Is the council nit-picking…or is the newspaper cherry-picking?

It’s a little premature for me to post this, as I haven’t finished introducing the blog as a whole. But here’s my first article of any substance in the new year. It’s a guest column to Bloomington’s daily newspaper, the Herald-Times, about their tendency to editorialize and to trivialize local issues in their newshole.

It was published Saturday, and I’ve already received privately several compliments on it. Evidently I’ve struck a local nerve. (If you’d like some background, let me know.)

For the record, the little section headers I wrote were stripped from the published product. The text below is my original text. Links to the referenced articles follow the text.

Is the Council nit-picking…or is the H-T cherry-picking?
Jan. 13, 2006 (published in the Herald-Times Jan. 21, 2006)
Stephen Volan is a member of the Bloomington City Council.

The editorial page of the newspaper is for precisely the things my disgruntled correspondent says we should not be doing. Our primary role is to serve the public by providing information, but the editorial pages…allow all who write for it to push or lead if their opinions are strong enough to do so. — Bob Zaltsberg, August 15, 2005

Let’s examine the Herald-Times’ commitment to not “pushing” or “leading” outside its editorial page by deconstructing a recent opinion (“City council nitpicks CVS project too much,” January 8, 2006).

In public comments Jan. 3, I praised the new CVS project, saying I was looking forward to walking there to shop. I indeed said I thought all developments should be required to provide 3-dimensional models, not merely well-executed drawings.

Then, agreeing with Councilmember Ruff, I said the building should conform to “building-forward” design. It should be up against a street to send the explicit message that this building is for pedestrians too, not just for cars. Difficulty with ADA compliance didn‚Äôt appear to be enough reason to set the building back from all sides. The building‚Äôs setback was my main objection.


** Sin of omission

Only my 3-dimensional-models comment made it into Kurt Van der Dussen’s Jan. 4 story on the meeting. Implicitly through omission, he misrepresented why my initial vote on this project was a “no.”

Mr. Van der Dussen was evidently the editorialist days later, even if another did the rewording. The Jan. 8 opinion follows the story beat for beat, often word for word. Even the story’s headline says Council “picked apart” CVS, while the editorial’s says Council “nitpicked it‚” as if they were written simultaneously, with the explicit editorializing added later.

During that meeting, he decided that various objections were simply Council’s “personal preferences and foibles,” that the objections were over the “smallest” architectural features, and that Council is trying to micromanage “every project within the city.” (Mightn’t CVS’ building choices also be idiosyncratic? If the features are so small, why is CVS skimping?)

He then chose comments from various CMs with an eye to variety, to emphasize their apparent pettiness. It doesn’t occur to him that Council might deliberate with an eye to the city’s Growth Policies Plan and its recently adopted downtown sub-plan — both developed after months of consensus-building among hundreds of interested citizens.


** Ignoring pictures big and small

This long-time reporter also seems not to realize that despite CVS’ months of meeting with planning officials, this was the first time that elected and not appointed officials were considering the request. He insists Council should not “rubber stamp,” yet would rather Council’s opinions were not the “final arbiter” of the project. I wonder whose he thinks should be.

Another telling nit to pick: Mr. Van der Dussen reported that Council would take its final vote Jan. 11. Regular sessions are the first and third weeks of the month; the next is Jan. 18 — a fact published well in advance of the editorial and stated clearly Jan. 3. (This was the only story error corrected in the editorial — without fanfare, of course.)

A small mistake, but perfectly indicative of someone with…”tenure,” let us call it: a reporter so long ensconced that he now just assumes he’s always correct.


** The devil is in the details

So comes now the pot calling the kettle petty. The jobs of both councilmember and journalist involve examining the details.

Looking for subtle omissions is necessary to decipher the technique of a writer who supports his shallow political opinion by looking at a tree and calling it the forest. Nit-picking is necessary to tease out a cherry-picker whose “reporting” should be trusted no more than his editorializing, because he can’t separate the two.

But one writer’s foibles aside, it is impossible to rationalize this editorial with the mini-editorial of Nov. 11, 2005, “Kudos for Nashville’s new CVS”:


The new pharmacy looks like it’s been there for decades. It has no resemblance to the dreaded boxy concrete building adorned with neon and ‘Giant Sale’ signs that might come to mind with a chain store.

The CVS looks like a remodeled old cottage-like building. It even has a porch.

In a town like Nashville, keeping architecture in harmony with the rest of the community is important. This is a great example.


Bloomington’s Council expects nothing less from CVS: architecture in harmony with the rest of the community. How are the H-T editorial board’s standards so profoundly lower for its own hometown?


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