C’mon: Peninsula magazine readers argue Biden story unfit for print
During Easy Reader’s 50 years of publication and Peninsula magazine’s 25 years, readers have often been angered by our political reporting. Some readers didn’t like the cover illustration by then art director Bob Staake showing President Ronald Reagan and Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev squaring off with ICBM missiles erecting from their suit pants. (Staake went on to do the New Yorker magazine covers commemorating both Barack Obama’s and Donald Trump’s presidential inaugurations.)
Congressman Robert “B-1 Bob” Doran was always good for a quote when he represented the South Bay in the late ‘70s. “Every lesbian spearchucker is hoping I get defeated,” he once said. Tom Hayden of Chicago 7 fame was a cover story when he ran for Senate against John Tunney in 1976.
Hermosa Councilman Jim Rosenberger appeared on Easy Reader’s cover when he advocated Hermosa adopt Hanoi as its sister city following Nixon’s Christmas bombing. Councilman Robert “Burgie” Benz was on the cover for running the underground Hermosa Ironman. (Competitors run a mile, swim a mile and down a six pack on the beach). We also reported on Benz, who was always ahead of his time, microwaving a goldfish on his live cable television show. Redondo Mayor Bill Czuleger asked of a council critic, who kept jumping up to speak at the mic, “Will, is there a spring in your seat?” Readers were furious because Will meant well and was something of a town mascot.
Newspapers measure reader reaction by letters to the editor and, more recently, emails and social media posts. Sometimes the politicians are criticized. Sometimes the reporting is criticized.
But never before has our political reporting been criticized purely for the act of reporting on a politician. For putting ink on paper about a politician readers didn’t like. Not until last Friday when Peninsula magazine was delivered to 23,000 Palos Verdes Estates, Rolling Hills Estates, Rancho Palos Verdes and Rolling Hills mailboxes.
The politician about whom readers dare not have us print was President-elect Joe Biden. The story was based on a Redondo Beach talk Biden gave to Distinguished Speaker Series subscribers in 2017.
A page of ‘grip and grin’ photos of Biden with Peninsula residents accompanied the story. The photos were taken, prior to Biden’s talk, at a reception hosted by Torrance Memorial Medical Center at the Shade Hotel in Manhattan Beach.
Phone calls and emails protesting the story began midday Friday and continued through the following week. Social media comments went viral.
Typical comments were: “I will be calling Monday to have them remove me from their mailing list. What does this have to do with Palos Verdes.”
“Very inappropriate for a magazine that features local news and people.”
“If you haven’t burned it yet, see who puts out the magazine. We could make a mass return delivery.”
The Peninsula cover was a photo of Biden with a headline as bland as the president-elect himself. It read, “Biden time.” The subhead read, “We haven’t led the world just by the examples of our power. But by the power of our example.” One of the more witty comments, referencing Biden’s history of plagiarism, was, “Wonder whom he stole that quote from.”
One comment would have readers kill the messenger. It read, “I would encourage you to look closely at people/businesses who advertise and urge them to pull their accounts.”
Because of the pandemic, the office manager was out and I was fielding the F bombs coming over the phone. Judging from the callers’ voices, most were Biden’s age.
They’d ask who wrote the story. When I answered I did, they’d ask to speak to the editor. That’s me. Then they’d hang up.
I called back one of the calmer callers who wanted to be taken off the mailing list and asked, “Would your reaction be different if we had put Trump on the cover?”
The caller responded, “You’d never do that.”
“Oh yes we would, if he’d won,” I replied. “We had a Trump cover prepared. And it wouldn’t have been the first time Trump would have appeared on Peninsula’s cover. That was in 2002 when he bought the Ocean Trails Golf Course in Rancho Palos Verdes and renamed it Trump National. We profiled Trump again in 2017, when he was elected President. We also ran a society photo page identical in format to this month’s Biden photo page, but picturing Peninsula supporters of the newly elected president on inauguration day at the Trump National Golf Course.”
To which the caller generously responded, “Okay, I didn’t know that. Good job.”
Few others were so open to reason.
Almost all of the complaints contained a variation of, “Your headline says ‘President-elect’ Biden. He’s not the President-elect.”
I wanted to respond, “C’mon, man,” but restrained myself.
The response to the Biden story kept me awake Friday night, though not with second thoughts about printing it, or because readers asked to be taken off the mailing list. (Peninsula is free so readers can’t simply let their subscriptions expire.)
Nor was I worried about losing advertisers. Controversy, as Trump has demonstrated, is great for ad sales. Additionally, Peninsula voters favored Biden by a landslide margin. Biden received 19,634 votes, versus Trumps 13,868. That’s a 5,766 vote difference, or 17 percent.
What kept me awake was wondering why mature, wealthy, well-educated readers don’t want to read about their President-elect.
Their objections weren’t about what was written because the magazine went straight from the mailbox to the trash, according to most of the protesters.
Many of them complained a story about Biden didn’t belong in Peninsula because he isn’t local. I would have agreed were the president-elect Elizabeth Warren or Ted Cruz. But Biden’s local speech and reception with Peninsula residents gave the story a local hook, though admittedly tenuous.
Reporters commonly broaden a story’s interest by crafting a local story as a national story or a national story as a local story. It’s the grammar school grammar lesson of reasoning from the specific to the general or the general to the specific.
The talk Biden gave locally was very similar to the victory talk he gave after beating Trump. The pull quote on Peninsula’s cover from his 2017 talk was the signature quote of his 2020 victory speech.
Why would any local editor not run that story?
Why would any local resident not want to read it? ER
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