Issue Date: August 7, 2006
Responding To An Editorial
The letters pages of this week's issue of C&EN contain a large and representative selection of letters written in response to my editorial "Demonizing the Press" that was published in the July 10 issue of C&EN. We have received more than 50 letters about the editorial, and the vast majority of them have been critical, many, as you will read, harshly so. Several of the letter writers call for my resignation or dismissal.
I take these readers' criticisms very seriously. The American Chemical Society publishes C&EN for the benefit of its members and others who are deeply involved in the chemical enterprise. I have been a member of C&EN's staff for nearly 27 years, almost all of my professional life, and I care deeply about its mission.
The criticisms generally fall into two categories. Some correspondents argue that my thesis was simply wrong. In the editorial, I argued that the press has a responsibility to report on potentially illegal activities of the Bush Administration in its pursuit of terrorists. A number of letter writers believe, as Robert D. DeMarco wrote, that "the majority of U.S. citizens accept that the President's primary job is to protect our safety," and, as Ernest O. McLaughlin wrote, "What the New York Times did was wrong." Some compare the exposure of the secret surveillance programs to revealing the date and location of a planned invasion. To these readers, I can only respond that I respectfully disagree. The press, including the New York Times, has a long history of not publishing material that would damage national security. There is a tension, however, between government claims of protecting national security and the press's responsibility to expose government wrongdoing. I do not think it is anti-American or treasonous to acknowledge that tension.
The much more common criticism of the editorial was that it had no place in C&EN, which, writers insist, should restrict itself exclusively to matters concerning chemistry and the chemical industry.
In general, I agree with this proposition. The vast majority of the more than 2,500 pages of editorial content published in C&EN each year are devoted to coverage of the chemical enterprise. We define that enterprise quite broadly to encompass the increasingly wide range of subjects that our discipline touches. From reader surveys and many conversations with ACS members, my sense is that most readers approve of the breadth of the magazine's coverage.
However, C&EN is a newsmagazine, not a trade journal. It is a true journalistic enterprise, staffed by 50 full-time journalists and editors. I was trained as a chemist, and I am deeply involved with the chemical enterprise, but when I am asked my occupation, my response is "journalist." It is the response that every C&EN writer and editor would give.
C&EN is part of the "press." I wrote the July 10 editorial from the vantage point of the editor-in-chief of a serious newsmagazine. I take the responsibilities of the press and the privileges the press receives very seriously. I gave the editorial a great deal of thought before I wrote it, and I did not publish it lightly. It is important to note that I did not write that the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, and the Wall Street Journal were above criticism for their stories on Bush Administration activities. I wrote that it was dangerous to use words like "treasonous" to describe the work of a free press carrying out its complicated mission to inform its readers.
I accept that, for some readers, the editorial stepped over the line of what they believe is acceptable opinion in C&EN. For those readers who were upset by the editorial, I apologize. It is not the sort of editorial that will appear in C&EN on any kind of a regular basis. It is, however, important for C&EN readers to understand that what makes the magazine useful is its journalistic tradition, which is unique among association publications. As editor-in-chief, I will uphold that tradition in its fullness, which I believe includes commentary on the appropriate functioning of a free press.
Thanks for reading.
Views expressed on this page are those of the author and not necessarily those of ACS.
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