What’s in a name? I’m glad you asked
Aspen, CO Colorado
It’s been about a month since Gary Hubbell wrote his famous “Angry White Men” column for this newspaper. And when I say famous, I do mean famous.
Columnist Hubbell wrote his essay on Feb. 9 and, since then, there have been more than 1,200 comments on the Times website about that column. And if you add the Web comments about Letters to the Editor, news stories and other columns about his column, there have been more than 1,500 comments.
Indeed, I’m writing this column on March 6 and, as of this morning, people still are commenting on Mr. Hubbell’s original column. (And, as I edit this column on March 7, I see that six more comments have arrived since yesterday.)
But I’m not really writing about Gary Hubbell or his column today. What’s on my mind is what might seem like a minor issue, a kind of spin-off from the “Angry White Men” uproar.
And that issue is the terms that people used to describe Gary Hubbell and the item he wrote for the paper. No, I don’t mean the fact that some people called him a “hero” or that others called him a “racist.”
What I’m thinking about is that some commenters called him a “reporter.” (“Your reporter Gary Hubbell wrote …”) And some referred to what he wrote as a “story” or an “article” or an “editorial.”
In fact, Gary Hubbell is a columnist and what he wrote was a column.
Now these distinctions might seem trivial to you, but stick with me for a minute, because they do matter.
There are different terms for the various items that appear in the newspaper. There are different terms for the people who write them. And there are different rules that govern them.
Imagine for a moment that we were talking about sports ” this is Aspen, so make that winter sports. Skiing and snowboarding might take place on the same mountain, but they’re different sports. Slalom and downhill and skiercross and superpipe and slopestyle all are different events with different rules ” and you had better follow the rules for the event you’re in.
Talk to a rider about his skis and you’ll get a strange look. Ask a downhill racer if he’s planning on doing a 360 off the jump and he’ll know you have no idea what you’re talking about.
It’s the same thing in the newspaper business.
A story (or an article) is the basic item. It’s supposed to convey factual information. It can be written in a variety of different styles, from plain-spoken to dramatic. But it’s supposed to be filled with basic facts.
OK. I can hear some of you getting upset already, so let me jump right in and agree with you: Yes, sometimes we get it wrong. Very wrong. Sometimes our “facts” are flat wrong. Sometimes we let bias and opinion color what we write.
But that doesn’t change the rules. It just means we got it wrong. Sorry about that. We honestly do try ” and try hard ” to get it right and keep our opinions and biases in check.
But, whether we get it right or wrong, there’s a difference ” a very real difference ” between a news story and a column.
And a column is what Gary Hubbell wrote. Sometimes we call them “opinion columns.” And that’s what they are: personal opinions. The basic rule for a column is that anything goes ” except that you’re not supposed to flat-out lie. You’re not supposed to consciously get it wrong. But your opinion is your opinion and you’re allowed to say what you believe.
As a rule, columns are clearly labeled “opinion” (or, at least, “column”). Most often, they appear in a separate section or on a separate page. And they always have the columnist’s name right up there at the top. That’s so you know whose opinion it is. And then there are editorials. Those do seem to cause a lot of confusion. An editorial is intended to represent the opinion of the newspaper itself ” not of any one individual. Most newspapers have some sort of editorial board, a group of people who discuss the issues and settle on an official position that the newspaper will take.
Editorials traditionally are unsigned, the writer’s name does not appear on the editorial. That’s because the editorial is not that one person’s opinion; so that person’s name is irrelevant.
I have listened in on editorial board meetings at other papers where the person assigned to write an editorial was the person who happened to argue most strongly against the stance that editorial was going to take.
I know that, years ago, as editor of The Aspen Times, I sometimes wrote editorials that I personally did not agree with. They were stating the opinions of the editorial board, opinions of the newspaper, positions that we, as a board, felt were best for the entire community.
Some readers don’t seem to understand the very idea of an editorial. I remember once getting a letter from a reader who was outraged at our “wildly slanted journalism.” His letter lectured me about the rules that say there should be no opinion in news stories ” but the item he was objecting to was, he said, “filled with opinions.” And finally, he added, “This cowardly piece of biased reporting didn’t even have the reporter’s name on it.” That’s when I realized he was talking about an editorial.
Indeed, it was unsigned and filled with opinion ” just the way it was supposed to be.
Finally, there are Letters to the Editor. Those are the ones written by you, our readers. And here, once again, just about anything goes.
But here, again, there is confusion. When I was editor of the Times. I was not infrequently approached by people who said, “I published an editorial in your paper yesterday and …” It took me a while to realize that those people were referring to a Letter to the Editor.
A Letter to the Editor is not an editorial. A column is not a story. A columnist is not a reporter.
In the end, does it matter?
Yes, it does.
Gary Hubbell was not a “reporter” who wrote a “story” for The Aspen Times.
He was a “columnist” who wrote a “column,” chock full of his own personal opinions ” which he was allowed to write, even encouraged to write, regardless of whether anyone else at the paper agreed with them.
That was his job. And I have to say that he did it very well.