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Whose blurb is it anyway?

Newspaper editorials are a little like restaurant or movie reviews. No matter how well they're written, they are inherently preachy. Someone paid to express an opinion tells readers — who are perfectly capable of making up their own minds — what to do. Or at least, what to think.

So if the movie, restaurant or campaign likes what you've said, your words are likely to show up in one of their ads. But the last thing a journalist wants to do is write ad copy for someone else. The only solution is to write as honestly and carefully as possible, and let the chips fall where they may.

So, for example, if you want to see a good movie this weekend, and you're a film buff, there's a good chance you rely on the taste and wisdom of a top critic, like The Times' own Kenneth Turan.

Take a look at Turan's review of the Lebanese film "Caramel," for example. He calls it "sweet but never saccharine, an intimate film that doesn't stint on the desperation and anxiety that go with the search for love." Good stuff, and if you like foreign films, perhaps enough to help you decide whether to take a look for yourself.

He is such a master of his craft that you'd never confuse his review for ad copy. Certainly, promoters will scour his reviews for anything they can use, because there is nothing better than being able to tell would-be moviegoers that Turan, or even the Los Angeles Times, liked the show. But it's hard to imagine an ad that says "The Los Angeles Times calls 'Caramel' 'Sweet but never saccharine'!"

Negative reviews aren't likely to be picked up by promoters either. Carina Chocano called "Fool's Gold" "not so much a movie as it is an experience: an experience akin to spending a couple of hours in one of those theme restaurants that hawk the laid-back beach-bum lifestyle by plying you with drinks that taste like suntan lotion." Perhaps the ad folks could write something that says "The Los Angeles Times calls 'Fool's Gold' 'An experience'!!!! But only if they are desperate.

It would be a cheap, dishonest shot to express righteous indignation over political endorsement editorials being used in campaign ads. Editorial pages are a standard part of the game. In the political world, where YouTube and Flickr have become useful campaign tools, Old Media still plays a big role, although not necessarily in the direct newspaper-to-reader sense. An editorial's value to a campaign is the copy it provides for a mailer, a TV spot or a radio ad.

It's one thing, for example, to say your ballot measure is "thoughtful and creative." Everyone thinks his own measure is "thoughtful and creative." But what if that's the opinion of the Los Angeles Times editorial page? Then — perhaps — the language takes on added significance. In theory, anyway.

Of course, no one ever says they are endorsed by The Times editorial page, or editorial board, which consists of a team of writers and editors completely separate from the newsroom. They say they are endorsed by the Los Angeles Times.

For at least some editorial writers, weekends like the one just before Feb. 5 are a weird mixture of ego boost and revulsion. It's a kick to hear your own words on the radio, followed up by a queasy sense that you were unwittingly drafted by a campaign. There is no right to that queasiness; editorial writers know their words will be used. But it's there nonetheless.

The Times was one of only a handful of newspapers (or rather, editorial pages), and by far the largest, to endorse Proposition 93, the measure to reform term limits. That made our words all the more likely to show up in an ad for the measure, although careful drafting left (I thought) little of use to the campaign.

Not so. The Times endorsement became the cornerstone of one TV ad. Our piece called two of the biggest backers of the measure, Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez (D- Los Angeles) and Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata (D-Oakland) "big babies" for breaking promises and leaving voters with a proposition that wasn't as good as it could have been. The campaign did show a quick shot of the 658-word editorial, but focused on just eight words: "Say no to lobbyist money" and "positive and creative."

Misleading? Not at all. We said all that, and meant it. We endorsed the measure, and wanted it to pass. (It didn't.) We'd read the whole editorial out loud, including the negative parts, if it were up to us. But then, we don't produce campaign ads.

A Times editorial took an even larger role in the Proposition S campaign to rework a Los Angeles telephone tax. So much misinformation about this measure — from both sides — was circulating that we wanted to make clear just what was in it. Our editorial was unusually long — and apparently contained enough good stuff for the Yes-on-S people that they used the whole thing for a mailer. The "good" parts are highlighted: It's a "prudent measure," it "reduces the tax," etc.

They didn't highlight the part that criticizes backers for their failure to "trust the public to make the right decision based on the facts" and to "instead dress up their pitch with half-truths." But they could hardly be expected to. And to their credit, they included the whole piece, in print large enough that it could be read.

Our endorsement of the Indian gaming measures was especially lukewarm, with few words of enthusiasm. So you have to hand it to the backers for using the best quote they could find: "Vote yes on Propositions 94, 95, 96 and 97."

It was in Barack Obama's radio ads that a Times editorial got its biggest starring role, with a quote at the top of the ad and then again toward the end.

Given how much campaigns seem to rely on newspaper endorsement copy for their ads and mailers, it's a little surprising that they don't get more in editorial boards' faces. They do call, trying to find out as much as they can about which way we're going to endorse, and when it's going to be published. They don't say it, but what they want to know is whether to hold their coming ad, so they can include the editorial, or whether to spend all their money now because there won't be anything in the paper that will help.

We don't tell them anything. When we endorse a candidate or a ballot measure, it's because we believe in it and want that person or proposition to win. Wouldn't coordinating with the campaign make victory more likely? Sure, but that's not what an editorial page does. We just say what we think — and indulge our mixed feelings when we hear our words coming out of the radio or see them in a mailer.

Robert Greene is a member of The Times' editorial board.Send us your thoughts at opinionla@latimes.com.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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