A couple of weeks ago, the Chicago Tribune‘s public editor, Kathleen Parker. The Parker column, which sparked so much comment that McNulty devoted a second column to reader responses to the controversy, defends the argument of a white voter that Barack Obama is less than “a full-blooded American:”

It’s about blood equity, heritage and commitment to hard-won American values. And roots.

Some run deeper than others and therein lies the truth of Fry’s political sense. In a country that is rapidly changing demographically—and where new neighbors may have arrived last year, not last century—there is a very real sense that once-upon-a-time America is getting lost in the dash to diversity.

It’s pretty easy to see what upset the Tribune readers cited by McNulty in his column, and McNulty acknowledges that Parker’s ideas are likely to be “ridiculous and repugnant … to many, if not most, Americans.” But he goes on to defend the piece’s placement in the Tribune:

Anyone who believes that the race issue will be dormant in the general election—presuming that Obama is the Democratic candidate—is hiding from reality. It remains a divisive issue and, as Parker noted, some fear that “their heritage is being swept under the carpet while multiculturalism becomes the new national narrative.”

I think it is the news media’s responsibility to highlight not just the political stratagems but the attitudes that help create them.

The aim of the Tribune’s Commentary page is to display a wide range of subjective opinions, even those some may consider offensive. Printing a column is not the same as sanctioning it.

I don’t think I can agree with McNulty. Printing a column is not the same thing as agreeing with it, but it does amount to sanctioning it by assuming that its ideas will contribute in a meaningful way to the national conversation. There are obviously some ideas so offensive and devoid of intellectual and social value that respected newspapers would not consider publishing a column that espoused them. The Tribune decided that Paker’s column fell on the acceptable side of that divide despite her extensive use of what McNulty calls “code words” for racism.

To argue that the op-ed page is one big mirror on which is reflected the nation’s (or Illinois’) entire range of opinions, however offensive, is either disingenuous or silly. So is comparing the publishing of Parker’s column to printing news reports of racist attitudes (as McNulty does later in his column). It is indeed “the news media’s responsibility to highlight not just the political stratagems but the attitudes that help create them,” but when those attitudes are highly offensive, news reporting is the appropriate place to address them. The opinion page should be a forum for intelligent debate. By placing Parker’s racist column there, the Tribune asserted that it could contribute something to the national debate.

The dust-up recalled the uproar over the Washington Post‘s decision to publish in its Sunday “Outlook” section Charlotte Allen’s anti-feminist March 2 column entitled “We Scream, We Swoon. How Dumb Can We Get?” It’s quite a piece—deeply sexist, as thousands of outraged readers pointed out to the Post, and I think it’s also fair to characterize it as silly, somewhat rambling, and full of generalizations that don’t make a lot of sense. What struck me most about the piece was what seemed to me an utter lack of intellectual content. It’s hard to see what serious thinkers about gender issues would latch onto in order to engage it.

Post editors originally defended their decision to publish the piece by calling it “tongue-in-cheek” (a characterization that Allen herself disclaimed), but they addressed the controversy extensively in print, allowing several columnists to rebut Allen’s piece and publishing several of the many, many critical letters the newspaper received from readers. Deborah Howell, the Post‘s ombudsman, concluded that the newspaper shouldn’t have published the piece because it was a misguided attempt to coat offensive ideas in humor. I agree with Howell (though I don’t think the humor is the root of the column’s problem), and with MissLaura of Daily Kos, who argued that “Charlotte Allen isn’t the problem. The Washington Post is.”

I like that the editorial pages of respected newspapers are willing to publish controversial, and even blatantly wrong-headed, opinions. But such pieces are only valuable when they contribute something other than vitriol to the national debate(s). Garden-variety racism and sexism aren’t likely to do that. Nor are non garden–variety racism and sexism, for that matter.

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