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The Minnesota Daily

Serving the UMN community since 1900

The Minnesota Daily

Serving the UMN community since 1900

The Minnesota Daily

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Oneida paper shirks free press responsibility

It’s difficult for a publication to crusade against censorship when it fails to uphold the principles of a free press in its own organization.

The Oneida Daily Dispatch of Oneida, N.Y., fired Managing Editor Jean Ryan and City Editor Dale Seth on Thursday after reader complaints about an editorial. The editorial quoted an unidentified Pakistani blaming Jews for the Sept. 11 attacks and said, “The fact is that in many areas of the Middle East it is believed that history has taught them to carry out such acts. Until 1948, there was no Israel. The United Nations took Palestinian land and gave it to a number of Jewish terrorists to rule – Jewish terrorists who had bombed and killed Palestinians and others in an effort to force hands to power to see an Israel formed. Today’s freedom fighter, in many cases, was yesterday’s terrorist.”

The paper published a retraction Thursday, which said in part, “We understand that readers of the editorial found it offensive, poorly reasoned and based on flawed facts. We agree with those observations.”

But does that justify firing editors and retracting the controversial piece? This editorial’s argument is hardly venomous anti-Semitism; it sets out the common political-theory argument that the line between terrorist and freedom fighter often depends on one’s perspective. Many in the Middle East – whether correct or not – view relations between Israel, the United States and the Arab world differently than people in the West. And while the merit of this argument can be debated, the right of the paper’s editorial writer to take this stance should be beyond question.

A newspaper has its obligations to its readers, who, after all, pay to receive the publication. But these obligations fall short of allowing a majority vote of the readership to dictate content or personnel decisions. Readers subscribe to newspapers because they want to be informed. This includes learning of current opinions as well as current events. Just as news of events exposes readers to actions they disapprove of, news of opinions often presents the questionable, the absurd and the offensive.

For this reason, a newspaper subscription also includes pages for reader opinion columns and letters to the editor. Most readers would probably prefer to encounter unpleasant opinions first in a newspaper, which will publish readers’ responses, than in life, which is usually less accommodating. The heart of freedom of the press, publisher Arthur Salzburger has rightly said, “is not the publisher’s ‘freedom to print’; it is, rather, the citizen’s ‘right to know.'” If the Dispatch had kept this in mind, two editors would still have jobs, and that publication would still deserve its readers’ confidence.

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