McGuire on Media

Arizona Republic has centered the debate and is on the right track

One of the breakthrough management concepts I learned running a daily newspaper was “catch people doing good.” Life became easier, and I became more effective, when I successfully focused on what people did well rather than obsess about the bad stuff.  I don’t claim I ever mastered the skill, but I think I got better at it.

There is no doubt that while I tried to be gentle when I wrote this blog entry last week, I clearly thought the Arizona Republic was not doing enough to show leadership and ownership on this national dispute over a state bill, SB 1070, the state’s controversial immigration bill.

I caught Sunday’s Republic doing damn good. The newspaper devoted its front page (a wrapper) to a full-page editorial demanding local politicians stop playing games and fix the nation’s immigration mess.  Doug MacEachern, an editorial writer for the Republic, told the Associated Press “It’s of sufficient importance that we thought it required something very over-the-top to grab people’s attention.”

Over-the-top is good especially in these days of waning newspaper influence. As newspapers struggle for relevance in the public debate on any issue the old rule book has to go in the trash can.  If newspapers want to be community players they have to show community leadership in bold, original ways that jar community leaders. The Republic approach was jarring, confrontational and insightful. The envelope has definitely been pushed!

Increasingly, in the last few years, I have become an even stronger critic of editorial pages  that show a partisan tilt. I know it is a radical, unpopular view with editorial page editors, but editorial pages  that are easily read as conservative or liberal damage news gathering credibility. No matter what we tell readers they see bias based on the editorial stance. 

The right intellectual space for editorial pages is community debate and leadership. Editorial pages must take more of a 50,000-foot perspective. They must be agenda setters. Guiding the nature of debate and centering the correct issues to move a community forward should be the editorial mission of every newspaper.

One could pick nits with the Republic editorial. My wife picked a pretty savvy one Sunday morning when she brought the paper to me with this quote: “The Republic Editors are just like Kenan Thompson’s Saturday night live bit on the economy, Fix it! Fix it. Fix it.”  

The editorial was not prescriptive, but it did put pressure on the right people to fix the immigration problem. For the most part the Republic editorial kept the proper perspective, narrated the right amount of history and pointed the correct accusatory fingers at what I will personally call the rampant demagoguery on this issue.  The Republic didn’t use sensationalistic words like that one, but a sentence like this one doesn’t leave a lot of ambiguity either: “These politicians–Republicans and Democrats–used this issue to bait voters. Voters should get wise and demand leadership and solutions.” Baiting and demagoguery seem close to me!

For me, the primary accomplishment of the Republic editorial was its clear effort to spot and label the raw, political cynicism that is driving politicians in the spring of 2010. When the editors put the hammer to nine Arizona politicians it is clear those pols had the opportunity to choose good and to choose solutions to the problem. Instead, as the Republic points out, they have chosen the expedient and the cynical.

In my view, the Republic front page editorial accomplished another crucially important goal.  That editorial with its bold message and bold play made the Republic a key player again on this all-important issue.  Throughout Sunday’s newspaper I sensed a new vitality around the immigration bill story.

Republic news leadership has the opportunity  to use that editorial as a game-changer and as an agenda setter. The editorial clearly sets forth nine people who must be covered aggressively. In the folds and seams of the editorial there are scores of vital story ideas that can allow the Republic to own this story and to serve its community like no one else. And certainly, the Republic staff should be energized by the newspaper’s courage and commitment to take back this story.

Go get ’em!