Community Association Board of Directors, indicating that Local editor James Sturdivant had resigned on Oct. 19. However, there was no reason given for the resignation, so readers were left in the dark. Sturdivant had told staffers he had been under pressure for a while from certain CHCA board members because of stands he had taken in recent editorials.

According to his letter of resignation, three individuals who work at the Local had come into his office on Tues., Oct. 18, and told him to kill an editorial he had written for the Oct. 20 Issue of the paper headlined “Fork in the road.”

Essentially, Sturdivant was forced out of the Local for the “crime” of doing exactly what a great editor is supposed to do — to report fairly and accurately on news of interest to readers and to analyze and editorialize on those issues of most importance, while always providing space for those who may disagree.

If Sturdivant had been slavish or faint of heart or timid, he would still be here at the Local, but James was faithful to his calling. Week after week, in addition to presenting the news, he had the audacity and fearlessness to use the editorial page exactly the way editorial pages of all quality newspapers have been used since the founding of this country. Sturdivant was thoughtful and meticulous in dissecting the issues of relevance to residents of the Chestnut Hill area.

Unfortunately, as attorney George Parry pointed out in a recent op-ed piece, there is an inherent conflict when an editor at the Local does the job he/she was hired to do. Unlike almost all other papers in the U.S., which are owned by businesspeople or corporations, the Local is owned by the Chestnut Hill Community Association (CHCA). Needless to say, some of the CHCA’s committees and most prominent individuals will sometimes be the subject of news stories and commentaries in the pages of the Local. When some of those individuals regard the coverage or commentary as negative or unfair, instead of firing off a letter to the editor, they may be tempted to retaliate by “shooting the messenger,” i.e., by making life miserable for the editor, pressuring him/her to “go easy” or even attempting to terminate his/her job.

The late Marie Jones, who edited the Local for many years, was confronted by the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune numerous times during her tenure. On a few occasions, organized attempts to remove her from the editorship were launched, but Marie, a lifelong Chestnut Hill resident, was always able to mobilize the forces of reason and to prevail.

James Sturdivant, however, chose not to fight those who give lip service to free speech but who want to censor any editor who might actually criticize, even in the mildest terms, their efforts or position on any issue.

We the undersigned wish he had chosen to fight publicly for free speech, as did Marie Jones on several occasions. In his letter of resignation, James wrote about “the unprecedented threat to the editorial integrity of the paper ... In recent months I have come to understand the extent to which the CHCA leadership has ceased to place much stock in the continued editorial independence of its newspaper, especially as it regards comment and coverage of itself.” James blasted “the effort to undermine the ability of the editorial department of the Local to operate free of the whims of a leadership that changes yearly ... The desire of a majority of the board to privatize the CHCA and reconstitute it on a corporate model — all of these things are intolerable to me. These developments will lead to the eventual demise of one of the best community newspapers in the country. I will not preside over such a process.”

Thomas Jefferson said it was no accident that the First Amendment provided for freedom of speech and freedom of the press. He said it was placed first in the Bill of Rights because it was the most important Amendment; without it, he said, none of the other freedoms and rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution could survive.

We the undersigned believe that legendary journalist Edward R. Murrow would be proud of James Sturdivant, an even-tempered, mild-mannered, thoughtful and fair-minded gentleman who refused to surrender to the forces of censorship at great cost to himself and his family. Certain members of the board have made it clear by their actions that they do not want an independent newspaper run by principled journalists; some clearly want the newspaper version of TV’s “happy talk.” They clearly want a positive spin on every action by the CHCA and its board members — and never a discouraging word.

At last Thursday’s board meeting, board members, by a roll-call vote of 21 to 14, refused to offer Jim his job back, even though an overwhelming majority admitted that the three individuals who tried to pressure the editor to alter or kill an editorial had no authority to do so.

Last Friday associate editor Michael Mishak turned in a letter of resignation and quickly left the building, in keeping with CHCA policy. He wrote in part: “I can no longer work under the soul-numbing conditions that I have now personally watched drive two editors from their office, not to mention the untimely departures of other key staffers ... Most disturbing is the lack of newspaper and publishing experience at the highest levels of what is now being treated and run as a corporation, although the management’s incompetence in the ‘free press’ realm may help explain its increasing desperation to control the message of the Local.”

For those staff members still left at the Local, morale has never been lower. The building is like a morgue. We believe that some of the board members who voted not to bring James Sturdivant back do not have a clue how much damage they have done.

The people of Chestnut Hill and all CHCA members should be grateful that they were fortunate enough to have two supremely talented, dedicated and courageous editors and writers like James Sturdivant and Michael Mishak working for the Local. They should be aggrieved and saddened, as we are, that their work was undermined by those who want the Local to be uncritical cheerleaders for the CHCA. Some board members want a corporate newsletter, not an award-winning newspaper.

A significant minority of the currently constituted board of directors still want the Local to be an aggressive newspaper doing the job that the Founding Fathers envisioned. The problem is this: what self-respecting, experienced, independent-minded journalist would accept the job as editor of the Local, knowing full well that his/her job will be jeopardized at even the mildest whiff of criticism of any CHCA decision or of certain thin-skinned board members? If you believe, as we do, that the Local is worth saving as an independent voice of the community, now is the time to express your opinion forcefully to the newspaper and to the board members. If you don’t, there may be no newspaper left to save.

The remaining staff of the Chestnut Hill Local:
Scott Alloway, Production Assistant
Amy Brissom, Reporter
Mary T. Flannery, Classified Manager
Regina B. Holmes, Editorial Assistant
Robyn John, Production Manager
Len Lear, Local Life Editor
Sonia Leounes, Display Advertising Representative
Cheryl Anne Massaro, Circulation Manager
Ellen Maher, Classified Assistant
Jimmy J. Pack Jr., Assistant Production Manager
Kaya Simmons, Display Advertising Representative
Ellen Weiser, Listings Editor


Anonymous Anonymous said...

The leaders of the Chestnut Hill Community Association apparently didn't understand this editorial. In the Jan. 12, 2006, issue, they hijacked the front page with a mean-spirited and self-righteous diatribe against any and all who challenged their rule. It seems that if thewy can't have it their way and trun the Local into their personal propaganda organ, then they will do their best to make it a joke as a real newspaper.

That these ruling "elite" would dare say the board members who came in, often at the request of the staff, to help them protect the paper against the actions of the leaderships cronies is a complete and utter fraud.

There is no dignity in craven power grabbing.

Wed Jan 11, 09:46:00 AM EST  

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