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Our Obama endorsement and your comments

October 20, 2008 |  6:28 am

UPDATE: This post was reformatted after its publication.

The outpouring of reader response to our endorsement of Barack Obama for president, released on our web site Friday morning and in our newspaper on Sunday, has been overwhelming and, for the most part, highly gratifying. By the time the Red Sox had given up the ghost Sunday evening, more than 1,100 readers had posted responses on the message board accompanying the editorial. Many more had written letters to the editor. Quite a few wrote to me directly. I’m told this flood represents a record -- or something close to it -- for reader response to a piece in The Times.

The strong majority of those who wrote, hundreds of readers, applauded our editorial, many for the result but many also offering their appreciation for our reasoning and our writing (as far as I can tell, only one reader found the piece poorly written. I guess you can’t please everyone). As someone accustomed mostly to hearing from people who are angry, I was happily surprised at the outpouring of appreciation for this editorial. To those readers who wrote to compliment us on our work, thank you.

At the same time, a relatively smaller number raised questions or objections that deserve answers. One theme, for instance, was that the editorial reflected a news bias toward Obama (predictably, some saw this as part of our Marxist enterprise. To you, I can only say that I've been at The Times for almost 20 years, and I've yet to bump into Fidel.). I understand why some people would doubt that we can be opinionated in one part of the paper and not in another, and I’m sure some won’t be reassured by anything I can say. Still, I want to emphasize this: All editorials in The Times, including endorsements, are the work solely of its editorial board. The members of that board are listed on our Opinion site here. I lead the board, and I report to the publisher, who oversees our work. No news reporter or editor saw this endorsement before it was written or was even told which candidate we would support. That’s the way we do business on all editorials; this was no exception.

To those readers, then, who object to endorsements because they compromise news coverage, let me just tell you that you're wrong. We endorse for the same reason we write other editorials -- we believe that civic discourse is healthy, and we enjoy participating in it. You don't have to agree, but there's no point in blaming -- or crediting -- our colleagues on the news side. They have nothing to do with our work.

A few readers amusingly suggested that the endorsement was dictated out of Chicago, where Tribune, the company that owns The Times, is based. For some, that suspicion was reinforced by the Chicago Tribune’s presidential endorsement, released a few hours after ours. Again, to be clear: No one from the management of the Tribune company participated in our endorsement in any way. In fact, earlier this year we took a position on a ballot measure where our chief officer, Sam Zell, had contributed money to one side. We took the opposing position. He was not consulted then or in this editorial or in any other piece we have written. Neither he nor any other Tribune executive has never contacted me or anyone on the board to urge a position or to complain about a position we have taken. I am happy to report that editorial policy for the Los Angeles Times editorial pages is developed and written in Los Angeles. I do not know who Sam Zell supports for president.

A couple readers complained that their replies were not posted. I can’t answer for all of those because different people monitored the message board at different times through the weekend, but I was at the helm of that process through the first wave on Friday, and I can tell you that yes, I did delete some responses. Some were profane. Some were racist. Some were threatening to me, the board or to readers who submitted comments. I did not delete any message because it criticized the editorial itself unless the same message was objectionable for those other reasons. I know some people will think that we select replies because they agree with us. All I can tell you is the opposite is true: We especially like to give space to opposing views. No comment was edited, and nothing was rejected because of the position it took on the editorial or the candidates.

Our determination to allow wide latitude on our message boards does produce some disquieting results. Many readers lobbed false charges – notably, the allegation that Obama is a Muslim – and a few were rough on each other. That’s a shame, but to be expected, I suppose, in a campaign that has become as testy as this one. Free speech can be ennobling or destructive, but we’re hardly ones to squelch it; instead, we enforce broad guidelines of decency and allow within them a lot of opportunity for nastiness.

I do hope that as readers continue to argue over this editorial, and over the issues and people in the campaign, they will reach for the ideal of disagreeing over ideas without pillorying opponents. Whatever one thinks of Barack Obama or John McCain, there are serious arguments on the other side. Those committed to politics at its best will listen rather than shout and will use our space to argue but not to wage vile or mean-spirited attacks. I hope you'll join us in that spirit.

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