From the editor
One of our favorite essays is Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Self-Reliance,” which contains this nugget: “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.”
No doubt enjoyed by little newspaper editors, too.
The key, of course, is to determine when the consistency is foolish.
Every week, we are besieged with pleas or threats on what we have printed or will print in our newspaper. We strive to maintain consistent policy in fairness to all.
Some policies are bedrock principles of journalism, upheld for fairness and thoroughness and to inform our readers.
Letter writers, for example, have protested close personal relationships or political affiliations being noted at the end of their missives. We try to do this consistently in order to inform the readers of those connections.
We run a list of arrests in our coverage area weekly, even of family members, in order to be consistent. Over the years we’ve heard pleas like, “My son will commit suicide if you print his arrest” or “My husband will lose his job” or “I’ll sue your paper into oblivion if you run my arrest” or even more personal threats that are too unseemly to repeat. If we made an exception for one, it would be unfair to all.
The public should be informed about local crime as well as how the officers they are paying to handle it are performing their duties. And so we maintain consistency.
Some of our rules, though, are imposed for our own management.
One of those is that we don’t run letters about elections the week before. That is to allow a chance for correction, should it be warranted. Really, it’s meant to be a protection against our own fallibility. Although we strive to check facts in every letter before publication — we frequently tell writers they are entitled to their own opinions but not their own facts — we sometimes miss a mistake. We generally receive the most letters the week before an election and it pains us to turn them away.
We received a letter this past Wednesday afternoon, in the midst of production, from the director of the Guilderland Public Library and the president of the library’s board of trustees. It was responding to a local television station’s hatchet job on library spending. We had earlier been sent a link to the report and watching it made us embarrassed for journalism.
The station televised several Guilderland residents complaining about receiving “junk mail, all paid by tax dollars” from the Guilderland Public Library. There was no attempt to balance the report with interviews of residents who value getting news of library events or of being informed on the budget and candidates running in the May 20 elections.
A more fair and thorough story might have surveyed area libraries and school districts — the only institutions whose budgets and therefore staff and programs are determined by public vote — to see what proportion of their budgets is typically spent on informing the public. Has there been a shift to electronic notification in recent years? Does this reach all residents in the district?
We had written about the Guilderland Library expenditure in our May 1 edition as part of an in-depth look at the proposed $3.5 million budget for next year and also touched on the topic in our issues-based interviews with five library board candidates. In our May 1 story, we noted “Part of the reduction in operation costs is because information that was formerly mailed on postcards eight times a year to district residents will instead be printed in ads the library will purchase in a local penny saver.”
In its self-aggrandizing and biased report, however, the station took credit for this change, which pre-dated its airing, saying since it “brought taxpayer concerns to light, the library has said they are now looking at more ways to save money. They will start publishing their post cards in a community publication beginning this summer.”
So, not only was the report biased, it was untrue. Its major point was the station’s self-promotion.
Also, the report was timed to come just before the library budget vote on May 20.
That is why we now believe our consistency in not publishing the letter was foolish. The letter will be in print in our next edition, on May 22, which is after the budget vote, because, as the library director put it, “We just want to set the record straight.”
We are publishing it now online to set the record straight before the vote. We believe it is fair for our readers to know the facts before they go to the polls. We take our job of informing the public seriously and urge voters to read our story on the budget and our profiles of the candidates before voting.
Since this is a clearly labeled editorial, we will also state our opinion. We are supporters of public libraries in general and the Guilderland library in particular.
We were alarmed with a report last week from Common Sense Media that showed a rapidly falling rate of kids who read. Currently, 22 percent of 13-year-olds and 27 percent of 17-year-olds say they “hardly ever” or “never” read for pleasure. Thirty years ago, only 8 percent of 13-year-olds and 9 percent of 17-year-olds said that. In 1984, nearly a third said they read for pleasure every day; now fewer than 20 percent do.
The Guilderland library does a great job of encouraging both small children and teens to love reading. It also offers programs for the elderly and the ages in between. It provides not just entertainment but a way to knit the community together. Because it is supported by everyone, the poor as well as the wealthy are offered a pathway to knowledge and a bright future.
We know times are tough. If you can’t afford the $1.14 per year — two cents more than last year — per $1,000 of assessed valuation, which comes to less than 30 bucks for the average Guilderland homeowner, you have every right to vote no. But don’t base your vote on a skewed TV news hatchet job.
Read our stories, or the budget breakdown and candidate profiles in your library newsletter, and make an informed choice based on your own views.
As Emerson so succinctly put it: “Trust thyself.”