End of an era
I subscribe to a number of papers and journals, but I rarely read the paper versions any more. Like many people, I prefer to get my news online. That being said, I was alarmed when I heard that the Rutland Herald and Times Argus was eliminating the position of editorial page editor, and that it was laying off its long-time editor, Pulitzer Prize winner, David Moats. To me, that was further evidence that the role of print media is changing fundamentally, and not for the better.
When I first ran for secretary of state in 1997, I was new to politics, so it was not surprising that many people offered me advice. Many of these “advisors” told me that it was important to introduce myself to Moats. It was not just because his editorials could sway voters, but mostly because he was considered to be one of the most thoughtful observers of Vermont’s political scene, with his finger firmly on the pulse of ordinary Vermonters.
When we finally met, I was surprised to find an unassuming man, practically buried beneath piles of papers stacked on his desk and on every flat surface of his small office. In his quiet way, he asked me all of the important questions — why I was running for office, what I thought I could do that the person before me had not done, what I thought about the health of Vermont democracy, and so on.
I went on to win my campaign, and Moats continued to offer Herald and Times Argus readers his thoughtful observations about government, politics and Vermont. Indeed, a highlight of his career, and a moment of pride for Vermont, was in 2001 when he became the first and only Vermonter to win the Pulitzer Prize for Journalism for a series of editorials about legally recognizing same-sex relationships.
Putting aside Moat’s significant contributions to Vermont’s public debate, it is not a small thing when a local paper decides to eliminate the role of the editorial page editor. Some would say it is just a sign of changing times — and one more indication of the waning influence of the print media. Students of journalism might argue that with fewer resources going into editorial pages, the news media is simply going full circle, but perhaps not in a good way.
Indeed, the first newspapers in this country were published precisely to promote the views of the publisher. Newspapers were highly partisan and liberally blended fact with persuasive fiction. It wasn’t until the 1840s that Horace Greely established the New York Tribune, and for the first time, established a separate opinion page. He thought readers deserved to know what was unbiased reporting and what was editorializing. Until recently, we have taken that important distinction for granted, expecting that journalists followed rules of ethics, and that editorial journalism was transparent.
The free press plays an essential role in our democracy. When reporters are doing their jobs well, they give us information we need to understand the world and hold the government accountable — while editorial journalists help put that information into context.
As it was in the early days of newspapers, in many of the places people get their news today, the line between opinion and fact has been completely blurred. This is dangerous. And in this era of the 24-hour news cycle and fake news, we need opinion journalism more than ever.
I can understand the need for newspapers today to cut costs; I just wish it didn’t come at the expense of providing thoughtful editorials about the complicated and often, controversial, issues facing Vermont, our country and the world today.
Deb Markowitz served as Vermont’s secretary of state from 1999-2010 and then as secretary of the Agency of Natural Resources until 2017. She is currently a visiting professor at UVM’s Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources.