Some of you out there in newspaper reader land may have noticed that the “Editor’s Corner” columns I write for this page rarely contain any hard opinion. There are a couple of reasons for this that I’d like to explain.
First, as the managing editor of the paper who also writes news stories, it’s really not my place — and might even be considered the height of hypocrisy — for me to weigh in on the issues of the day while also writing and editing news articles on those very same issues in a supposedly objective manner. (Notice I said “supposedly objective,” because we all know true objectivity is impossible. That doesn’t mean journalists shouldn’t strive for it in their work, however.)
So, no, this hasn’t been a venue for pontification. Highlighting issues, sure. Telling stories, sure. A little nudge here and there, maybe. Making observations about local life, heck yeah. Telling you how to vote, heck no.
Sounding off and trying to shape opinion are jobs for other people. What I’m trying to do here is write “slice of life” columns, not opinion pieces, that mostly focus on Cache Valley but sometimes stray into other things. I trust that Herald Journal readers who have tarried long in the world of newsprint and ink know the genre well.
It's more an art form than an opinion platform, or put another way, this small-town newspaper guy is doing his version of Mark Twain — except that in a couple of decades of essay writing, he’s never actually said one thing worth putting in a quotation book.
I wrote columns and did “local-color” radio pieces in a few other towns before coming to Cache Valley in 1995 but initially refrained from picking up the practice here. I judged, and I think accurately, that Cache Valley residents didn’t want to hear anything an outsider like me would have to say about the local culture, and honestly it took about 10 years to even get a feel for life in these parts after growing up in the Denver area.
Then one day in 2010 a news event happened that screamed for a few personal impressions: Local legend Merlin Olsen died.
As a baby boomer, I grew up watching Merlin Olsen play football, do sports commentary, sell Chevy trucks and play roles on television shows, so I sat down and did a reflection column to appear in the newspaper edition that reported on Merlin’s life and death.
A couple of days later I received an email from a former local leader of note, Tami Pyfer, offering some positive feedback and encouraging me to write more columns. Tami and I had butted heads a time or two over the paper’s reporting on local issues, so her input was a bit of a surprise, but it gave me the motivation to do some more columns and some assurance that my outsider’s voice might not grate against local ears too much.
I’ve written about 250 columns since.
So after that whole spiel, I come to you today with a hard opinion, and let me apologize ahead of time for not showing proper journalistic restraint. The subject that has me worked up is how elected local government officials sometimes use official newsletters and websites to promote themselves or advance their political views. To me, this is a misuse of public resources — resources that are supported by tax dollars and must therefore be used strictly for informational purposes, not personal ones.
As you may have already guessed, what prompted me to take up this topic this week was a controversial city newsletter essay by Hyde Park Mayor Sharidean Flint, in which she expressed her view that COVID-19 health restrictions are infringing on individual rights.
The mayor’s viewpoint is fine with me. We all have opinions on this stuff — left, right and everywhere in between. What I’m taking issue with is the use of the official city newsletter to advance her cause. Save that, Mayor Flint, for your campaign literature or when you have the floor at a City Council meeting. You could also just write a letter to the editor like Providence Mayor John Drew has for today’s opinion page, expressing his support for your views.
Flint is not the only one who has used a city newsletter as a platform. I’ve seen similar political expressions in other municipal publications over the years, both in Cache Valley and elsewhere. It seems every town newsletter must have a “Message from the Mayor,” and this is where the greatest danger of advocacy and self-promotion lurks.
Another concern is the use of local government websites to promote mayors or elected officials, who, let’s not forget, will eventually be coming up for re-election. Sometimes this is blatant, with a full-screen photo of the great leader in a commanding or friendly pose accompanied by a personal message. Other times it’s more subtle.
I should say most towns in Cache Valley appear to be very careful not to cross the line with their newsletters and websites. Their conscientious efforts make the violators stick out all the more.
It’s a bit like an editor who prides himself on an objective local news product using a personal column to push his or her views on everybody. This week, Mayor Flint and I are both guilty.