Dawn of the deed: Was the mistake fatal?

cartoonDawn.jpgMy first full-time job in journalism was on the copy desk at a daily in Champaign, Ill., so I have been on the other side the editing process. I would like to make three comments about the Dawn Eden affair, based on what we know so far. I have never met Dawn (the logo is from her blog) and I hope we can discuss this sooner, rather than later.

1. In the newspapers where I have worked, the changes she made would have been considered on the pushy side, but not fatal. They are right at the point where you should clear them with an editor, or the reporter, if you can. No way you get fired for this stuff. The blogging on company time issue is something else — a whole new source of tension between journalists and their bosses.

Of course, we are talking about abortion. There is a reason that almost all of the media-bias studies end up returning to questions about abortion coverage.

I could offer loads of case studies here. I once had the end cut off a story — I turned it in short, so a trim would not be needed — because the final quote was from a priest active in AIDS ministry. That was fine, but he linked his stand on that issue with his high-profile work as pro-life activist. This was a consistent, culture-of-life priest who was taking a controversial stand on two issues that he believed were connected by an ethic of life.

I warned the city editor at the Rocky Mountain News that someone in the editing process would be offended and try to cut that final quote. He said I was being paranoid. Then someone cut it off, without putting their initials on the page as required. Nothing was said, except that the city editor knew I had predicted it. That made him more sensitive to the issue.

2. During my religion-beat reporting days, I had copy editors add all kinds of things to my stories — often thinking they were correcting something. More than once, they edited in errors.

Here is an example. In a very sensitive story on Mormon theology, I quoted a leaked audiotape of the secret rites in Mormon temples. In an older version of the rite, a worshipper would vow to “suffer his life to be taken” for revealing temple secrets. A copy editor thought that sounded stuffy and changed it to say that Mormons “vowed to commit suicide.” Needless to say, we received more than a few calls from Mormons who disagreed with “my” interpretation of their theology. No punishment for the copy editor, however.

3. This is one case in which it really helps to remember that the New York Post is not a culturally conservative newspaper. It is a Libertarian newspaper. Once again, I think we are seeing evidence of the massive war still to come in the GOP in the next four years, as the moral and cultural conservatives — many of whom are old-fashioned Democrats — square off with the hard-core moral Libertarians. Jeremy can shed some light on this, I am sure, because he is a Catholic who works in one of the various Libertarian sanctuaries.

So Dawn Eden was the wrong brand of conservative. I always wondered: Why did the Post hate Bill Clinton so much? He seemed like their kind of guy, once you veered into the moral issues.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • http://jeremiads.blogspot.com Jeremy Lott

    >Jeremy can shed some light on this, I am sure, because >he works in one of the Libertarian sanctuaries.

    They prefer small-l libertarian. I won’t tell too many tales out of school at this point but I will say this: A high percentage of the libertarians I know, both professionally and in social settings, are pro-life. Maybe a majority. Terry tends to use “moral libertarian,” or just “libertarian” as a synonym for “social liberal,” but the issue is a whole lot more complicated. I’ve written about it here:


  • http://www.ecben.net Will

    It is not just a matter of “they prefer”. “Libertarian”, capitalized, implies adherence to the party (or as the late SEK III called it, “the partyarchy”), and I think I would remember if the Post had endorsed Badnarik.

  • E C Jacobson

    Regarding your comments about Pro-Life Libertarians:

    Perhaps I just read the wrong libertarians, but Mark Shea’s comments certainly ring true in my experience. Start with libertarians in general.

    For whatever reason, libertarians are (by and large) agressively secular. And it is very difficult – begining from a secular perspective -to end up opposing abortion. The abortion argument ultimately pits a transcendent good (the life of the child) against a material cost(the responsibility of parenthood.) When one excludes transcendence a priori, it becomes difficult to give much credence to arguments which rest upon that very concept. One libertarian with whom I have discussed this issue actually compared the value of an unborn child to that of a mosquito. It was his counter to my assertion that an unborn child had intrinsic value.

    In addition, the governing libertarian principle – “non-initiation of force” – pushes libertarians in the direction of supporting abortion. At its heart, this principle asserts that no obligation is binding unless freely accepted. To have an obligation imposed upon you against your will requires the initiation of force – and is thus wrong on its face. Thus, attaching the obligation of parenthood to the free choice of sexual intercourse is wrong. A libertarian would not agree that the second imples the first. When one combines this assertion with the belief that an unborn child has no intrinsic value, one easily derives a utilitarian view of abortion.

    Now, to be fair, I know two self-proclaimed small-l libertarians who both oppose abortion. They also happen to both be Catholic. Do they defend this postion as libertarians? No. They defend the value of the life of the child. Truth be told, I have never heard a libertarian make a pro-life argument based upon libertarian principles. There might be some out there, but are they representative? This is why the assertion of inconsistency is so frequently made.

    As always, the abortion argument ultimately turns on the transcendent view of life. That is why religion is such a good predictor of one’s view on abortion. Libertarians follow the pattern as well. For whatever reason, there just aren’t that many religious libertarians.

    Not a Catholic nor a Libertarian but a Calvinist


  • http://jeremiads.blogspot.com Jeremy Lott

    >As always, the abortion argument ultimately turns on >the transcendent view of life.

    I don’t know about that. Would you say that atheist Nat Hentoff has a “transcendent view of life”?

    Maybe you, like Shea, would throw them in the “inconsistent” camp, but many libertarians of my acquaintance are both secular and pro-life.

  • http://www.lexalexander.net Lex

    I have suffered worse copyediting atrocities, particularly on the religion beat, but the one that has stuck with me the longest was when a copy editor known for being a stickler on such things changed “who” to “whom,” thus introducing a grammatical error — into an opinion essay on metaphor. The irony of the error did not escape our readers, believe me.