Paul Greenberg

Dear Fellow Opinionator,

It was wholly a pleasure to get the word from you that the New York Times is now offering videos under the title, "Sightlines, an Op-Ed Series." That's good news, since the pictures have to be an improvement over the prose in the Times' editorials. (Stifle yawn here.)

"I would be interested to read your reactions," you invite. Here's mine: I knew it would come to this. Why settle for mere words when we, too, can do video? Words, shmords, where's my Camcorder?

It's said the latest vogue in Hollywood is to eliminate the pictures from movies and just project the dialogue on a flat, readable, widely circulated surface. It's now claimed that words can have an even more powerful effect than pictures, that they can lead to wisdom, beauty, reverence, ecstasy, even humility. Imagine that. One auteur was heard to say that a single word is worth a thousand pictures - if it's the right word. There might be an idea in all that. But be warned: This approach may catch on only in a literate society.

Enough kidding. Our problem in this opinionating business - well, our big problem - isn't any lack of technology. The stuff is everywhere and seems to be upgraded daily, or at least faster than a technologically challenged type like me can keep up with.

I'd just barely mastered the electronic typewriter when the word processor came in, and everything's been in electronic flux ever since. I still miss the Royal portable I used to write all those term papers. And I'm still in the market for one of those bulky old Woodstocks that used to sit on desks like a tank. If I really had my druthers, I'd probably opt for quill pens with square nibs. Hey, if it was good enough for the Declaration of Independence.

In the end it's not the technology of the moment, the instruments of thought, that matter so much as the quality of the thought itself. Lewis Carroll had the right idea: Take care of the sense and the sounds will take care of themselves. That's the basic challenge: thinking things through. Then the words will come, the right words.

Verbally,

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Dear Friend,

It was wholly a pleasure to get your letter full of advice about where our editorials have gone wrong. Namely, we've been entirely too frank and offended people. We would be much more effective, you say, if we'd tone it down, not upset the powers that be, at least not day after day, and generally Go with the Flow.

It might be even better if we'd say nothing at all - at length, of course, and in the nicest, most elevated tones. Isn't that what all the respectable opinionators do? Why risk editorializing in an editorial? Stay out of trouble. Play it safe. Write about the coming of spring, the beauty of fall. Pedestrian thought has its advantages, both material and political.

All of your good advice has a familiar ring. For the better part of a decade, when I was editor of an editorial page during what I now think of as the golden age of the little Pine Bluff (Ark.) Commercial (the 1960s), we were regularly advised to go easier on Orval Faubus.

Why? Because our steadfast, indeed just about daily, opposition to his kind of politics only strengthened his machine and segism in general. Sure enough, every two years, election after election, the Eternal Incumbent beat us like a drum. Our critics might have had a point.

But on sober reflection, or even after a drink or two, it occurred that there might be something more worthwhile than political calculation, something even more important than the election results that seemed so all-important at the time. Namely, trying to tell the reader the truth day after day, such as we are dimly allowed to perceive it.

Looking back, I can't honestly say I regret that choice. I'd like to think I wouldn't regret it even if in the end history, or rather the current conventional version of it, hadn't justified our long, long fight back then.

Clio, muse of history, is fickle. Winners and losers switch places as time goes on, but the need to maintain one's integrity - and a newspaper's - does not. The paper'll be here, one hopes, long after we're all gone. So beware, friend, of being too easily swayed by the roar of the crowd. Or being swayed at all. It is in the still small voice that salvation lies.

Vaclav Havel, the Czech playwright, dissident, prisoner and finally president, put it this way: "When a person behaves in keeping with his conscience, when he tries to speak the truth and when he tries to behave as a citizen even under conditions where citizenship is degraded, it may not lead to anything, yet it might. But what surely will not lead to anything is when a person calculates whether it will lead to something or not."

Be well, friend, and thanks for the advice, which I know was well intended, and for making me think once again about what a newspaper, a citizen, a person should be about in a republic, which puts me In your debt, Inky Wretch


Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.