Opinions and disclosures
Published in the Brookline
May 25, 2000
Two weeks ago Stanley Spiegel's biweekly TAB column dissected and dismissed
State Rep. Ronny Sydney's claims of legislative effectiveness. In a Guest
Commentary last week Nancy Heller and Evelyn Roll strongly criticized
Spiegel's column. I don't normally respond in print to critical letters
or columns, since I think readers should be able to write to the newspaper
without fear of being trashed in response. In this case, however, I'm
making an exception, for two reasons.
First, Heller and Roll demonstrate a common misunderstanding of the role
of an opinion columnist. Second, accompanied by similar behind-the-scenes
contacts with the TAB by others, their column has led to the end of Stan
Spiegel's work for this newspaper. As I understand it, unless the TAB
editor-in-chief changes her mind, Spiegel will no longer ruffle the town's
feathers on this page.
I'm not going to address the substance of Ronny Sydney's record--the
subject of Spiegel's and Heller and Roll's commentaries. I'm still too
new here to have much sense of Sydney's history or of the history of her
Democratic primary opponent, Frank Smizik. I tend not to focus on specific
candidates anyway, since I have more of a blast-the-whole-system frame
of mind than does Spiegel.
But isolated from the substantive debate is the core of Heller and Roll's
misconception. They begin by charging that "Stanley Spiegel is not an
independent commentator when he reviews State Representative Ronny Sydney's
performance." Apparently, they claim, Spiegel was a "core member" of Sydney's
opponent's campaign two years ago, and this time around "this so-called
'independent' columnist" has donated money to Smizik. They insist that
Spiegel "should be honest with the TAB's readers and acknowledge his extreme
bias against Rep. Sydney, so that his readers will be forewarned to read
his diatribes in that light." And they claim he "should follow a policy
of full disclosure and inform The TAB of his intention to use that newspaper
in any way that he can against Rep. Sydney."
Heller and Roll make a good case here for the fact that Stanley Spiegel
supports Frank Smizik and opposes Ronny Sydney. But why bother? Spiegel
makes the same case himself. He doesn't need their help.
Despite Heller and Roll's claims, opinion columnists are not, and are
not supposed to be, and don't pretend to be, "independent commentators,"
if by "independent" they mean lacking opinions and allegiances. We're
not reporters ethically obligated to present equally all sides of controversial
issues. Instead, we're paid to be opinionated, forceful, and articulate
advocates for positions we care about. That we have strong opinions does
not need to be "disclosed" absent some illegitimate financial or other
considerations that might affect our views.
It's always legitimate to criticize us when we're blatantly unfair or
for making errors. Unfairness and errors don't help us persuade our readers
anyway. And it's legitimate to disagree with us, for any reason. But it's
nonsensical to demand that we disclose the obvious fact that we're pushing
a point of view. Look at the top of this page. It says "Commentary," not
"Objectivity." That sounds to me like a pretty good hint.
To satisfy Heller and Roll's call for full disclosure, though, I'll admit
to certain biases and experiences of my own. I've never met Heller or
Roll. I've seen Spiegel in person at two or three public meetings; once
we met for coffee at Zaftig's; and we've spoken on the phone several times.
I like him, and I trust his political judgment and detailed knowledge
of Brookline, even though I don't always agree with him about specific
issues. I've seen School Committee member Frank Smizik a few times at
MCAS-related meetings and have publicly criticized his stance on MCAS.
I've never met Ronny Sydney, but she did serve me pancakes at last month's
townwide breakfast. Decent pancakes, but a little dry, and the syrup wasn't
This all seems as silly to me as it no doubt does to you.
Just one more disclosure: I think that the loss of Spiegel's column is
a loss for Brookline. We need more columnists willing to take strong stands
on local issues, not fewer. The TAB should reinstate him.
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