Expertise Rules : Editorial Pages: New Directions

Times Staff Writer

Several editors and editorial writers at the Wall Street Journal were sitting around the office one morning last summer, chatting about a variety of ideas and issues.

Over the course of 45 minutes, half a dozen or so writers drifted in and out of the office--sitting, standing in the doorway, leaving one conversation in mid-sentence, joining another. When most of the writers had finally wandered back to their own offices, a young intern who was new to the Journal editorial page turned to George Melloan, deputy editor of the page, and asked when the paper would have its daily editorial board meeting, the formal conference at which the paper's official editorial-page opinions for the next day would be decided.

"That was it," Melloan told the startled intern.

Casual System

The Journal probably has the most casual system of any major newspaper in the country for determining editorial policy. But most newspaper readers would probably be surprised to learn that the majority of big-city papers these days decide their daily editorial-page positions in a not altogether dissimilar manner--more by informal group discussion than by front-office fiat.

In fact, on the largest papers, an editorial is more likely to be the product of a single editorial writer's informed opinion than of either the publisher's dictates or the editorial board's consensus. Major metropolitan newspapers now generally have editorial boards of one or two editors and five to 10 editorial writers, each specializing in specific subject areas--defense, the economy, the Mideast, education--much as the news staff of the paper has specialists covering various areas.

Many newspaper reporters have long regarded their editorial-writing colleagues either as geriatric cases kicked upstairs pending retirement or as would-be philosophers, bloviating from their ivory towers, divorced from the real world of daily journalism. In generations past, there was some justification for these judgments. But increasingly in recent years--on the larger papers anyway--editorial writers are doing much of their own reporting. They read, they interview, they meet regularly in their offices with leading local, state, national and international authorities. They go to City Hall, the state capital and Washington; sometimes, they travel across the country and around the world in search of information to help form their opinions.

Editorial writers who acquire such expertise tend to carry the argument most of the time when they propose editorials in their daily meetings with colleagues, editors and publishers.

"Technically, the opinions on the editorial page are the opinions of the publisher," says Donald Graham, publisher of the Washington Post. "In fact, luckily for readers of the . . . Post, there are a bunch of people writing editorials here whose opinions are somewhat better-informed . . . and who think more interesting thoughts than I do."

Nevertheless, the old image of the editorial writer still persists--with the public and in the press itself. Thus, Katharine Graham, chairman of the board of the Washington Post Co., has described the process as one of "studied incoherence" combined with "a certain sense of mystery."

In an effort to penetrate this mystery--and to study this seeming incoherence--a Los Angeles Times reporter recently spent several weeks interviewing newspaper editorial page editors, editorial writers and some publishers and editors at seven major newspapers: the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Boston Globe and Philadelphia Inquirer.

Daily Meetings

At five of these papers, the reporter also sat in on the daily editorial board meetings, at which the paper's editorial positions were discussed and determined. (Only the Post and the New York Times did not permit the reporter to attend their editorial board meetings; only Arthur Ochs (Punch) Sulzberger, publisher of the New York Times, refused to be interviewed for this story.)

The common perception among most readers is that the publisher of a newspaper tells his editors virtually every day just what he wants the editorials to say, based largely (if not exclusively) on his personal, political, financial and social interests and inclinations.

Historically, there is good reason for this perception. After all, the earliest American newspapers were often founded for the avowed purpose of promulgating their owners' views, in the news columns as well as on the editorial pages. Partisan, personal journalism dominated at least the first century of American newspapers.

That began to change in the late 19th Century and, especially over the past few decades, partisan and personal journalism has increasingly given way to corporate and chain ownership.

Local Autonomy

Although critics of the press are justifiably concerned about the dangers of chain ownership, many chains give their member newspapers local autonomy in the determination of editorial policy. In fact, a 1979 survey sponsored by the American Society of Newspaper Editors found that editors on chain newspapers said they have more freedom in establishing editorial policy than did editors on independently owned papers.

On many small- and medium-sized newspapers--and even on some large newspapers--chain-owned or independent, publishers do continue to dictate editorial policy on a daily basis. Moreover, at most newspapers, regardless of size or ownership, the publisher has the final say on major issues ("Impeach Nixon," "Get Out of Vietnam") and on candidate endorsements at election time--especially in the case of presidential, gubernatorial and mayoral endorsements.

Even with endorsements, however, the editorial boards at most major papers invite the candidates for each office into the newspaper for individual interviews, and the board's preferences are largely (but not invariably) followed by the paper.

(Last year, when Miami Herald Publisher Dick Capen overruled his editorial board and endorsed President Reagan for reelection, Editor Jim Hampton first considered resigning, then wrote a column strongly dissenting from his own paper's endorsement editorial.)

Different Views

On matters other than candidate endorsements, the day's editorial positions at the nation's major, big-city newspapers are largely determined at the editorial board's daily meeting, and the publisher frequently doesn't even know what the editorials are going to say until he reads them in the paper.

Sometimes--not often--a publisher may even permit his paper to express views different from his own, figuring that as long as the paper's editorials generally represent his views, he shouldn't overrule the editorial board on the few specific issues about which the board feels differently and, perhaps, more strongly.

Thus, Tom Johnson, publisher of the Los Angeles Times, favors the death penalty in certain capital cases, but he has not imposed his will on the paper's editorial board, and the paper unequivocally opposes capital punishment.

"What an editorial page is all about is provoking people to think . . . seriously about their own positions," Johnson says. "I don't believe they want to know the individual view of a single publisher . . . on every specific topic. . . ."

'Don't Surprise Me'

The general rule under which many publishers operate with their editors and editorial boards is: "Don't take a position I can't live with, and don't surprise me"--i.e., "At least consult with me before you take an editorial position that departs significantly from from what we might be expected to say or from what we've said in the past."

Of course, a newspaper is not a tabula rasa--a clean slate--every day.

Editorial writers generally know what their papers have said on most important questions through the years, and they know that these institutional positions are not easily changed.

More important, the publisher (or his editor) hires the editor of the editorial page. And that editor knows his publisher's views and his responsibilities as the publisher's gatekeeper when he hires writers and approves editorials. Frequent, dramatic surprises are not likely.

At papers with large enough editorial boards, there are usually sufficient differences of opinion on any given issue that writers are not required to write anything they disagree with; there's almost always someone on the board eager to write the prevailing opinion. ("Winner writes, loser sulks," says Stephen S. Rosenfeld, deputy editor of the Washington Post editorial page.)

'Editing by Hiring'

But it would be naive to think that a publisher is going to pay people to express his paper's opinions if those opinions are going to differ significantly and consistently from his own.

"The main editing is done by hiring," Rosenfeld says. "That doesn't mean that only clones are hired. But a person has to want to work on this page, he has to feel intellectually . . . that it's a congenial and comfortable environment. And, of course, the paper has to feel that this person is in our general ideological, political ballpark."

Does this lead to a certain predictability on the nation's editorial pages?

Yes.

Too often, editorials seem written by rote rather than with what Jack Fuller, editor of the editorial page of the Chicago Tribune, calls "a skeptical, illuminating intelligence."

Change in Makeup

Why? In part, because editorial boards tend to be demographically homogenous, as well as ideologically harmonious: the vast majority of editorial writers are white males in their 40s and 50s. (There are only about 24 blacks on newspaper editorial boards across the country.)

That's beginning to change, though. All the major papers examined for this series of stories now have at least one black, one women and one person under 40 writing editorials, and some have more than one in each category. The Philadelphia Inquirer has two blacks and two women among its six editorial writers; the Wall Street Journal--in keeping with the paper's longstanding practice of giving young journalists responsible positions--has two 25-year-olds (one a black) and two 31-year-olds writing editorials.

The presence of blacks, women and young people on editorial boards forces these boards to "think about things they might otherwise ignore," in the words of Claude Lewis, one of the blacks who writes editorials for the Inquirer.

Valuable Perspective

This is especially true these days in the debate over abortion. Women bring an intensely personal--and valuable--perspective to these discussions, their male colleagues say.

Black and women editorial writers don't write only about issues of primary interest to the segments of society they represent, though. At the Inquirer, for example, Trudy Rubin specializes in foreign policy and defense issues. Nor do these editorial writers see themselves as apologists for their interest groups.

Lewis argues that Inquirer editorials have not been sufficiently critical of the city's black mayor, Wilson Goode; Joseph Perkins, a black editorial writer at the Wall Street Journal, argues that liberal black leaders have historically "repressed dissent" among more moderate blacks.

Some Surprises

Demographic considerations aside, there have occasionally been other exceptions to--and surprises in--the traditional predictability of the editorial process in recent months and years:

The Washington Post, scourge of Watergate and other Republican scandals, editorialized that the Senate should not reject the nomination of Edwin Meese to be U.S. attorney general.

The Boston Globe, with the most consistently liberal editorial page of any big-city daily, editorialized early this year that affirmative action "should now be either redefined or discarded."

The New York Times, long a proponent of government regulation of private industry, editorialized forcefully in favor of deregulating oil and natural gas prices during the Carter Administration.

Just as newspaper editorials sometimes take unexpected positions, so the people who write those editorials sometimes argue angrily in the course of arriving at those positions. At most major papers' editorial board meetings, vigorous disagreement is not uncommon, heated disagreement is not unlikely and acrimony, while unusual, is not unheard of.

Emotional Sessions

At virtually every paper, editorial writers interviewed for this story used such words and phrases as "bloody," "out of control" and "knock-down, drag-out fights" to describe their discussions on certain emotionally charged issues.

Jim Crowley, now retired after nine years as an editorial writer at the Boston Globe in the 1970s, says he can remember when one of his colleagues grew so disgruntled with losing arguments to the rest of the editorial board that he first sulked in silence, then asked (and was permitted) to leave the board.

In contrast, the word that Los Angeles Times editorial writers most often use in talking about their meetings is "civility"--and, indeed, a reporter who sat in on editorial board meetings there heard less spirited discussion in 11 meetings combined than he heard in virtually any one of the two or three meetings he sat in on at each of four other papers.

When Lee Dembart, a relatively new Los Angeles Times editorial writer, sharply criticized a colleague, Kay Mills, during a meeting last year, Jack Burby, the assistant editor of the paper's editorial page, says he called both Dembart and Mills in to explain that editorial board meetings at The Times "worked very well as . . . exercises in civility, and I didn't want to see that go down the drain."

Clearly, the editorial process--and the role of the publisher and of the editors--varies considerably from paper to paper, depending largely on the personalities involved.

At the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal and Boston Globe, the editor of the editorial page reports directly to the publisher; the top-ranking editor on the news staff of the paper has nothing to do with the editorial pages. These editors say a paper's news-gathering and opinion-making functions should be as separate as possible.

'Heart of the Paper'

At the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune and Philadelphia Inquirer, however, the editor of the editorial page reports to the editor of the paper--who also oversees the news operation--and he reports to the publisher (except at the Inquirer, where there is no publisher). These papers say the editorial page is an integral part of the paper ("the heart of the paper . . . the voice of the paper," in the words of Tribune Editor James Squires), and the editor of the paper should be the editor of the entire paper.

How are the publisher's views reflected in the decision-making process?

Well, at the Wall Street Journal, Robert L. Bartley says that when he took over editorship of the editorial page in 1972, Warren H. Phillips, chairman of the board of Dow Jones & Co., which publishes the Journal, gave him a "four- or five-sentence marching order," which largely consisted of "We want to keep the editorial policy we've had."

Bartley says his views and Phillips' are "generally in accord," and they seldom consult on editorial policy.

Two-Day Discussion

But when Katharine Graham--then publisher of the Washington Post--first considered hiring Philip L. Geyelin as editor of the Post editorial page in 1966, the two of them spent two days walking the beaches of Martha's Vineyard, an island off the coast of Massachusetts, discussing "just about every issue we could think of," she later wrote. Graham and Geyelin spoke "not so much in search of agreement as for the sake of establishing whether we had similar values and approaches to problems and the same general principles--and whether we shared some sense of how we would work out our differences when they arose," Graham wrote.

When Meg Greenfield replaced Geyelin in 1979, she had been his deputy for 10 years, so no such vetting was necessary. But Publisher Donald Graham does attend the paper's editorial board meeting every Monday (when he's in Washington). And he has breakfast with Greenfield every Wednesday (when he's in Washington) and the two are in regular communication, in person and by telephone, to discuss editorial policy.

2 in Agreement

Even so, when Graham was asked recently for examples of his having disagreed with Greenfield on a policy issue or of his having overruled her or even of his having suggested an editorial topic or position to her, he couldn't think of a single one, not at the time he was asked and not when he'd had three weeks to try to recall one.

"The (editorial) opinions (of the Post) are largely . . . those of the editorial staff, which are shaped to a very great degree by Meg," he said, "and, as a general matter, I agree with Meg Greenfield on about as wide a range of issues as it is reasonable to expect two people to agree . . . on."

At the New York Times, Editorial Page Editor Max Frankel says he is also in regular communication with his publisher, Arthur Sulzberger, even when one or the other of them is out of town. Unlike Graham, Sulzberger doesn't attend his paper's editorial board meetings, but Frankel says the two men do have lunch together (with other guests) most days when both are in New York. And the publisher does have in his office a computer terminal directly connected to the paper's news and editorial production system; he can look at pending editorials whenever he wants to (something Graham and most other big-city publishers don't do.)

Sulzberger Chips In

In fact, Frankel says, Sulzberger actually writes six to 12 editorials a year himself--something few big-city publishers do these days.

More commonly, Sulzberger merely suggests editorial ideas to Frankel or, on occasion, to one of the editorial writers.

Roger Starr, a New York Times editorial writer and--like Sulzberger--a fly fisherman, says Sulzberger recently asked him to write an editorial on the survival of the Atlantic salmon.

Publishers are generally more likely to make editorial suggestions on local issues than than on national or international issues--especially if the local issues affect the economy or the quality of city life--and Sulzberger is no exception.

One of his favorite topics is the New York taxicab--"dangerous wrecks driven by people who can't find Grand Central Station and don't speak enough English to understand directions," in the words of a recent Times editorial.

Next: The meeting, the writing, the impact.

Susanna Shuster of The Times editorial library assisted with research for this article.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
59°