Paul Greenberg

Wasn't there a time when the country had great newspapers with great editorials that regularly thundered and whispered, sighed and screamed, were outraged or outraged others? Where did they all go?

Newspapers had character in those days of yore, whether good or bad. The reader could depend on it. And the editorials were a window into their soul. Those editorials might be loved or loathed, admired or despised, but they were read. Like the newspapers themselves.

No day could start properly without at least a glance at the editorial page. Sensational or thoughtful, brief or discursive, each editorial might have a style of its own, yet they were all in keeping with the newspaper's.

It was part of an American tradition going back to Ben Franklin, John Peter Zenger and the colonial pamphleteers -- whether they were free spirits or unthinking subjects and agents of the Crown. That tradition gained momentum and power with the magnificent fulminators or just genteel reformers of the 19th century.

America once abounded in great or at least fascinating editorial pages. Particularly in these latitudes, back when the South was still the great seedbed of 20th century American literature and Mark Twain's spirit yet lived.

Those editorials might appear under the newspaper's dignified masthead, but there was no mistaking who had written them, even if the editorials went unsigned. Their prose was their signature. Whether the writer was a courageous Ralph McGill in the old Atlanta Constitution, the reliably irreverent Richard Aregood plying his trade either in Philly or Newark at the time, or both Grover C. Halls, senior and junior, at the Montgomery Advertiser in ever rambunctious Alabama.

Each had his imitators and epigones -- who in turn made their eccentricities part of their newspaper's personality. Here in Arkansas, whether he was being lauded or despised, Harry Ashmore became the voice and lightning rod of the old Arkansas Gazette in its finest hour -- the Little Rock Crisis of 1957, whose echoes still resound in this state. To its everlasting credit, the Gazette decided to speak out for the law of the land and the brotherhood of man at that juncture, not the most popular of positions back then.

Yes, there was a time when editorials said something, however debatable or just plain wrong, and said it well. Think of the late great James Jackson Kilpatrick in Richmond, my own favorite seg before he saw the light and repented of his ways, or H. L. Mencken demonstrating his verbal pyrotechnics in Baltimore while all stood back in awe.

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.