Another one-sided report in our local newspaper to polarize us

The Union has a front-page story titled “Nevada County church told to take down ‘Support Our Troops’ sign.”

It begins: “A Nevada County church has been commanded to remove two signs facing Highway 49, one of which simply reads “Support Our Troops” on top of an image of a United States flag.

The directive comes from the Nevada County Planning Department, which has deemed the sign “a non-conforming use and must be removed,” according to a Dec. 17 letter sent to the church’s property owner.

“(W)e have received an outpouring of compliments and support for the banners,” said Pastor Jeff Alaways of Simple Truth Church in an email to The Union.

It quotes a member of the church: “It’s really a shame because it’s a beautiful sign. Who would want to take that down?” said Robert Dougherty, a member of the church. “These guys lose their arms and legs, and we can’t even support them with a sign.”

But what about the other side? Only a few sentences are dedicated to the Planning Department’s position, without offering a chance to further explain their position and respond to the comments.

“The Union was unable to reach Foss or anyone in the county’s planning department Thursday and Friday, as most of the county’s offices were closed due to furloughs until Monday.”

It did not link to the letter, either.

This is irresponsible journalism: First, journalists should have home contact information for our officials — it’s a small town. Second, it’s all right to wait until someone can be reached in this case, in the interest of fairness. The letter has been circulating since December 17; it is not “breaking news.”

Instead, the reader is left with a one-sided understanding of the issue — and the story is on the front page, no less.

Will it become small-town political fodder? Of course.

Next up: An “Other Voices” from the Planning Department. Round and round and round we go …

Author: jeffpelline

Jeff Pelline is a veteran editor and award-winning journalist - in print and online. He is publisher of Sierra FoodWineArt magazine and its website Jeff covered business and technology for The San Francisco Chronicle for 12 years, and he was a founding editor and Editor of CNET News for eight years, among other positions. Jeff has a bachelor's degree from UC Berkeley and a master's from Northwestern University. His hobbies include sailing, swimming, and trout fishing in the Sierra.

33 thoughts on “Another one-sided report in our local newspaper to polarize us”

  1. Non compliant signs are all along highway 49 from the Bear River to Grass Valley. If this code is to be enforced by the County, then it seems appropriate that it be enforced consistently and equitably.

    1. Dai:

      The Union editorial content and slant aside, your comment regarding a lack of consistent compliance has a simple explanation: With rare exception, enforcement of zoning violations such as the one mentioned here, are complaint driven. If there’s a complaint, then local government is obliged to get involved; if no complaint, there will likely be no enforcement action initiated. So if you see other non-compliant signs, it’s probably because no one has filed a complaint.

      During my sixteen years on the city council, I frequently had people tell me about one zoning violation or another, and asked that I file a complaint at city hall. Often, they would tell me that part of my job was to look for violations and file complaints when I spotted one. I always told them the same thing: If they wanted me to go around town looking for zoning violations and file complaints at city hall, I would not have time to do anything else.

      I do not subscribe to The Union and have not read the article,, but I suspect the planning department got involved because of a complaint from either a private citizen or a county supervisor.

      Local government agencies get blasted enough for dumb mistakes and preferential treatment, but when it comes to planning departments taking action on apparent zoning violations, it’s because they have a duty to investigate complaints –– regardless of merit or substance.

      How The Union decides to report on any given zoning enforcement action is another story –– and Jeff has made valid points in that regard.

  2. Dai,

    This is what I was referring too, leaping to judgment based on a one-sided, incomplete story. Maybe we ought to wait and hear what the County has to say. Maybe we ought to wait for the outcome. Now we have to wait for the inevitable “Other Voices” after the fact.

    It’s fashionable to criticize the County on multiple fronts (the Elections Office, Treasurer/Tax Collections, Planning and so on), but I’ve rarely run into critics who could do better. “All hat, no cattle.”

    I’ve also heard folks involved in South County praise Foss for his level-headed approach, so I find the story very incomplete.

    BTW, are you running for county Treasurer or some other office next year? You never answered my question.

    On a separate front, I don’t subscribe to The Union, but I was catching up on an “Other Voices” that they let run criticizing the current NU football coach — after I paid $2 to read the church sign story behind the “paywall.”

    It has some very inflammatory, perhaps libelous, charges against him from a man, yet there was no “counter point” from the coach — until after the fact, when the assistant principal had to respond.

    This is irresponsible, especially considering the previous coach was treated with kid gloves by the editor. Beyond being fair and ethical, you have legal responsibilities to uphold. You have to wonder “who’s on first” over there.

  3. Jeff,
    Sounds about right, Kyle Magin called me in the early afternoon about a story he was writing and left a message to try and get back to him by the late afternoon. I got home from work (outdoors no cell phone coverage) at dark, 8pm or so. Got the message and planned on calling in the morning. We received a call about 7am the next morning from a friend talking about the story he printed. The usual Mr Emery didn’t return phone call or couldn’t be reached was inserted into the story.

    Lazy one sided journalism at least and propaganda at its worst. I side with the former and is one of the reasons we do not subscribe to The Union.

  4. The lazy one-sided journalism then becomes political propaganda. Like I said, this one is going to be used by every candidate who runs against a Rood Center incumbent next year — from supe to the “nonpartisan” posts, whether it’s relevant or not, to show the “excess” of county government. “I won’t be like them,” we’ll hear. “Trust me.” But details DO matter in instances like this. The Union let itself get “used” by a source, whether it intended to or not. That’s why you have to be really careful and give the other side a chance to respond. To be sure, it’s a great story; it just was poorly executed, with too little editor oversight. This is not nuance; it’s Journalism 101 for any newspaper.

  5. Actually since this was not a time sensitive article, and really who else was going to report on it, what would the harm have been in waiting until the Planning Department could respond. Jeff is correct, this will now be spun by morons as, “County Government orders church to remove patriotic sign!”

  6. Yup, and if you look at the photo you can see that the font promoting the church and its website is much larger than the font supporting the troops.

  7. Jeff,
    You pretty much got that correct. I have to say though that it could have been worse.

    Steve Cotrell also nailed it !

  8. I actually forwarded the letter from the county to the Union and made it perfectly clear that the sign issue had NOTHING to do with what the banners said. The issue is strictly non-compliance to the sign ordinance. The church rents that property and has no authority to remove the sign. The sign was dilapidated and ugly so we spruced it up and hung a couple banners. The county is doing what we pay them to do and they are enforcing the sign ordinance because they received a written complaint. We are going to meet with the county to see how we can comply and if that means taking the banners down then we will. It’s all good. I’m sorry that we even wasted this much time addressing the situation.

    1. Thank you Pastor Alaways for clearing the content issue up. I agree with Jeff that the reporting in The Union was kind of a set up for the typical ‘us versus them’ faux free speech debate we often see in portions of the County, and appreciate your effort to clarify the issue and minimize that dynamic.

      Thanks again and good luck to you. Many of us share your sentiment of supporting our troops.

  9. Thanks Jeff Alaways (pastor of the church) for your comments about the county “doing what we pay them to do” (ie, enforcing the sign ordinance on a written complaint) and your advice to The Union about the crux of the issue (“it had NOTHING to do with what the banners said”).

    But as Mark Twain put it: “Never let the truth get in the way of telling a good story.” In this case, the sensational version of this story is still being promoted in news racks all over town (on a weekend) and on the front of — making the Planning Dept. look like unsympathetic, overly aggressive government bureaucrats when it’s more complex than that.

    On a brighter note, I’m sure there will be a compromise here that is satisfactory to all. As for The Union, I’m sure it will just dig in its heels, defending its sophomoric journalism that polarizes our community.

  10. I have to wonder what the issue here is?

    The issue is plain and simple….

    IT DOES NOT MEET CODE, remove it or bring it up to code……

    Why is it because it has the symbol of some group of people, who believe in some imaginary being,they should get prefered treatment and be allowed to do that they want, no matter what code they ignore?

    If so then shouldn’t the followers of a new religion that adores Marvin the Martin get the same rights?

    What if this sign said “Support NAMBLA”?

    (yes I know it’s a bit over the top, but hey, we live in Nevada County…..LOL!!!)

  11. I just read The Union article and it’s pretty clear to me from it what is going on at the county level. The sign violates the sign ordinance. There is no need for the planning department to defend themselves.

    The unmentioned issue, and probably the motivation behind the complaint triggering the sign ordinance enforcement, is how this sign is clearly a violation of the principle of the separation of church and state.

    Our founding fathers, victims of religious persecution themselves, wisely and passionately limited any organized religion from advocating politically, as this sign does. The simple truth is that Jesus would never have celebrated or condoned living by the sword. He would have said just the opposite as he did in Luke 6:35:

    “But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked.”

  12. This is copied from the “Mission” page of the Simple Truth Live website:

    “Our Mission
    Our mission is to teach the Bible with clarity and relevance so that:

    Unbelievers will be converted

    At Simple Truth we believe and teach the Gospel. That God created men and women in His image to live in relationship with Him. Yet all people have rebelled against God and rejected that relationship. But God, in His mercy, sent His Son, Jesus Christ to die on the cross to bear the consequences of our sins and to restore us to a right relationship with God. We desire that unbelieving men and women would hear and believe this message, fall in love with Jesus and stay in love with Jesus.”

    The mission is conversion.
    This is proselytizing.
    To use the suffering of our troops to boost membership in their church is an abomination.
    Yes, and the sign is in violation of civil codes as well.

    1. You may personally oppose proselytizing but it is a protected constitutional right. The issue is a code violation.

      1. I disagree, Steve. I understand Judith’s point having to do with “Proselytizing” as a form of politicizing which is a violation of the separation of church and state and there is no protection for a religious embrace of political power under the constitution.

        James Madison says it well: “The purpose of separation of church and state is to keep forever from these shores the ceaseless strife that has soaked the soil of Europe in blood for centuries.”

        Or Thomas Jefferson: “Religious institutions that use government power in support of themselves and force their views on persons of other faiths, or of no faith, undermine all our civil rights. Moreover, state support of an established religion tends to make the clergy unresponsive to their own people, and leads to corruption within religion itself. Erecting the ‘wall of separation between church and state,’ therefore, is absolutely essential in a free society.”

  13. Greg, with respect, I am not sure what “no protection for a religious embrace of political power” is.

    As the law is currently applied, in order to receive Section 501(c)(3) tax exemption, non-profit organizations are prohibited from communications that involve support of or opposition to candidates for political office. But there is no prohibition against speech related to issues.

    Thus it can be the official policy of a Church that is a 501 c 3 to support civil rights and oppose segregation laws, support voting rights, support gay rights, or even hold up a sign that says “God Hates Fags”. But it is an established fact of law and jurisprudence that charitable organizations, including churches, which have tax-exempt status are not allowed to participate in political campaigns on behalf of political candidates.

    That DOES NOT mean that a member of the clergy cannot, as an individual, participate in political speech, including endorsing a candidate, or even running for political office, Even under the Jeffersonian definition about that would not constitute the ‘use of government power’.

    Now I would tend to agree that that prohibition is less likely to be applied to a Church than it is other 501 c3 organizations, and that the record is rife with Churches directly endorsing candidates, which in my humble opinion should lead to prosecution and loss of tax exempt status.

    The point I was making though was that the church’s statement “support our troops” is protected speech under the current interpretation of our Constitution, and, in my humble opinion, it should remain so.

      1. Hi Steve, I could have stated it better. I certainly advocate for supporting our troops, whether they are in battle, wounded or walking our streets homeless and forgotten in real and concrete ways, and as you know, I do that. IRS rulings aside, you and I might agree that the Jefferson’s “wall of separation” was intended to restrict churches in any way from influencing matters of state, particularly war. I personally interpret the implication of this sign to have crossed that line. If the sign’s message implied that we should support our troops by going to war in only the most compelling of circumstances and caring for our wounded warriors in only the most humane and respectful fashion, I would actively support a special exception to our zoning laws to allow it to stand.

  14. I love the use of the word “commanded” in this article!
    Sounds to me that this large sign has gone beyond the smaller “free speech” signs similar to those you can see from Hwy. 49 on the Robinson Enterprises property near the Banner overcrossing, to one of “billboard” proportions, which are regulated by a different set of ordinances. Just a guess…

    However, “Support our Troops” in red, white and blue, is a pretty safe bet for a sign. I would like to see them go out on a limb and put up a sign that said either, “Support our Wars”, or, End War, Support our troops, Bring them Home.

  15. Fox 40 News also ran the story, last night, and I wonder who tipped them off? The good leader of the church? Excellent post and thread.

  16. I am now receiving some private, personal attacks related to this issue. It goes with the territory around here, at least in our western county. The crux of this story is unmasking people who seek to polarize and divide our community, along with motives. Some people like it that way, because it suits a personal agenda. The truth is, most people around here just get along. It’s the extremists who like to stir it up.

    1. Jeff,

      Please post these emails as we’d all like to know who is trying to pull this crapola as they say they are for “forgiveness and love”, but in reality their words say another thing!

      Let their words speak the truth!

  17. Alas, now The Union has a front page story, filling the gaping journalism hole that was missing the first time — the county’s response to the criticism beyond a letter, providing the needed balance.

    I think the lightbulb may have gone off in the newsroom: “So while many might be misconstruing the county’s demands to take down the sign as an attempt to censor a generally positive message, in fact, the county is concerned with structural issues relating to the billboard, Foss said.”

    The story also notes how Drudge and Fox (sympathetic to the hard right) picked up the story (almost crowing about it).

    In fact, the one who “misconstrued” the story was The Union, with its one-sided reporting. And as predicted, the church and county are confident they can work things out.

    However, The Union’s stupidity and ignorance has painted our community as yahoos, playing right into the hands of the hard right. There is a pattern here.

    Drudge and Fox will not be following up: The damage is done.

    I also received several nasty emails for writing about this issue. Thankfully, most of us are more reasonable in understanding our community issues.

  18. Reading through the comments on this thread made me think of the “With God On Our Side”

    I had a friend send me a message about the support our troops meme and the only true way to support troops is not to send them into harms way needlessly and to bring them home asap from our misguided and some would argue illegal foreign occupations. If and when they do come home they are taking care of for their medical needs both mental and physical for the rest of their lives.

  19. Enjoyed the video, Ben, despite the fact that I no longer have sound for any video stories and have failed in my efforts to fix this problem. Even when I had sound, it was barely audible, thus I could hardly hear what was being said. Having my ear about five inches away from the point of detonation of the 81mm mortars wasn’t particularly helpful in maintaining good hearing, but that is often what I was doing while in Vietnam.

    While I don’t follow the intricacies of local ordinances regularly or enthusiastically, in the past I was frequently working with the local planning commission when building our condominium project in Vermont’s ski country. Signage was important and I had to be sure that the heavy wooden sign for our project was properly distanced from the highway. Such regulations controlling the proper placement of signs is fairly straight forward, with relatively little wiggle room for diverse interpretations. Either the signs are placed according to code, or they aren’t. If they aren’t in code compliance, then placement must be corrected. Really very simple, IMHO.

    Viewing the photographs of the sign, from my point of view, the predominant message being conveyed — particularly by drivers of vehicles who can only quickly glance and read parts of the sign’s message as they travel along the highway at 50 plus mph — is the proselytizing for the Simple Truth church. As Jeff points out, the font for the church is larger that the font of “Support Our Troops.” This is no accident as the main point of the sign, IMO, is drawing attention to the church. The message of Support or Troops can be interpreted in a multiplicity of divergent ways, as you imply in your post and its usage here is really a red herring as the purpose of the sign clearly seems to be proselytizing, with support our troops — whatever that means — added to quell objections in such a way that the Union’s article could make it seem that the real issue was objectors to the sign were activated because they didn’t support our troops, thus they are unpatriotic adversaries of America and our troops.

    I’m convinced that the founders were heavily influenced by the example of the early colonies: Massachusetts Bay Colony; Plymouth, etc., which were basically prime examples of intolerant, authoritarian, punitive collections of like-minded Puritans. Freedom of speech, for example, could be punished by severe measures. Roger Smith, escaping to what is now Rhode Island, is a compelling example illustrating the totalitarian aura of the Mass. Bay Colony’s rigid, religiously and sectarian based government.

    At times this question of signage can be a bit more complicated. I have in mind the house on the right of 49 — traveling north — which has the American flag painted, covering the entire side of the barn. Is this a sign? Does it comply with code? Or is this simply the province of the individual’s right to paint their houses/barns as the choose. As we all probably know, even the colors one paints their houses are often regulated by local governmental agencies.

    I’m certainly not against displaying the American flag, but by simply doing so in any fashion doesn’t necessarily make the waver of the flag a better American or more morally and intelligently patriotic.

    America, love it or leave it really means, America, love it my way, or leave it.

  20. “We’ve received letters of support from people from seven different states across the U.S.,” Pastor Jeff Alaways of Simple Truth Church said in an email to The Union.

    “I’ve declined several interviews, including the Fox and Friends morning show in New York.” –from The Union

    I think Jeff is correct that the initial inept reporting led to this issue being misconstrued by national media outlets of a more polarizing nature. I am very glad that Pastor Alaways did the right thing here by not blowing the thing out of proportion and sticking to the original issue–a zoning and code compliance issue.

    Let it die. It is a non-issue.

  21. The irony is that The Union thinks it somehow scored a journalistic coup when, in fact, it misconstrued the issue and effectively ran a front page “retraction” — in the same spot as its original story. How often do you see that at a newspaper? It needs an ombudsman. And yes, the pastor was the only one who showed some common sense.

    1. Actually, I think Brian Foss showed some common sense as well, and should be credited. It does not take much for this stuff to get blown out of proportion when you get the aptly named Drudge, Fox News and Huff Po involved; Brian stuck to the issue and message.

      1. Yes, once The Union gave him a chance to weigh in. As I wrote earlier, Brian is well regarded in the South County, by developers and residents alike.

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