Paul Greenberg

It happened years ago in Calgary, Alberta, where the National Conference of Editorial Writers was holding its convention that year. Was it in the '70s or '80s, and does it matter? Much has changed since then, and not for the better. The organization started as a simple meeting of a few editorial writers to shoot the bull, but by now it's cast its web wider and vaguer, becoming the Association of Opinion Journalists, whatever "opinion journalists" are. Anybody who ever started his own blog or wrote a letter to the editor?

The disappearance of the old-fashioned editorial writer has pretty much paralleled the disappearance of the old-fashioned newspaper. It is not a change for the better.

Our annual meetings ought to be as personal and idiosyncratic as any other anarchists' convention. Ideally, they would be as gossipy as tea in the servants' quarters after our masters have turned in for the night and left the household in peace.

But even by the time we met at Calgary, editorial writers were putting on airs -- just as the once baronial publishers who used to own American newspapers, generation after generation, were losing theirs. Once great newspapers began going public or just going under, their editorial voices growing blander and blander till they weren't there at all.

We should have known what was going to happen once we started following parliamentary procedure, holding plenary sessions and adopting sonorous resolutions by the ream. But we just sat there quietly, listening to professors of journalism address the State of the Profession -- as if our ragtag bunch were one, and as much a conspiracy against the laity as any other.

That year at Calgary, one solemn resolution proposed that we stop talking to the CIA, since a number of journalists abroad had been assassinated on the pretext that we were all CIA agents, capitalist spies, tools of imperialism and, well, you know the rest. As if the killers were so lacking in imagination they couldn't come up with some other excuse to do away with us if they hadn't invented this one.

So there we were in all too solemn convention assembled, First Amendment or no, debating whether we should gag ourselves. I dissented, being an American, and unaccustomed to being told whom I could talk to or not talk to. Memory grows furtive, but I believe the resolution was defeated. That it was ever considered was disgraceful enough.

These strange days, the National Security Agency has succeeded the CIA as the villain du jour in the more respectable reaches of the Fourth Estate.

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.