Stapley: I’ll be both left and right, but mostly informative, engaging and pointed

Opinions editor Garth Stapley is pictured in his office in The Modesto Bee newsroom on Friday March 8, 2019.
Opinions editor Garth Stapley is pictured in his office in The Modesto Bee newsroom on Friday March 8, 2019. jlee@modbee.com

I’ve been opinions editor here at The Modesto Bee for a week now, taking over from Mike Dunbar, who retired.

Reporting has been my job and my passion for 31 years (25 at The Bee), and I will miss it. But I’m quickly finding out why Dunbar called column and editorial writing a “joyride” and the “best job (he) ever had.” It has something to do with never-ending stimulation, constantly talking with and writing about sincere and brilliant people, and hopefully making a difference.

So what can you expect from me?

Here are a few questions I’m hearing from readers:

Will there be big changes? Not big ones, because I do admire my predecessors, including Dunbar, Judy Sly before him, and others in the 25 years I’ve been reporting with The Bee. But it’s also untrue because I’m simply not them, and you will notice differences.

How about a different look? If you really pay attention, maybe, because we are trying to evolve with a changing world. On the other hand, there are certain elements we all expect in an opinions section. You will continue to see editorials reflecting The Bee’s stance; columns like this with my personal takes; political cartoons; letters to the editor (keep ‘em coming!); and op-eds, or pieces penned by various columnists treating local, state and national issues.

Will we maintain the same liberal views? That question isn’t entirely fair. The idea that The Bee only embraces liberal values, a perception we hear from time to time, just isn’t so. Dunbar consistently ran conservative columns along with progressive ones, and he kept a tally to make sure the balance was reasonable. The last political cartoon he approved caricatured President Nixon claiming he was no crook and saying, “especially compared to him,” pointing to President Trump. The day before, Dunbar chose a cartoon and a centerpiece column ridiculing Democrats’ lax reaction to Amazon paying no taxes in 2017 and 2018.

Like everyone, I am a mix of good and bad, left and right, up and down. Voters throughout Stanislaus County historically have supported both Republicans and Democrats. Yes, all five county supervisors are Republican, and have been for many years, but voters here in November chose Democrat Josh Harder over entrenched Republican Congressman Jeff Denham; two years earlier, voters here preferred Hillary Clinton to Donald Trump, but last fall we gave an edge to GOP candidate John Cox over now-Governor Gavin Newsom, a Democrat.

Face it: we’re purple. Yes, we have extremes on both ends in this corner of the world. But many of us are not rabidly red or blue, finding ourselves more in the middle. And The Bee’s opinion page will continue to reflect our diversity.

As I struggle to sip from the proverbial fire hose that comes with many new jobs, I haven’t had time to redecorate what used to be Dunbar’s office at The Bee. On a wall hangs an illustration celebrating the press’ role as government watchdog, with a caption quoting author Robert Heinlein: “Secrecy is the beginning of tyranny.”

A bulletin board near his/my desk has a page of pointers for opinion writers taken from a 2004 issue of “The American Editor.” Great editorial pages, it says, “inform, engage and occasionally outrage their readers.”

A pushpin holds a print bearing the title “Humorless Troll,” commemorating a timeless Dunbar piece poking fun at himself after intercepting another’s opinion of his work. He may have evoked an old-school curmudgeon to some, but Dunbar’s ever-present sense of humor was keen and unmistakable. And no one misses his journalistic know-how and his wisdom more than me.

My goal: To stand against tyranny while informing, engaging and occasionally outraging readers, hopefully with a touch of humor now and then.

If you find me trollish, feel free to let me know. I don’t aspire to being the kind of critic that Murray Kempton once described as coming “down from the hills to shoot the wounded.” But here at The Bee, we take very seriously our responsibility to hold accountable those in positions of power, and that requires a zinger from time to time, hopefully balanced with compassion and fairness.

That’s what you can expect from me. Thanks for reading.