From the Public Editor: Unsigned editorials

By Imran Syed, Public Editor
Published October 9, 2011

Two editorials (known at The Michigan Daily as “leftsides”) that appeared on the Daily’s opinion page in recent days caught my attention, and I think provide a good opportunity for a larger discussion about this paper’s unsigned leftsides and the editorial voice behind them.

Before I even dive into the substance of this discussion, it’s important to clear up a couple of preliminary issues that I think are often misunderstood. Unsigned editorials represent the stance of the Daily as an institution upon a given issue. They are voted on and drafted by members of the Daily’s editorial board, which any University student can join, upon meeting certain staff requirements.

The ultimate authority to determine the content of leftsides rests with the editorial page editor(s), who are elected in a staff-wide election specifically because that position involves speaking for the paper as an institution. The Daily is unusual in that it does allow the editor in chief to have some editorial oversight over the opinion page. However, should there ever be a conflict between the two competing authorities, the editor in chief should defer to the editorial page editor as to the content of leftsides.

In the first of the two leftsides that inspired this discussion (From the Daily: The right to choose, 09/26/2011), the Daily took a largely predictable, liberal stance on an individual’s right to late-term abortions. Curiously, however, the leftside used the phrase “partial-birth abortion” to describe the procedure. In fact, that phrase — which is an inflammatory concoction of opponents of late-term abortion and is generally avoided by those who support the procedure — was used 10 times in the leftside.

In the second leftside, (From the Daily: Problematic panhandling, 09/27/2011), the Daily expressed frustration at the presence and prevalence of “aggressive” panhandlers. Alarmed, the Daily’s editorial board advised that “police should be patrolling downtown Ann Arbor and enforcing panhandling policies in order to protect businesses and encourage commerce.”

Reading both leftsides initially made me uncomfortable, and feedback received from other readers confirmed a lot of my own feelings. Importantly, however, my own reaction was tempered by an understanding of the exceptionally difficult task it is to write a leftside, and I hope to impart some of that understanding.

I served as the Daily’s editorial page editor nearly five years ago, so maybe that makes me a biased commentator, but nevertheless, I have always believed that leftsides are harder to write than anything else in the Daily. Synthesizing the opinions of the editorial board, reconciling that synthesis with the precedent that embodies the Daily institutional voice and ultimately crafting a competent defense of that position is a challenge faced by the editorial page editors each day — and largely unappreciated by readers or even other Daily staffers.

Recalling my own experience, I used to spend easily two or three hours each night rewriting leftsides that had already been drafted by a writer and edited by an associate editor. I considered it important to present a strong, principled and nuanced editorial, and regardless of what others may have written, it was ultimately my job to ensure that the final product was as near perfect as possible.

The Daily’s institutional voice — an unbridled advocate of students’ rights and a progressive world view — often demands a viewpoint that is easy to sell to the largely progressive University community. But nuance and responsiveness to reality are important to maintain, and they are easily ignored on a campus like this one. Very few readers are skeptical to the leftist viewpoint this page generally takes, and that can invite complacency.

It’s clear to me that both leftsides discussed above could have used more refinement. Using the term “partial-birth abortion” doesn’t help propel the Daily’s position on late-term abortion. Indeed, the leftside should have pointed out the politically charged nature of that term and avoided it in favor of the more accurate and less inflammatory “late-term abortion.” As for the panhandling leftside, the Daily’s institutional voice wouldn’t support more police patrols to enforce panhandling laws. Instead, it would argue that the University community shouldn’t allow recent crimes in the community to become an excuse to single out and target a socially and politically vulnerable group like panhandlers.

That said, I recognize that it’s easy to sit back and second-guess any number of points made in leftsides. It is incredibly difficult to write a good leftside, and the editorial page should always expect criticism — much of it unfair. The only thing that the editorial page editors can do is to scrutinize every little detail of the opinions expressed in a leftside, and ensure that enough efforts are made to think things through.

The voice of the Daily is a vital asset to this paper’s credibility, and it deserves every last bit of attention on every production night.

The public editor is an independent critic of the Daily, and neither the editorial board nor the editor in chief exercise control over the contents of his columns. The opinions expressed do not necessarily constitute the opinion of the Daily. Imran Syed can be reached at