I’ve been receiving various reports for years that The Olympian, a “local” newspaper, has a practice of censoring letters to the editor if they disagree with the political content of those letters. I was skeptical of those claims because my past experience indicated they would on occasion, print letters critical of the politicians and policies which the paper has endorsed. However, my past experience might be a relic of history as The Olympian appears to be getting more extreme in their censorship efforts. Here is an example of a letter to the editor (written as a poem) rejected by The Olympian last week:
For Whistleblowers, please go here to learn more
My journey began in 1944
Near the end of the Great World War
Six siblings and every one a boy
You might say life wasn’t always a joy
My schooling wasn’t that great
Every other day I’d arrive late
To say that my grade point was a farce
An understatement, as even a C was sparse
My fate took a good turn when I found a wife
She gave me cause to make something of my life
Children and a home
And not far from Olympia did I ever roam
Work became my passion, always self employed
But no vacations and 60-hour weeks weren’t always enjoyed
But years of paying taxes and payments on that piece of commercial land
Was the pot at the end of the rainbow that would make my life grand
I’m 70+ and would like to retire
The joints in my body feel like they’re on fire
If I was in Phoenix now I’d feel no pain
I’d have nothing to lose and everything to gain
So 72 I hit and I want to realize the American dream
And retirement or so it would seem
But low and behold after 50 years of toil
I’m told, “No luck – You have gopher soil!”
Submitted by Thurston County resident George Johnson last week.
The email response back from Brad Shannon, at The Olympian on Friday, March 25 was as follows:
I was ready to move this letter toward publication. Then I learned that your project wasn’t blocked by gopher soil. Rather it was a timing issue – you didn’t get papers in soon enough for a review. If that’s the case, the letter is not quite true. Do you want to revise this?
Olympian editorial page editor, 360-754-5495
It is true that a newspaper has every right to censor the letters they publish. This in itself is a reasonable policy because nobody needs a paper to be printing nasty libel, profanity, or other clearly harmful letters that I am certain a newspaper editor has to swim through on a regular basis.
Keep in mind, he didn’t reject the letter because The Olympian doesn’t allow poetry in their LTE section. Brad apparently had Thurston County staff (or some fellow traveller) review the letter and then challenge the writer. The project the author references was indeed denied because of gopher soil for which he didn’t get the paperwork filed in time because of the bizarre timing associated with Thurston County’s approach to the pocket gopher properties in the first place. Despite this fact, there is a sad truth in the widespread belief that local papers have largely lost their objectivity when reporting on issues with any political policy angle.
In this case, even the hint that there might be a problem with the pocket gopher scam perpetuated and enthusiastically pushed by the Thurston County Commissioners and their political allies who control The Olympian is reason enough to deny publication.
The Olympian was once a proud, local paper reporting on important issues in our state Capital and around the region. Accusations of political favoritism have always been around, and there was probably truth behind those accusations. However, there is great community value with a local paper willing to investigate and report on local stories. Traditionally, there was a goal to at least have the veneer of independence. However, with the increasing budget in both local and state agencies on public information officers (PIOs), and with the declining circulation and profit of traditional newspapers, it is inevitable that they become tools of the local political elite – easily manipulated and used for their own purposes.
A few points to remember about The Olympian today:
- It is no longer local. The control over the paper is from upper management in Tacoma – even to the detail of which letters to the editor they can publish.
- They don’t print their own paper anymore – the printing presses were sold long ago, and this job is done by others outside Thurston County.
- Last time I checked, their call center is outsourced to the Philippines. It is a challenge to actually speak to a local person anymore.
- Their circulation is in continual decline – almost 16,500 people still subscribe (it’s circulation was 40,500 in 1999).
- They do have an online version, but they censor old articles and even erase them when pressed hard enough by local government to do so. An example of this is the fact there are no longer stories related to Jon Petit’s conflict with the county online, or any of the historical articles related to the pocket gopher scam from a few years ago. If you went to the library, you could still find the original stories in the archives, but you won’t find them online unless they were copied by other publications.
- Additionally, most people probably believe that when an article is published online, it stays as published, but this is not true. Local government PIOs and special interests have learned if they push hard and often enough, they can convince the paper to edit, change, and modify the article until it reflects the government (or special interest) perspective. This is done often. They can’t change the printed version, but few read that anyway, and they can safely assume that nobody will bother to pull the original articles to reference. After some time, the accidental journalism that reflected poorly on local government can be made to vanish down the memory hole.
Local papers like The Olympian are disappearing. They will be replaced, and the pace of change is accelerating. The only question left is what will replace them?
Until we can answer that question with certainty, we will continue to observe the decline of these legacy media efforts, reduce our trust in their reporting (knowing they are becoming more biased over time), and realize that journalistic objectivity is long gone from local media. Local residents like George Johnson won’t be allowed to criticize the pocket gopher scam even in an oblique way by submitting his letter to The Olympian. All of us will just have to keep exposing the truth on our own, using social media, blog sites, and direct communication with our neighbors.
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