NORTH CAROLINA — Last week, North Carolina voters overwhelmingly passed Amendment One to the state constitution, defining marriage as between one man and one woman only. The May 8 vote—coming a day before President Obama’s declaration of support for gay marriage—produced renewed national debate about gay marriage as well as jokes portraying this state as backwards.
Amendment One supporters said the measure was aimed at protecting traditional marriage. Opponents of the loosely worded amendment warned it could affect all civil unions, weaken laws protecting domestic partners and adopted children, and cut off benefits for partners of government employees. (One Mecklenburg County commissioner has already challenged the county to consider dropping the domestic partner benefits.)
The debate around Amendment One drew to a head in the weeks prior to the primary, generating big ad dollars for North Carolina TV stations. For the opinion pages at North Carolina newspapers, it offered an opportunity to exercise a unique muscle: convening and leading civic—and civil—discussion. Historically, the opinion function of newspapers weighs particularly heavy in the South, where strong voices like Ralph McGill ushered in a broader recognition of civil rights.
In the case of Amendment One, some papers in North Carolina made better use of that traditional role than others.
In Greensboro, a medium-sized city in the heart of the Piedmont, the Greensboro News & Record invited attention for what it didn’t do. The paper, owned by Landmark Communications, drew fire from a local blogger and earned a spot on Jim Romenesko’s blog for failing to take an editorial stand on Amendment One. The editorial board and the publisher could not come to agreement on the amendment and so chose not to editorialize on the issue at all, according to Allen Johnson III, the editorial page editor, in a reply to Romenesko.
The paper’s columnists and reporters, though, logged multiple stories about people in the community who were fighting the amendment with songs and a play, and staffer Susan Ladd told a compelling front-page story in February of a couple who wanted to get married before their 50th anniversary. (While many of the columns by Greensboro’s Allen Johnson and Jeri Rowe are now buried in NewsBank archives, both columnists explored the nuanced, changing attitudes in the African American community toward gay people.)
But the official voice of the newspaper, the editorial, remained sadly silent.
The Romenesko post prompted John Robinson, the News & Record’s former
managing editor, to take to Facebook to gather opinions on this question: “Would you prefer the local newspaper editorialize in favor of a position you oppose OR take no position at all?” The results of Robinson’s informal survey: Most people wanted their local newspaper to take a stand, regardless of whether they agreed with it.
Robinson elaborated in an email exchange with me on Monday:
Of course the newspaper should have weighed in on the issue, and I know the editorial staff desperately wanted to. To remain silent on a pivotal constitutional amendment—and one that affects so many people in the community—courts editorial irrelevance. I know the paper doesn’t want that, and I hope the publisher learned something about the need for a strong editorial voice.
In small-town Shelby, in the rural western part of the state just where the foothills begin to rise, another publisher did take a stand. Skip Foster, the publisher of Freedom Communication’s Shelby Star, editorialized on April 27 against the amendment, couching his argument in a libertarian framework of separation of church and state. He followed that column with another on May 4, days before the vote, declaring victory for high-level discussion in the letters sent to his paper and in the comments at his paper’s website. Wrote Foster:
For the most part, I have been very pleased with the level of discourse— respectful, intelligent and informed. It’s an emotional issue for many, but folks have tried to respond with their noggins, not their feelings, which helps the debate. My favorite email in the wake of all of this was from a supporter of Amendment One who said he appreciated the civil tone that was fostered around the [April 27] column. That was much appreciated.
Such efforts are easier, perhaps, in smaller communities. Still, Foster’s leadership role—and his emphasis on civil discourse, even as he staked out a position that failed to win a majority in every precinct in the county—shows a welcome independence of thought.
The Asheville Citizen-Times, a Gannett paper, editorialized against the amendment on April 27, but didn’t clearly restate its position closer to the vote, instead just summarizing the primary contests in a day-before round-up. But columnist John Boyle wrote on May 9 about feeling “ashamed” of North Carolina’s vote to pass what he called “Abomination One.” The response to Boyle’s column—in online comments and letters to the editor, 23 of which were published online inspired another column three days later in which Boyle acknowledged that passions (including his own) run hot in an election year. He promised to—and called on readers to—“remain civil,” and reminded readers that a columnist, by definition, is someone who expresses an opinion.
Boyle’s strong stand and his efforts at endorsing civility are laudable, but the polarized and siloed discussions on this particular issue, and in Boyle’s particular divided town, prompt questions about how traditional opinion leaders can break through. The Citizen-Times uses Facebook comments—a method that almost guarantees a higher level of civility by requiring real names, though it also comes with drawbacks—and the comments on the paper’s editorial tended to reflect the views of the newspaper. Those with an alternate view went elsewhere, to Topix, with anonymous vitriol. (That self-sorting and polarization is worth deeper analysis later, for clues to how newspapers can preserve their traditional civic influence. Perhaps one small lesson from Asheville: Repetition of a paper’s editorial stand just before election day shows conviction and reaches readers that might have missed the first editorial.)
In Raleigh, the state capitol, in the most educated and most liberal part of the state, the (McClatchy) News & Observer printed on the Sunday before the vote a long editorial titled, “Just say no.” In previous weeks, the paper had been filled with readers’ letters against the amendment. Burgetta Wheeler, a columnist and editor of letters to the editor, said the paper devoted extra print space to the letters by running fewer syndicated columns.
“We got more than 1,000 letters last week,” she said on the Monday after the primary. Most of the missives were against the amendment.
“We printed almost every ‘pro’ (amendment) we got and maybe 5 percent of the ‘anti’ we got,” Wheeler said. “We always try to print in ratio,” she added, so that what appears in the paper reflects the overall volume of letters. In this case, though, “we bent over backward to print the ‘pros’ because there were so few.”
Since print space couldn’t accommodate the outpouring, the news organization also published 11 packages of groups of letters online. The paper commits to providing an individual link to each letter, and some readers are still discussing the issue a week after the vote. Each letter can attract comments through Disqus, and the unique link approach enables the sharing of views online elsewhere. It’s a labor-intensive method, but worthy of consideration for other papers as readers move online and share thoughts more frequently in social media.
The News & Observer’s Wheeler said she watched the letters for “astroturfing,” or the technique that activists sometimes use by preparing form letters and asking multiple people to send the letters in as their own. While she knew some activists were urging their networks to write, she saw no obvious uses of the tactic.
In Charlotte, the Charlotte Observer’s editorial board produced two powerful editorials opposing the amendment, and, the day before the primary, recapped this stance in a third editorial. The Sunday before primary day, the Observer devoted half its op-ed page to letters and short guest columns against the amendment, and half to letters and columns for the amendment. “The half-page for each on the Sunday before was purposely balanced because we were so close to the election at that point,” Taylor Batten, the Observer’s editorial page editor, wrote in an email.
The print space devoted to the issue showed a commitment to community discussion; the effort to divide that space completely equally seemed unnecessary, even just before the election, given that the paper’s editorial pages had clearly taken a stand. A proportional division based on the submissions received could have been better, with some method for using the unlimited space online to share submitted columns that wouldn’t fit in print.
Nancy Webb, who edits the letters for the Observer, said she received many more original letters against the amendment than supporting it. The only exception, she said, came earlier in the spring, when form letters arrived calling for a boycott of Starbucks for supporting same-sex marriage. (The National Organization for Marriage urged the letter-writing campaign.) Webb said the Observer avoids printing astroturfed letters.
Down on the coast, the Wilmington Star News, a former New York Times regional newspaper with a university nearby, took a strong editorial stand against Amendment One. It, too, uses Facebook comments (though in this case, a brief review showed that the requirement for real names didn’t prevent ad hominem arguments). The paper, now owned by Halifax Communications, continues to devote letters space to the issue a week after the vote.
The paper also showed quick reflexes on the editorial page and rapid response to voter concerns after a sign at a church used as a voting precinct took a direct position on Amendment One. An editorial that urged the county elections board to consider the effect of church signs on precinct voters went online on election day, providing concrete leadership in the reexamination of long established practice. The paper, now owned by Halifax Communications, deserves applause.
In April, after the Pulitzer board declined to award a prize for editorials this year, Dan Gillmor weighed in at the Guardian on what he called “the lost art of editorials.” Wrote Gillmor:
Great editorial pages had clout in the old days for two reasons. The first was that newspapers themselves had clout, which has dissipated in recent years. The second was that editorial pages genuinely stood for something. They were used by newspaper publishers to help set and move the public agenda.
Gillmor lamented the “standard ‘on the one hand, on the other hand’ nonsense” produced by editorial pages at many “metro and local dailies” today, and urged them to instead aim to “get the community involved in a broader conversation about its condition and its future.”
Which is precisely what several North Carolina newspapers endeavored to do around Amendment One. Now: How to keep the conversation going?
Correction: This post originally misidentified John Robinson’s title at the News & Record. He is the paper’s former editor, not the former managing editor. CJR regrets the error.