I sent this note to Jason Reagan, the managing editor:
Like many other cyclists, I saw the column by Ron Fitzwater….In my opinion, a column like Mr. Fitzwater’s harms your paper’s reputation for journalistic fairness and balance.
Mr. Fitzwater’s statement that “roads are made for cars and are not safe for bikes” is both legally and factually wrong.
I would refer you to the N.C. DOT’s Web site, which states: “In North Carolina, the bicycle has the legal status of a vehicle. This means that bicyclists have full rights and responsibilities on the roadway and are subject to the regulations governing the operation of a motor vehicle.”
At the very least, your paper needs to run a correction on this point. The fact is, you’ve allowed him to misstate the law. And you’re going to let him get away with that by calling it an opinion piece? Bull! As a former reporter and editor, it’s my opinion that you owe it to the cycling community to do more.
By the way, I know that typos creep in. They’re an unavoidable part of the business. But Mr. Fitzwater is not really helping his case with a typo in the first sentence.
I received this response from Mr. Reagan:
The column, which ran two weeks ago, has since been properly corrected and addressed — also, several rebuttal letters have been published. We believe the issue has now been fully resolved. The Mountain Times continues to both support the cycling community (Blood, Sweat and Gears sponsorship, cycling programs, safety programs, etc.) and to also continue to allow a free flow of staff and reader opinion on a diversity of issues. Thank you for participating in this vital discussion.
Thanks for your input.
Okay, I know a form letter when I see one. Everyone who got the same note, raise your hand. Even so, Mr. Reagan gets high marks for substance. (If you're wondering, BS&G is a fantastic century route.)
Mr. Reagan also followed up with a more complete explanation on some of the local bike listservs:
MESSAGE FROM MOUNTAIN TIMES GROUP EDITOR JASON REAGAN
On Oct. 25, the Ashe edition of the Mountain Times (and only the Ashe edition) published a personal column by staff writer Ron Fitzwater in which he expressed opposition in a vociferous manner to cycling practices on the Blue Ridge Parkway. Due to an judgment error in the way the page was designed (page 11), the personal column appears as if it were a hard news article rather than a piece of commentary. This occurred due to a mistake on the part of an editorial staff member.
The views expressed by Ron Fitzwater are his on and do NOT in any way reflect the opinion of the Mountain Times nor any of its affiliate publications. While we strive to allow a diversity of opinion, we deeply regret how the personal column was presented inasmuch as it resembled a news article. We welcome all manner opinions from both staff members and the readership and strive to print such opinions even when others may heavily oppose them. By allowing ALL opinions, we hope to achieve a balanced commentary that will be fair to all. Again, I apologize for the way this particular column was mislabeled. I welcome all readers to share their opinion in the form of a letter to the editor.
Even though I am group editor over all the papers, I don't always have the chance to OK every page. The Ashe edition in which Ron's opinion column appeared should have been labeled as an opinion piece. Such columns and letters will be properly labeled in the future.
Although, I disagree with Ron's opinion, I believe strongly that all opinions should be allowed to be expressed both staff members and readers. The opinion expressed by Ron Fitzwater does not reflect the opinion of the newspaper as a whole.
Conversely, I think it is fair to allow anyone who disagrees with Ron's viewpoint the chance to reply in kind.
As someone who occasionally cycles and has a few scars to prove it, I personally oppose the subject matter Ron's column but again, I will still back up his right to express an unpopular opinion even if I disagree. I'm still very sorry the opinion column was not properly labeled as such.
If you notice, all of our other publications clearly mark opinion as such in their pages.
I would plead with you to see this as a one-time error in judgment (in terms of not properly labeling Ron's opinion column as such). In the future, all opinion pieces in the Ashe edition will conform to standard newspaper practice.
Under the heading of “The BIG PICTURE:” I also urge all readers to consider all the various ways our newspapers have promoted safe cycling in the High Country in the past.
1. Full coverage of Blood, Sweat and Gears including sponsorship.
2. Recent coverage of the Boone Bikeability project (including a front-page article in last week's Watauga Democrat).
3. Publicity for cycling events and safety efforts.
4. Coverage of the ASU and Lees-McRae cycling teams.
5. Numerous articles promoting regional cycling in our Summer and Autumn Times publications.
Please feel free to e-mail me about this matter at firstname.lastname@example.org and I personally thank everyone who strives to make our newspaper better and more responsive every day.
Here are some action steps we plan to take to remedy this situation:
1. All relevant staff members have been or will be retrained so that such a personal column is never again incorrectly labeled or misconstrued as a news article.
2. An editor's statement will appear in the next Ashe Mountain Times in which an apology for the judgment error will be made.
3. A guest column by cyclist Joseph Grimes will also appear to rebut Ron's column.
4. All letters which have been written by cyclists will appear to rebut Ron's statements (some have already appeared in the Nov. 1 edition).
5. All staff or guest columns will bear the following explanatory note in the future: "The opinions expressed in the following opinion column are those of the individual writer and do not necessarily represent the opinion of the Mountain Times or its affiliate publications." That should have been done by the Ashe editor in the first place.
Jason, thanks for that, and for your support of the cycling community.