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Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Ross Rambles: Getting it off my chest

Friday, March 4, 2005

The writing staff of a newspaper supposedly gets the final word in any media debate but usually our readers can have the last word if they have something new to say on a subject.

If we feel that a letter to the editor misrepresents articles or commentary, we can address that in columns or editor's notes and have done so. Mostly we don't.

There have been times over the years when my work has been misrepresented and I have let it go. Usually this is simply an erroneous statement that would require a rebuttal too complicated to address in an editor's note but doesn't justify an entire column.

The letter to the editor by Sally Dobson in the Wednesday Chronicle Times is an example of such a letter, or it would have been if it did not add to a compilation that collectively justifies a column.

Dobson, executive director of the Council Against Domestic Abuse and Sexual Assault, found the photo on the front page of the Feb. 23 Chronicle Times, "depressing to those of us who have worked for so many years against violence of all kinds ."

The photo was of a play rehearsal of the Cherokee Community Theater's production of "Dearly Departed." An enraged male character points a gun at the head of a female character as both are seated next to each other in a car. The scene is disturbing, as is the photo of it, which does not necessarily mean that either is inappropriate.

Dobson stated that she was not commenting on the play since she has not seen it. However, criticism of a photo of a scene from a play naturally raises the question of the appropriateness of the play. Since I am raising the topic again and have seen the play, I feel it is necessary to address the play itself before I get to the actual statement in Dobson's letter that I object to.

In the play, the disturbing impact of the scene is moderated by the fact that the woman does not take her husband's threat of lethal force seriously. She regards it as an empty threat.

What is more disturbing is the presence of children, imaginary unseen and unheard children in the back seat of the car who are upset by the threatened violence and by their mother's threat of putting them out of the car and leaving them by the road.

We also published a picture taken just after a fight in the play between two brothers. There is a great deal of bickering throughout the play but the two scenes mentioned are the only ones involving violence or threat of violence.

Is such activity appropriate material for a comedy? Yes, it is. The best kind of comedy is thought provoking, even disturbing. This adult-oriented, dark comedy portrays difficult subject matter in a way that can reach people more effectively than straightforward drama would. My statement in the article accompanying the photo that "death and family strife can be hilarious" is a fair description and possible warning of the contents.

The matter raised directly in Dobson's letter was her belief that the photo was unsuitable for the newspaper. I won't argue about that. I believe reasonable people could disagree on that point. What I will argue was the characterization of the picture and accompanying caption as depicting "an act of violence apparently portrayed as an appropriate response to a constantly harping wife."

The mere mention of a motive does not imply that the motive is justification for an act. There was no implication in the newspaper that domestic violence is appropriate.

Another letter to the editor that contained a single statement that I had objection to was written by Cindy Hanner, published Jan. 26, in response to an editorial critical of homeschooling published Jan. 19. Yes, I was the author of that editorial which drew much criticism from homeschool supporters.

Hanner's letter was articulate in support of homeschooling. Although I don't agree with all of her conclusions, the one part I will object to here as a misrepresentation of the editorial's position is the statement, "What a closed mind and limited social experiences one must have to believe the 'high school experience' is the ultimate life-time experience."

That statement is not an accurate paraphrase of the editorial's assertion that being part of a high school class is something a graduate carries throughout life.

It is possible for a person to carry positive memories of high school throughout life without it being the ultimate life experience.

For another example of misrepresentation which was not immediately rebutted, I'll go back to August of 2003. In the Aug. 18 edition, Greg Stieneke, criticized the lack of coverage of a swim meet at which Cherokee hosted more than 500 athletes. There were only two photos published of the meet, one on front and one on page 3, with no accompanying write-up beyond the picture captions.

Stieneke had a valid point. In hindsight, there are times that an event doesn't get the coverage it deserves. We try to adjust future decisions by constant reevaluation of past coverage, although this does not involve the hand-wringing remorse that some would expect from such imperfection.

One of the reasons for the lack of more pictures, explained to Stieneke before he wrote the letter, was that it was impossible to tell which swimmer was from what team, preventing the photographer, who happened to be me, from picking out local contestants to photograph. The photos used were one shot of the competitors ready to dive into the water and one group shot of kids sitting on benches prior to their turns to compete.

The one statement that I argue with refers to the difficulty of identifying competitors. "Any coach or parent would have been glad to help," he said.

I took pictures in the crowded fenced-in pool area where the only people present were kids, coaches and officials, all obviously working at a hectic pace in a tightly run event. They would definitely not have been glad to be interrupted by a reporter's questions.

The most annoying misrepresentation that I did not immediately challenge was in a letter to the editor in the March 10, 2003 Chronicle Times, signed by member of the Cherokee Police Department, rebutting an editorial that I wrote published in the March 5, 2003 Chronicle Times.

The letter's statement, "You stated in your editorial you are not criticizing the job public employees do. However, it seems that you are."

The "this is what you said but it's not what you meant" argument is the most annoying kind of misrepresentation. The justification for the argument was stated as, "If public employees, as you state, 'are conscientious and competent individuals' then why would you concern yourself with their wages?"

Well excuse me. Our city is overseen by elected officials who determine those wages. To state that any part of the operation of the city should be beyond the concern of citizens is an amazing assertion by anyone, particularly a public employee.

Although these gripes may seem petty, I feel better for getting them off my chest and they probably make for a better column than my other idea - the need for a better selection of hot sauces in local stores.