Who Killed the Great American Editorial?

Posted: Jan 25, 2014 12:01 AM
Who Killed the Great American Editorial?

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.

Those were the days when every community large or small seemed to have its own, unique editor -- like the father and publisher in Thornton Wilder's "Our Town," who knew every nook and cranny of little Grover's Corners, and felt every typographical error like a stab. His credo might have come from the stage directions for that play: "No curtain. No scenery."

The village editor, whatever his peculiarities, was a fixture of American society, like the village idiot. The editor played the dual roles of mentor and agitator, watchman and gadfly, philosopher and jester -- always on the lookout for a danger to spot or a lesson to draw. William Allen White of the old Emporia Gazette was the real-life personification of those multiple, ever demanding roles in a small town. "What's the matter with Kansas?" he asked in the headline of one of his many editorials that drew national attention, and deserved to. There were giants in the earth in those days, even if their towns and newspapers were scarcely gigantic. You can't hide quality, at least not on Kansas' wide-open plains.

But look around at American newspapers today and try to name a great editorial writer. Instead of a myriad of talents to choose from, the bored reader -- if he reads the editorials at all -- is likely to find himself adrift in a sea of blah. Courage seems in short supply these days on too many American editorial pages. Even its poor relation, eccentricity, grows rare. And eccentricity was once a defining part of the Southern character. What a loss it'll be when it disappears entirely, and we're all reduced to the colorless and predictable.

Who killed the great American editorial? A better way to frame the question might be to ask what killed the great American editorial. For the forces responsible for its demise are as impersonal and characterless as many of the editorials themselves. Lord save us from the On the One Hand This and On the Other Hand That school of denatured editorial writing. They're opinion pieces without the opinion. And you can spot their sense of calculation at 10 paces.

The all too typical modern editorial seems to have no discernible purpose except to avoid offending. If it does happen to express an opinion, it's only to reflect the current party line or socio-economic fashion. All the life has been drained out of it by the stultifying editorial conference, an institution which seems designed to hide any trace of an original or provocative idea. Once all those around the conference table have had their say, they wind up canceling each other out. Like a zero-sum equation. This is called consensus. And its end product is idea-free.

If somehow an original idea is conceived in such an unlikely atmosphere, rest assured it'll be stillborn. Lest it depart from the well-beaten path. The death certificate for the great American editorial might list Cause of Death as terminal neutrality. It's a common affliction as one great newspaper after another goes the way of the Times-Picayune in New Orleans or the Rocky Mountain News in Denver, either diluted beyond recognition or dead beyond resurrection. Saddest of all are those newspapers that have become only a pale shadow of their old, once vibrant selves -- dead but not yet buried.

The test of intellectual integrity in a newspaper's editorials is not whether they still hew to some political line it embraced a decade ago, or a year ago, or just a minute before, but whether the editorial column is alive and awake now, and therefore continually open to the evidence before its eyes, to the actual effect of whatever it is advocating, opposing or just appraising at the moment.

That is why George Orwell remains a model for any honest writer of opinion. Here is an Englishman who spouted all the conventional socialist pieties and prejudices and genuine passions. He not only expressed all that in the written word, in the abstract, but went off to fight side by side with the Communists in the Spanish Civil War of the '30s. Just as any good socialist in the Popular Front would. He would be wounded in that war and his cause betrayed. He was lucky to get out of Spain one step ahead of the Party's secret police, who had already jailed his comrades and were searching for him. For he had been recognized as the subversive he was, that is, a man with a mind and eyes and conscience of his own. And the honesty to express them. No totalitarian society can abide that kind of thought criminal.

Through it all Orwell, né Eric Blair, remained English to the core, an embodiment of the English character the world had come to know and respect, and now much misses. ("The fact to which we have got to cling, as to a lifeboat, is that it is possible to be a normal decent person and yet to be fully alive." -- George Orwell, 1936) He would go on to write "Animal Farm" and "1984" and leave us a treasury of essays, book reviews and columns in English prose clear as a window pane. They still live and instruct. Reading them, you feel as if you were talking to a real person, clear-eyed and honest but, above all else, decent.

The American editorial died when its writers grew distant and professional, removed from their roots, and became only mouthpieces for a political line. Any examination of the American editorial's corpus delecti would reveal that it was bored to death, perhaps because its writer was. Much too bored to think an idea through. Ideas can be dangerous when probed. We might have to discard them or, even more trouble, follow where they lead.

Who killed the great American editorial? The fault, fellow editorial writers, lies not in our stars or in our times, but in ourselves.