All the Views Unfit to Print

“[M]any ‘journalists’ let the bullies on the right cow us with the ‘liberal media’ nonsense…”

Molly Ivins, April 4, 2006

I’m sure the late, great Ms. Ivins would be shaking her head at a bizarre controversy involving a New England newspaper that has been humiliated because of its nonsensical 2013 decision to provide a forum to far-right views. Hopefully, as a result of this controversy, other newspapers will think twice about giving op-ed space to bigots in the name of “balance.”

The Boston Globe reports:

[T]he talk of the Berkshires is about an inflammatory racial commentary penned by a local Republican official — and a newspaper’s decision to print it…

“It’s surely been a bigger debate than we anticipated,” said Bill Everhart, editorial page editor of The Berkshire Eagle, the Pittsfield daily that published the commentary.

The debate began with a column that ran under the headline “Here’s the solution for black America” on June 13, four days before a white supremacist, Dylann Storm Roof, shot and killed nine people at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston.

The timing added fuel to what probably would have been a controversial item anyway, drawing attention from readers and media bloggers far outside of the Eagle’s circulation area, many of whom added the column to a growing list of exhibits revealing the undying existence of racism in America.

The column’s author, Steven Nikitas, is a member of the Berkshire County Republican Association, which submits opinion pieces every other week in a series called “Right from the Berkshires.” Nikitas argued against what he called “endless media hand-wringing that somehow ‘we’ must all do something more to help black America.”

“And ‘we’ means white people, taxpayers, businesses, the criminal justice system, the universities and the government,” Nikitas continued. “But blacks must now pull themselves up.”

He went on to write that black people should “reform their culture from top to bottom by respecting marriage and the family and the law, returning to their churches, embracing education and hard work, avoiding violence and debased rap music, speaking clearly, shunning drugs and profanity, and pulling up their pants.”

How did the Berkshire Eagle find itself in this fine mess?

[S]ome comments, much to the Eagle’s consternation, are based on the mistaken belief that Nikitas is a staff writer at the newspaper and that the paper endorses his views.

The confusion prompted the Eagle’s editor, Kevin Moran, to print a lengthy explanation of the paper’s decision to publish Nikitas’s column last Friday. Declaring the Eagle’s opinion page to be “among the most progressive in the country,” Moran stressed that Nikitas is not an employee and that the paper’s editorial board disagrees with his views.

“Views and opinions — whether they be considered by some, most or all people to be ignorant or brilliant or somewhere in between — tell us a lot about the community in which we live,” Moran wrote…

Everhart, the editorial page editor, said he felt confident that most regular readers of the Eagle, familiar with its left-leaning editorial stance, understood that the paper was merely honoring its agreement to publish submissions of the Berkshire County Republican Association as a sort of counterweight. The Eagle, which has a print and digital circulation of about 30,000, has printed “Right from the Berkshires” since 2013 and plans to run the next installment this weekend.

It is impossible to have any sympathy for the Berkshire Eagle’s plight when they should have had enough common sense not to give a forum to representatives of a radicalized Republican Party. What did they think was going to happen?

Moran’s explanation for why the Eagle ran the piece is laughable. He notes:

Steven Nikitas is not an Eagle staff member; he is not employed by us.

Mr. Nikitas is one of several people who, as members of the Berkshire County Republican Association, contribute columns every other week titled “Right from the Berkshires” on the Opinion Page of the Eagle. But we haven’t made that link consistently clear to readers, which undoubtedly fueled confusion; going forth, we will in the tagline of the column.

About a year ago, the BCRA asked we allow their local conservative voices into The Eagle’s pages to provide a balance of political viewpoints. We obliged.

Why? Why did the Eagle allow itself to be hornswoggled into giving precious op-ed space to right-wing crackpots? Did they think they were going to get reasoned, centrist, moderate, thoughtful columns? If that’s the case, then the paper is apparently run by some of the most naive people on the face of the Earth.

Northeastern University professor and former Boston Phoenix reporter Dan Kennedy effectively dismantled Moran’s nonsensical argument:

[A] community paper like the Eagle should provide a public forum — to act as “a town square,” as Moran puts it. But it should also have standards for what it chooses to publish, and that’s where I think the Eagle blew it. Presumably Moran would not publish a column calling on white residents to burn crosses in order to drive their African-American neighbors out of the area. And no, Nikitas’ column isn’t as bad as that. But if you read it, you will see that it’s bad enough…

[I]f your instinct is to argue that Nikitas has a First Amendment right to his opinion, my answer is yes, he certainly does. He should get a blog. The Eagle is not the government. It is a newspaper, and it has a First Amendment right to choose what to publish and what to reject. The Eagle has risked its brand and reputation for the sake of providing a platform for a racist screed…

I’ve seen several people argue that the Eagle was providing a service by calling attention to a racist in the its midst. I find that argument ridiculous. You call attention to racism with reporting, not by providing a platform to a racist. Besides, racists are not particularly exotic; you can find them everywhere.

Boston Globe columnist Kevin Cullen also tried to defend the Eagle’s decision to run the column, but Kennedy had a great response to that defense as well.

Here’s some free advice for the Eagle: drop the “Right from the Berkshires” series as soon as possible and apologize to your readers for giving the cranks a forum for their views in the first place. Then, promise those readers that the next time far-right hacks ask you to give them a platform, you will follow the advice of that great Republican First Lady Nancy Reagan and just say no.

UPDATE: More from the Berkshire Eagle.

D.R. Tucker

D. R. Tucker is a Massachusetts-based journalist who has served as the weekend contributor for the Washington Monthly since May 2014. He has also written for the Huffington Post, the Washington Spectator, the Metrowest Daily News, investigative journalist Brad Friedman's Brad Blog and environmental journalist Peter Sinclair's Climate Crocks.