Wearing a new hat calls for new attitude

Wearing a new hat calls for new attitude

May 5th, 2013 by Pam Sohn in Opinion Times

Chattanooga Times Free Press reporter Pam Sohn will replace Harry Austin as the Times-side editorial page editor.

Photo by Doug Strickland/Times Free Press.

In reporting for more than three decades, I could probably count on my fingers the times I've read the editorial pages of the three newspapers where I've worked.

That was by design.

It was not because I didn't like what I read there.

I didn't read editorials because as a reporter and sometimes news editor, I worked steadily to divorce opinion from fact, commentary from news writing and attitude from news gathering.

If you think that's easy, try confining just one lunch conversation to only the facts you know, not any suppositions or titillating musings or even tantalizing bets.

Swearing off editorial pages had another advantage -- one that I often used in introducing myself as a reporter. Many times the person I had come to interview would say something like: "Well, I know what your slant is going to be, because I read your editorial page."

I could truthfully retort: "Well, that's nice, because I don't know yet what my take will be from this chat. You see, I don't read the editorial page. I'm a news writer."

Through those years, I've covered everything from crime to weather, education to health, politics to the environment.

I've written about police officers who abused their power and detectives who saved lives with honest and dedicated work. I've written about preachers who abused children and a Samaritan who took a disabled homeless woman off the streets while she fought a policy-bound social services system to find the woman a home.

I've reported on trainers who abused horses, about a zoo that scrambled through a string of animal deaths, and about neighbors who came together to pick up the pieces of tornado-ripped communities.

I've probed TVA ash spills and nuclear plant close calls, and I've chronicled Chattanooga's fight to clean its air and regain jobs lost along the way.

In all that time, until this year, I never once wrote an editorial. Instead, I did what most newspaper reporters do: I let many voices in a story offer far more than just one or two thoughts on the subject.

So, after decades of interviewing all over Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama, why am I flying blind into a brave new world of opinion-on-demand?

Here's the short answer. I'm freeing myself to bring you the viewpoint that reporters cannot -- simply because of the ethics that bind them. That also means I'm freeing myself to be able to offer an insight, to declare a feeling, to belong to something, to take a stand. Can you feel my chill bumps?

Let me tell you a little about who I am, and what I hope to bring to the Times editorial page.

I'm a woman, a wife, a mother. I'm a native Chattanoogan who happily moved away to live near Seattle, Wash., then Charleston, S.C., then the south of Spain, then Anniston, Ala. Eventually, after about 16 years away, I realized there simply is no place like this gorgeous home ringed by mountains with a river running through it.

I'm a workaholic, a gardener and a history lover with a huge extended family that has roots in at least five very different ethnic cultures. I'm the daughter of foundryman and a first-class homemaker.

I'm a child of Hamilton County public schools. You could say the village here in the Chattanooga area raised me.

I have a "Times pedigree" in the lingo of the Chattanooga Times Free Press merger. I worked more than a decade for Ruth Holmberg, who I deeply admire. And I owe Clay Bennett and Harry Austin a deep thank you for their support.

I'm a wanna-be musician and a pretty bad piano player in a family of many wonderful musicians.

I go to church in the orchard and, like Emily Dickinson, I enjoy the Bobolink for a chorister. My dogs and cat offer extra Amens.

And I'm just about as liberal as they come, though I have been known to vote on three sides of political tickets through the years -- and not just to disable one politician or another.

I'm pro-choice as well as a lover of life and children. I'm a recycling fanatic. I drive a hybrid. I carry spiders outside.

I have no tolerance for racism or classism. Period. And I have even less tolerance for discrimination against people with disabilities.

I don't like pollution, but I sure do like to wrap my food in plastic, and I love to be able to flip on my light switch and crank up the thermostat.

What I am is a product of Chattanooga with well-traveled flavoring, and what I hope to bring to this page is real-people reasoning for a city and age that needs an occasional push toward a broader view.

In my view, [ooh, listen -- I can have a view!] one of the best things about this newspaper is that it has two editorial pages. As a reporter, that gave me another advantage to the "slant" question. Which slant? And as a reader, it gives you two reasoned, analytical views on news of the day.

That said, you can count on me to do my best to swat Drew Johnson into line from time to time.