Guest opinion: Media should model civil discourse

Photo by Bank Phrom on Unsplash

By Ted Rockwell

“This year’s election was the worst on record for incivility. Your take?”* 

This was the prompt I was given as a member of the Daily Camera‘s Community Editorial Board (CEB). The CEB is a group of approximately six unpaid writers from the Boulder community who write weekly opinions that are published in the Camera each Saturday. Our responses were to run on Nov. 6 — four days after the election, when ballots were still being counted.

My response, shared below, never ran. Knowing this piece was challenging some of the Camera’s editorial opinions, I reached out multiple times to the CEB’s editor before the deadline, inviting a conversation. When I did not receive a response, I submitted the piece at deadline.

After submitting it, I was told that the Daily Camera editorial board decided the piece was “not a CEB submission.”

I asked for further clarification on how my submission did not fit the prompt. The answer was vague, stating “the publisher made the decision it was not appropriate for a CEB submission, but that it could be run as a letter to the editor.”

I was also removed as a member of the CEB that same day, notified of my removal just fifteen minutes after turning in my piece. The stated reason was that the Camera was seeking more diversity among CEB members, a laudable goal. The timing, however, is suspicious.

The current state of political discourse in our country — and recently here in Boulder — seems to reward dunking on our opponents with one-liners, bending some facts and ignoring others just to fit an argument. In my opinion, the Camera’s editorials this election season pandered to that reality instead of taking a more difficult path to educate its readers and raise the level of discourse.

Further, their callous treatment of me during my exit from the CEB and their refusal to publish my submission makes me question their commitment to fostering an open and honest editorial climate.

It is obvious the Camera intends for the opinions of the community editorial board to conform with and not challenge the “official” editorial content of the paper. This is disappointing, to say the least. How will the Daily Camera ever achieve diversity if differing opinions are not welcomed?

I am choosing not to submit my piece as a letter to the editor, because I believe the Boulder community also needs to hear about my experience. It is representative of a troubling time for our public discourse: The Daily Camera blocked an opinion calling on them to do better and then removed that voice from their platform.

My piece was not inflammatory or inappropriate. It does hold the Camera to a higher standard, one where word choice matters and healthy debate is prized over fealty to entrenched power dynamics.

Writer’s Prompt: This year’s election was the worst on record for incivility. Your take?

Was the 2021 election season the “worst on record for incivility?” All one needs to do is look to the legacy of Penfield Tate II, our first and only African American mayor, to know this statement is hyperbolic and inaccurate. In 1973, Tate introduced an amendment to Boulder’s Human Rights Ordinance to prohibit employers from firing an employee for their sexual orientation. For this transgression against the perceived norms of Boulder, Tate and his family received death threats and he then faced a recall effort, among other indignities. Certainly the election season of 2021 came nowhere near this level of hate and vitriol.

However, there are plenty of people who claim this was a particularly divisive election season. On October 31, the Camera’s own editorial board published a piece denouncing city council candidates who would not sign a civility pledge; “We hear that before this election season got started, a group of politically active citizens created a values document for campaigns and candidates to sign, declaring they would uphold civility and a fair democratic process. There’s no excuse for why some City Council candidates refused to add their names.”

This stance is overblown and hyperbolic. Some council candidates had valid concerns and questions about the intent and purpose of this document, citing the historical use of such documents to silence marginalized communities. Ultimately, the organizers of that “values document” did not pursue it any further.

What troubles me is the Camera’s use of the phrase “there’s no excuse.” This phrase suggests that any reasonable person would come to the same conclusion if the candidates’ concerns were known. Did the Camera understand what the candidates’ concerns were? If so, why not mention those concerns so others can reasonably reach the same conclusion for themselves?

By framing the argument in this way, the Camera is participating in the very thing it claims to rail against in its editorial. In doing so, it is calling out those who had concerns about the civility pledge as inexcusable and, by extension, complicit in the alleged incivility.

If we take a wider lens on this issue and open the aperture on “incivility” during this election cycle, we would be remiss if we didn’t seriously consider the Camera’s role in stoking the fires of divisiveness with its editorials.

For instance, the editorial board had a chance to take the high road when it responded to Rachel Friend’s concerns with the Camera’s editorial about CU South Annexation. It was a perfect moment to set a public official straight on the role of journalism and correct some inaccuracies while also providing an example for others to follow. Instead, what we got was something that not only didn’t address the issues, it was not much more than a sarcastic rant — dragging us further into the mud and providing little to no clarity.

If this election season was among the worst for incivility on record, the Camera should look no further than its own reflection in those muddy waters when seeking accountability.

Editor’s note: This editorial was published on Nov. 5 with a different prompt: “This year’s election brought forth ugly tactics uncommon in Boulder. Your take?”

Ted Rockwell is a former member of the Community Editorial Board, immediate past Chair of the Boulder Chamber Board of Directors, employee at CU Boulder, and a Boulder resident for the past 15 years. His written opinions are his own and do not represent the opinion of the organizations he is affiliated with, or of Boulder Beat.

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