A question I've had to confront this week is whether some people, because of their actions or affiliations, should be banned from expressing their views in our publications.
My whole career —Â indeed my entire profession — is built around the free speech protections embodied in the First Amendment. And to be clear, the nation's founders made it the very first amendment because it was the most important for ensuring an open and successful country.
So, when a group of flag wavers — some of whom identified themselves as Proud Boys — started gathering in protest in front of our media center near Milwaukie in September, I wanted to hear exactly why they were mad at us. I wanted, in other words, for them to exercise their own First Amendment rights and tell us what was on their minds.
This proved a bit tricky. Most of the protesters I observed out my office window were not wearing protective masks, thus preventing face-to-face discussion. But I was able to initiate a Twitter chat with one of the folks involved — Daniel Tooze, who identifies as a Republican primary candidate for the Legislature and also a member of the Proud Boys.
Tooze told me his group was angry about a guest column we had published in one of our newspapers from a Milwaukie resident who attended one of their flag-waving rallies carrying a "make racism wrong again" sign. The resident, Gerry Blakney, described what he observed in that Sept. 20 column. Part of his intent was to reassure "people driving by that these events do not represent my community."
When someone or some group objects to words we have published in our newspapers and on our websites, our instinct — and indeed, our long-established practice — is to invite the other side to respond. I then allowed Tooze — and you can judge here whether that was a mistake — to publish his own column in the same newspaper. Tooze claimed his "diverse" group was not motivated by racism. They were just a peaceful assemblage of patriots trying to set the record straight.
Tooze's piece, predictably, was met with criticism from readers who believe it was flat-out wrong to publish a column from someone who associates with an organization that has been categorized by the FBI as an extremist group with ties to white nationalism. I've had several conversations with a reader (thankfully, a courteous one) who also forwarded along video showing Tooze involved in destructive acts, in one case smashing windows of a van.
When I forwarded that video to Tooze, he claimed he smashed the windows after someone from the van threw an explosive device at his feet. The video, he asserted, was edited to make him look like the aggressor.
Tons of video involving Tooze and the Proud Boys is available on Twitter. Readers who are interested can view it and judge for themselves. I quickly came to the conclusion that the one thing a journalist must seek — the truth — cannot be found in the murky world of heavily edited video clips.
However, a legitimate question remains about the media's responsibilities. When does a person's background or affiliations disqualify him from being able to express opinions in a community institution, such as a newspaper? How far do you take that? For example, should the state of Oregon or Clackamas County prohibit Tooze from having a statement in the Voters' Pamphlet when he files for the Legislature in 2022?
As far as Pamplin Media's role, one reader clearly stated his feelings: Simply publishing competing op-eds, he said, "does not solve the root issue and positions this as a both sides matter of opinion between sparring sides. It fails to address the fact that Tooze, and the Proud Boys, are a fascistic threat to our communities. They supported and participated in the Jan. 6 insurrection, they participated in crimes and attacks in Salem and Portland, and they are now threatening school boards and revel in hate speech and violence."
The journalist in me is compelled to point out that Tooze denies the fascist label, and I haven't found anything to indicate he participated in the attack on Congress. Nonetheless, readers need to know where we stand at Pamplin Media Group:
• The First Amendment is the bedrock of our industry, and yes, sometimes we take that too far.
• We do not endorse the Proud Boys in any form. Indeed, the column we printed from Tooze was criticizing us for our coverage and for publishing a column unfavorable to them. Some folks are now trying to twist that around to say we must be sympathetic to the Proud Boys because we allowed them to attack us. That's absurd logic.
• Our editorial policies absolutely prohibit racism, sexism, anti-LGBTQ statements or any attempt to elevate one category of human beings over another. These aren't just policies. This is who we are.
• We remain committed to objective journalism. Our stories are fact-based. We are not here to take sides. We do attempt to build stronger communities throughout Oregon by elevating the worthy deeds we witness and discouraging detriments.
Local journalism is one of the last bastions of trusted media. No one can call our news fake, because it is easy to verify, often by driving through your community or doing some basic fact-checking yourself. Our employees live and work in the communities they serve, and we are here to respond to your questions and concerns. Readers can support us by telling us when they think we've gone off track, but also by acknowledging the vast amount of good we encourage.
You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.