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Clarey: Don't let ideologues decide what's fit to print

A few years ago, I unintentionally changed the meaning of something I was responsible for editing. I was trimming portions of a piece for space and, in doing so, I changed the author’s argument. The next day, after a justifiably angry email, I apologized to the author and did my best to make it right. But what happens when outsiders decide what an editor's failure of judgment looks like?

Case in point: A Maine newspaper was criticized last week for publishing what it now calls a carelessly edited version of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. But the problem wasn’t that the Bangor Daily News changed or misconstrued King’s arguments; some of King's points from the more than 1,600-word speech had to be removed as editors trimmed it to under 800 words. 

I'm not defending the paper's omission of some of King's important points, which are certainly relevant today. But letting ideologues with agendas set the bar for the free press is a bad precedent.

To them, anything less than the publication of the entire speech apparently rose to the level of malicious and hurtful. Critics claimed the Daily News “whitewashed” the speech by cutting out King’s points on important issues like police brutality and poverty. The paper issued a full explanation and apology.

Those who accused the Daily News of “whitewashing” King’s speech were ready to assume the worst intentions. In its apology, the editorial board cited history professor and author Kevin Kruse’s post on Twitter as one of the reasons people were upset. 

“The [Bangor Daily News] reprinted King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech but they cut out a bunch of parts they apparently deemed too divisive,” Kruse tweeted on the Sunday before the holiday. “Police brutality? Gone. Poverty? Gone. This is pathetic.”

Kruse seemed to assume that the publication made the cuts because the content was too radical. But what if the speech just needed to fit on the page?

“We admittedly felt at first like we were caught up in the social media outrage machine, with people essentially attacking us for celebrating King the same way we, and others, have for years — with his own words,” the Daily News editorial staff wrote in their apology.

“That changed when we heard directly from a former member of the Air Force who was stationed at Dow Air Force Base in Bangor and a Portland city councilor,” the staff wrote. “[The writer] explained how our careless editing of King’s speech left out vital, and sometimes unpleasant, parts of his message. Our whitewashing of his message, [the writer] told us, ignored the essence of King’s speech and was damaging to Black Mainers.”

But the editing job did not rise to the level of factually misrepresenting King’s speech. The paper apologized not for twisting King's words, but for "flawed thinking" and "institutional stagnation" — a clear concession to critics who wanted the speech to better reflect our political moment.

The upshot seems to be that if politically or socially connected personalities can complain loudly enough (Kruse’s tweet has thousands of likes and retweets), they can move the needle on or even decide a publication's content editing standards. 

While not free from criticism, media outlets should be free to excerpt speeches and other content with broad discretion as long as they are getting the facts right. That didn't seem to be the bar for the Daily News; it appears its editorial board simply failed to satisfy the desires of those who believed its editing of King's speech was divisive.

In this case, it's debatable whether the editing process actually undermined or mischaracterized King’s points. But what happened here wasn’t a debate — it was an illiberal takedown that levied accusations of racism in order to get a desired result.

In the future, media outlets shouldn’t defer to those who use internet outrage as weapons, especially when it's not clear if deleterious mistakes occurred. Activists who employ such tactics should be ignored. It's a shame they weren't this time.

Brendan Clarey is the opinion editor at The Detroit News.

Twitter: @BrendanClarey