Citizen-Times publisher faces business critics

For Jeffrey Green, who’s been publisher of the Asheville Citizen-Times only since last fall, the city’s most heated debates have offered a quick trial by fire.

Talking business: CIBO member Mac Swicegood, left, shows Asheville Citizen-Times publisher Jeffrey Green some of the newspaper’s recent cartoons that have rankled the business group. photo by Jon Elliston

For example, there was the editorial cartoon the newspaper published Sunday, March 18. The cartoon, by David Cohen (a long-time Xpress cartoonist as well), lampooned the local Council of Independent Business Owners as goose-stepping fascists (and compared them to President Bush) for sponsoring TV ads that called development opponents “extremists.”

In the aftermath, CIBO leaders complained that the paper was staking out an anti-business position, and Green responded by calling the group to task for calling its opponents names.

So Green appeared before something of a skeptical audience when he appeared as the featured speaker at a CIBO luncheon last Thursday at the Country Club of Asheville. The gathering, while mostly a cordial affair, highlighted some thorny points in the newspaper’s relations with the local-business lobby.

Below are excerpts from Green’s 15-minute talk and the Q&A that followed:

On his business experience/perspective: “First and foremost, I need to say to you that the newspaper is a business. And if a newspaper publisher does not operate in a way that generates a sufficient return, they either go out of business or they get replaced. … I’ve spent 30 years of my life in this business … and for 29 of those years, at seven different newspapers, I’ve been responsible only for the business side of the newspaper. … So you’re not going to find a more business-oriented publisher than you are in me.”

On the role of the press: Green stressed that while newspapers are businesses, they are also obliged to use their rights under the Constitution. “Our Constitution is actually a very liberal, tolerant document, so defending the Constitution is not always the most popular thing that a newspaper publisher gets to do,” he noted. “We also have a community-watchdog role, which is to make sure that the government operates honestly, ethically and in the open. And we have a community-forum obligation on our editorial pages.”

On editorial opinions: After detailing the structure and process of the Citizen-Times editorial board, which he chairs, Green said that the board spends “a significant amount of time debating the issues that the community is facing, bringing in some people to give us more insight, and then crafting the editorial opinion de rigueur, which you either love or hate when they appear.”

On growth issues: “Buncombe County is growing like a weed. And despite what fringe groups might think, that growth is unstoppable and it’s good for the economy. The Citizen-Times has supported zoning because we believe that some management of growth is necessary.”

On his role in the zoning debate: Green reported that, in an effort to advance the newspaper’s view that provisions in the zoning plan for density (to limit sprawl) and affordable housing should be increased, he has met or planned to meet with every member of the county Board of Commissioners to reiterate that view. In those conversations, he said, he also advocates for a delay in the final vote about zoning.

In addition, the newspaper is pushing for changes in state-level legislation. “We are in the process of talking to elected officials in Raleigh, seeking modifications in the tax laws that will allow us to protect long-time Buncombe County residents from being forced off their land by unrelenting increases in their property values and, thus, taxes.”

On the Citizen-Times as “liberal rag”: “I am fully aware that members of the business community consider the Asheville Citizen-Times a liberal rag. I have made some adjustments to our editorial positions. I am making some adjustments to the editorial board. I am probably bringing the paper slightly back towards the center from where it is. I’ll probably never go as far as you guys would like me to go.”

On “that cartoon”: “You have to recognize that editorial cartoons, by the very nature of what they are, are supposed to be controversial. They’re supposed to poke fun at people, they’re supposed to develop debate. What sort of editorial cartoons we run really doesn’t have anything to do with where the paper stands on an issue. … As far as the CIBO cartoon was concerned, I think you can make a case that it was in poor taste, and I will accept that. On the flipside of that, though, I think it forced people to talk more about the development debate. … I really believe that there are lunatics on both sides of the development debate, and that the folks who go down the middle are the folks who are going to be reasoned.”

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About Jon Elliston
An Asheville-based mountain journalist: Former Mountain Xpress managing editor. Investigations and open government editor at Carolina Public Press. Senior contributing editor at WNC magazine.

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