published Sunday, January 4th, 2009

A decade of editorial debate

When the former Chattanooga Times and Chattanooga News-Free Press were bought and merged by a new owner into one newspaper 10 years ago, the chief concern of our small editorial page staff — by then narrowed to two writers and an editorial cartoonist — was what would happen to The Times’ editorial page and public voice. Would the political and civic views long advocated on our page be lost? If not, how would they be incorporated into a new paper that, we had been told, would keep alive the institutional voices expressed on the editorial pages of both outgoing newspapers?

These may seem personal or parochial concerns to some, but to our thinking, editorial pages and the newspaper’s news-gathering function generally remain a vital part of public dialogue about the policies and processes of government and civic life. The expression of opinion about what our elected leaders do, and the impact of government and civic policies on our democracy and our way of life, is crucial to a self-governing society. It’s how we inform ourselves and decide on our future as a civil society. We didn’t want to see our role abandoned or cramped and stifled.

As it happened in the merger of The Times and The Free Press, the newspaper’s new owner, Walter Hussman, arrived at a novel decision. Given the historically strong East Tennessee division between conservative Republicans and progressive Democrats, the new newspaper would keep both editorial pages alive, under their old mastheads. Thus we became — and to our knowledge still remain — the only newspaper in the country with two daily, independent, free-standing editorial pages devoted to public commentary from the point of view of our historically competitive political philosophies.

We had some initial skepticism about this arrangement. Would these pages merely be the ghost voices of defunct papers, without institutional weight and leverage? Could we contribute to the public dialogue in a meaningful way if that were case? Or could we continue to provide useful insight and help advance a public agenda — in education, governance, public policies, quality of life, political discourse — that would prove the value of the new newspaper’s editorial goals?

We’re sure readers would argue about whether we’ve succeeded. But that, perhaps, is precisely the goal, and measure of the worth, of two editorial pages. The Times and Free Press pages don’t often agree on the form or process of public policies, but in keeping debate open and competitive, we at least work at exploring competing positions with the hope of ensuring an honest debate and informed decisions and votes.

Should we spend more or less on public schools? Teach evolution, or creation theory, or both? Establish universal health care? Raise or cut taxes for particular reasons or income classes? How should we handle our public debt? When and why should we make war — or spend taxpayer money on incentives to secure new industries? How can we best foster innovation and job growth? Should we slightly lower academic standards to make more lottery scholarships available for low-income students, or risk their exclusion and society’s advancement by keeping higher standards that mainly benefit more privileged students?

The range of questions we can and must debate as a society seems endless. And the need for a public watchdog to keep scrutinizing our public officials and government as leaders make legislative choices that govern our lives is equally unending. Indeed, that’s why the nation’s Founders wrote protections for a free press into the First Amendment.

Editorial pages, to be sure, can’t definitively answer the questions that challenge us, but we can help invigorate public debate, and argue for a public agenda that addresses our common concerns and our enduring values.

And as it turns out, offering competing editorial pages seems to served our goal of fostering vital civic debate. Our separate pages also enable us to offer a more robust public forum for readers’ letters, and for columns and political cartoonists from a range of expert, lifelong students of government policies from all points of view.

We believe readers get a twofer with competing pages every day. Over 10 years, we’ve seen the merit of that. We’re friends in the office with the staff of our opposing page, but both staffs intend to keep debating — and presenting the letters and columns of others who want to contribute to that debate.

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