In The Del Olmo Matter, Some Have A Serious Misunderstanding Of The First Amendment
There is a peculiar misunderstanding of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, guaranteeing freedom of the press, in the memories surfacing of the late Frank del Olmo of the L.A. Times.
No, Frank was not always impartial. He frequently took sides. He stood for advancement of Latinos at the L.A. Times and elsewhere in journalism and the community. He resisted the Times' endorsement of Pete Wilson for reelection as governor of California, when Wilson had taken an anti-Latino stand in endorsing Proposition 187. Frank properly threatened to quit over this endorsement, and finally settled for writing an eloquent column opposing the endorsement.
Of course, by that time, Del Olmo was writing on the editorial pages, and he became a columnist for the newspaper. Columnists are supposed to have opinions and express them.
But I think it's silly to ignore the fact t journalists have opinions. They often try to be impartial, they try to be fair, but there is nothing in the First Amendment that implies journalists have to be impartial. In fact, I've never known a journalist who didn't have some opinions, no matter how well he or she attempted to conceal them.
As I understand it, the reason we have the First Amendment is so that the press can express a wide range of views in a democracy. By the open venting of opinions, our forefathers foresaw that journalists would express their opinions. They would be disappointed if they were to come back today and they weren't doing so.
Some may choose to mute their opinions, and pretend to complete objectivity in the interest of building reader confidence. But I always told audiences that they should be aware that all journalists, at least somewhere in the subconscious if not more overtly, have a view and that in reading them, they should always question what that point of view is.
Del Olmo was a journalist in the same sense that Claude Sitton was for the New York Times when he covered the civil rights crusade down in the Deep South in the 1950s and 1960s. Or Jack Nelson, when he joined the L.A. Times as Southern bureau chief.
Everyone understood that these great journalists wrote from a perspective of racial justice. If they had been segregationists, they wouldn't have been hired by their respective newspapers in the first place. And this is the way it should be.
Similarly, when Edward R. Murrow was working for CBS in London during World War II, and William Shirer was in Berlin, they weren't expected to be impartial toward the Nazis.
Most good newspapers, like most good reporters, fight hard for what they believe in. That's one reason why I pay so much attention in this blog to editorial pages. It's because the editorial page, at its best, is the soul of the paper, and the papers, if they operate as they should, are the embodyment of the vital First Amendment when they have strong editorial pages.
Was Frank del Olmo a great journalist, someone asked me this past week. The answer is, he tried to be, and he succeeded to the extent that he stood for something worthwhile.
That's why he deserved to be honored with the compilation of a book of his outstanding columns. That's why I went to his party on Monday night, June 20, and was disappointed when more of my active colleagues did not show up.