I could back my car out of my driveway, right now, and then put it into drive and smash my neighbor’s mailbox to bits. I absolutely could do that if I wanted, but I wouldn’t.

I wouldn’t smash my neighbor’s mailbox for a lot of reasons, chief among them because, well, why would I?

The point here is that just because I can drive my car over my neighbor’s mailbox doesn’t mean that I should. And that is one way to look at the hullabaloo raging yesterday and today over a front page editorial on the Sunday Denver Post. I’ll let former Denver Post columnist Jim Spencer explain further:

Denver Post owner Dean Singleton’s front-page editorial attacking Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter on Sunday appears unprecedented for its name-calling, at least in the newspaper’s recent history.

The editorial criticizing Ritter’s executive order allowing state workers to join unions is only the third front-page editorial in the Post in the past decade.

The Ritter editorial was decidedly more angry and personal in tone than the paper’s call to settle the disputed 2000 presidential election and a 2005 call to temporarily suspend state tax restrictions and rescue the state’s economy by passing Referendum C.

This time, Singleton ordered up an editorial that referred to the governor as “Jimmy Hoffa,” “a toady for labor bosses” and “a bag man for unions.”

“The language used and the placement demonstrate a certain hysteria that stems from Mr. Singleton’s personal dislike of organized labor,” Ritter’s spokesman, Evan Dreyer, said Sunday.

“I think the degree of the personal attacks is a bit surprising for a newspaper of this caliber. To stoop to this level is unbecoming.”

You’re damn right it was unbecoming, but publishing a front page editorial is so much more than that. It’s wrong. Period.

Publishing a front page editorial was wrong when the Post did it to promote Referenda C&D, and it was really wrong when the Post did it to attack Ritter. This is the same newspaper whose editorial pages ridiculed a CSU student for printing “Fuck Bush” on the front page of the school newspaper in September. Less than two weeks later, the “adults” at the Post ran a front page editorial explicitly intended to attack Gov. Bill Ritter and call him names.

Dean Singleton is the publisher of The Denver Post. Gov. Ritter and his spokesman have not been shy about publicly indicating that Singleton has embarked on a personal vendetta against him because of last Friday’s executive order, and the manner in which Singleton engaged in that battle has become the talk of the town. As Spencer reports:

[Editorial Page Editor Dan] Haley said the editorial was meant to “initiate some public dialogue.”

Some of that dialogue will be about what some consider the editorial’s cheap shots rather than unions.

A source inside the Post newsroom said that most staff members were not aware of the tenor of Sunday’s editorial and only learned of its placement late Friday afternoon.

“I didn’t have any conversations with anyone about it,” said one staffer who asked to remain anonymous. “I heard Greg tell some people it was going on the front page. All I knew was Dean was pissed off. So pissed off that he put an editorial on the front page. Who does he think he is – Hearst?”

The language in the editorial was so raw that the staffer predicted some distress among people in the newsroom.

“You can be opposed to what the governor does,” he said. “But this name-calling stuff is embarrassing.”

I’m embarrassed. I’m embarrassed as a Denver-area native. I’m embarrassed as a former reporter. We should all be embarrassed when a major metropolitan newspaper – our hometown newspaper – resorts to the kind of yellow journalism that led an anonymous Post staffer to say, “Who does he think he is – Hearst?”

William Randolph Hearst
was a media mogul in the early 20th Century. He was widely criticized for employing a form of journalism known as “yellow journalism,” in which sensational stories were invented in order to sell newspapers. Hearst also used his newspapers to unabashedly push his political views (Hearst was a congressman and a failed candidate for governor in New York), and it was his life that was the basis for the famous movie “Citizen Kane.” Journalism students the world over study Hearst as a lesson in what not to do.

Now, Singleton is no Hearst. Not by a long shot. But running a front page editorial crosses the line of journalistic ethics and integrity because it is designed to directly influence public opinion. The sole purpose of putting an editorial on the front page is to make sure that a lot of people read it, in the hopes that a lot of people will agree with it. Singleton clearly wants people to know that he disagrees with Ritter – and he wants you to be angry at the governor, too. That’s not what a newspaper is for, and that’s why editorials have their own section in the paper under “Opinions.”

Perhaps fortunately for Ritter, the editorial went too far. Reporters in the Post newsroom are embarrassed by it, and regular readers likely find it over-the-top ridiculous. Comparing Ritter to Jimmy Hoffa, a notorious criminal, is uncalled for and in poor taste.

The Denver Post is Dean Singleton’s newspaper, and he can do whatever he wants with it. If he wants to publish a front page editorial that calls the governor names, he’s entitled to do so. If he wants to run pictures of bikini-clad monkeys on the front page, that’s his call. But just because you can doesn’t mean you should, and that’s why this is something that has so many people concerned.

I learned this from Spider Man: With great power comes great responsibility.

Dean Singleton may not be William Randolph Hearst. But he’s no Spider Man, either.