For many readers, a good editorial is one they agree with. As long as the conclusion or recommendation is on target, the supporting information is secondary. For good editorial writers, however, the supporting information is the most important element. After that come the usefulness of the analysis, the crafting of the piece and, finally and in a distant fourth place, the actual position taken.
An editorial is an opportunity for a writer schooled in a topic to use any number of creative tools to analyze and explain an issue of public importance. Unlike the beat reporter, largely constrained by the rules of he said/she said journalism, the newspaper editorial writer is free to use various writing devices to demystify anything from water politics to Dave Potter’s political longevity. That’s why astute readers are likely to disregard the most subjective passages while keying in on the rest of the package.
The importance of the underlying information is why I was pleased to see the announcement in Sunday’s Monterey Herald that Phyllis Meurer has been added to the Herald’s editorial board.
This means Meurer will have a place at the table when the four-person board considers its positions on various issues. Presumably, her vote will carry as much weight as that of the other members, Publisher Gary Omernick, Editor Don Miller and editorial writer Tom Honig. (Sometimes publishers insist on veto power, which seldom works out well.)
The upside here is that Meurer brings a deep understanding of government, politics and public policy in Monterey County. She is a former Salinas city councilwoman, a onetime leader of the League of Women Voters and the wife of former Monterey City Manager Fred Meurer. What she doesn’t know about public affairs in Monterey County, her husband does.
Some readers of the Monterey Bay Partisan will remember that I was editor of the Herald until February and I wrote the editorials for the past several years. I am not a fan of what has happened to the editorial page since my departure – a sharp right turn in the choice of columns and editorial cartoons and a decline in the number of local editorials and columns. Some of that is a function of the relatively short tenures and divided focus of the editorial board members.
Omernick has been publisher about six years but the realities of modern newspapering require him to concentrate on the business side of the operation, both here and at the Santa Cruz Sentinel. Miller has spent his entire newspaper career at the Sentinel, where he continues to serve as editor even while holding the same position in Monterey. He is counting the days to retirement. Libertarian-leaning Honig also spent his entire newspaper career in Santa Cruz before being replaced by Miller. Honig’s relatively short Peninsula experience prior to his recent Herald assignment consisted of working for the Armanasco public relations firm and the Panetta Institute. I write about their backgrounds not as criticism but to explain their challenge. It’s tough to thoughtfully editorialize on local issues when your idea of local involves a different locality. Meurer’s appointment to the editorial board can help change all that. She has a remarkable depth of local knowledge and an endless list of local contacts to help the Herald unravel the issues.
Still, there already has been grousing in some quarters—progressive quarters—about Meurer’s new role. I believe much of it is misplaced and, even if it isn’t, it really doesn’t matter all that much.
One issue on the left side of the political dial is her leadership role in the successful campaign against last year’s Measure M, which was intended to stop the proposed Monterey Downs racetrack development at Fort Ord. She told me she was motivated largely by her belief that the proper government decision-making process is preferable to decision-making by referendum. I strongly disagree with her, largely because the government process in the land-use arena is easily and often corrupted. But because she probably doesn’t see the government process the same way, her position is sincere if not valid.
During that campaign, I called Meurer to ask how she defended the highly deceptive advertising her camp was using in its campaign against Measure M. I wasn’t satisfied with her answer, which essentially was that the other side was being deceptive as well. But I did come away feeling that she truly believed what she was saying. Some of my environmentalist friends who were on the opposite side of the issue have suggested that she was somehow bought off. She was not.
Also from the progressives comes concern about Meurer’s husband, Fred, who ran Monterey’s City Hall for decades before retiring and taking a position with the Panetta Institute. Fred was an exceptionally capable and accomplished city manager who could balance a budget in the morning and fix the Planning Department copy machine before lunch.
In recent years, unfortunately, Fred Meurer has been vilified by some as a tool of business interests, the hotel industry, the good ol’ boys of local commerce. I understand the perception. The local economy and city government revenues are so dependent on the hotel industry and other elements of the local power structure. (Did I mention Cal Am yet?) I don’t embrace the accusation, however, because when a City Council has five members, city managers quickly learn how to count to three. Those who didn’t like Meurer’s administration should have spent less time complaining and more time getting their candidates elected or lobbying the successful candidates. Fred Meurer would have been an equally forceful and successful manager on behalf of an entirely different sort of city council.
Phyllis Meurer is an independent and highly capable woman who has nothing to apologize for as she assumes this new role. While I was at the Herald, the publisher talked often about bringing a woman from the community onto the all-male editorial board. I made a series of suggestions but never mentioned Phyllis because of Fred’s City Hall role at the time. If not for that, I certainly would have recommended her.
It doesn’t particularly concern me that she favors Monterey Downs. For reasons I never understood even though I was there, the paper editorialized early on in favor of that project. Never mind that it is seriously misplaced and doesn’t have an adequate water supply and that horse racing is the sport of scoundrels. It doesn’t concern me that her husband has been a huge figure in local politics and public policy for decades. I am won over by knowing she brings with her a wealth of knowledge about how things work around here, about who pulls the strings and even about where the bodies are buried.
One thing that does concern me is that her new role could help cement the Herald’s fear of offending Cal Am. Fred Meurer has been a consistent supporter of Cal Am, which has developed a loyal following in the business community by engineering a pricing structure that favors large commercial customers over residential water users. Phyllis Meurer will provide a valuable service if she demonstrates her independence and research skills in this area.
During the recent campaign over Measure O, the unsuccessful ballot measure in favor of public ownership of the Cal Am water system, Monterey County Weekly published an absolutely excellent editorial in favor of the proposition. Beyond the appropriate conclusion, what made it so strong was the information and analysis it presented. It was unusually long, long enough to discuss each significant issue and explain it to a population that was clearly confused. It was so well researched that it would have been instructive even to the staunchest opponent of Measure O. The Herald’s editorial opposing the initiative was little more than a rehash of Cal Am talking points.
It is my hope that with Phyllis Meurer aboard, the Herald will be reminded of the importance of research no matter which direction the paper leans on specific issus. As I said at the start here, editorials succeed not by how much they persuade but by how much they inform. I expect Meurer to provide some of the necessary information and, when she doesn’t have it, to ask that it be provided in some fashion before an editorial decision is made. If she draws from her strong League of Women Voters experience, the Herald and its readers will be well served—even when its opinions are all wet.