• U.S.

The Press: The Yes and the No

3 minute read

The chief of the St. Petersburg Times editorial page took a hard look at his own handiwork and found it wanting. Certain that few of the Times’s 191,000 readers in ultraconservative St. Petersburg were reading—much less heeding—the paper’s consistently liberal editorials, Robert Pittman expressed his dissatisfaction in a memo to fellow staffers last fall: “When an editorial writer doesn’t know the answer to a problem, he frequently describes it as a dilemma. There are also many dilemmas in the concept of the present editorial page.” As an alternative, Pittman proposed a new editorial format that would include factual essays on each side of a question to run along with the Times’s position on the same subject.

Pittman’s suggestion appealed to the Times’s new editor, Eugene Patterson, who came to Florida last May. A Pulitzer prizewinning veteran of the Atlanta Constitution and the Washington Post, Patterson too was disenchanted with the detachment of traditional editorials. He had worked as a journalist during the Southern integration disputes of the 1960s. Of those days Patterson recalls: “I was constantly puzzled by my inability to make a rational argument heard. The reader tunes out what threatens him. You have to let him know you understand his position.”

Flexible Method. The first pro-con page—on the subject of free public transit—appeared last December, and others have run on a once-or twice-a-week basis ever since. Dealing with topics as diverse as faculty tenure and garbage collection, the format has provided a flexible method for airing complicated subjects. An eight-part series on the presidential race, for instance, presented both the Nixon and McGovern positions on basic issues. In contrast with the known views of St. Petersburg voters, Times editorials endorsed the McGovern stand seven times out of eight, but because the Republican side was fairly set forth, few complained.

The pro-con policy has stirred new respect for the paper that local conservatives once dubbed the “St. Pete Pravda” for its liberal views. “The Times has never been known to show both sides in the past,” says Republican Congressman C.W. Young. “Now they’re doing it.” State Senator Richard Deeb, an opponent of busing to promote integration, adds: “It doesn’t hurt half as much when they blast me when they spell out my side of it.”

Acrobatics. In late October a member of the St. Petersburg city council asked the Times to prepare a pro-con page on a proposed runway extension to accommodate private jets at the city’s small airstrip, an issue that was coming up for council consideration. The Times complied, presented reasons for and against the expansion, then opposed it editorially. Ultimately, the council approved the project, but at least the Times editorial page has begun to earn the kind of attention Pittman desired.

Sometimes one editorial writer is called upon to argue both sides of a question and write the Times’s opinion as well—intellectual acrobatics that can be difficult. Pittman worries that the format could occasionally reinforce bigoted or lunatic-fringe positions by making them seem legitimate. Despite such reservations, the editors are convinced that the pro-con page is doing what an editorial page ought to do: inform and influence public debate. Says Patterson: “You disarm the reader. Communication is the art of getting what you say received, not just saying it.”

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