NO WONDER EDITORIAL WRITERS DON'T SIGN THEIR NAMES
by Robert Gelfand
American Reporter Correspondent
San Pedro, Calif
LOS ANGELES, October 3, 2005 -- I thought I'd seen just about everything, but then my local newspaper published an editorial rooting for Tom Delay to make a comeback. Maybe there's a reason editorials are left unsigned.
"GOP House leader is not down for the count" reads the headline in the Sunday, Oct. 2 Daily Breeze editorial page. Now that's a pretty fair summary of what a lot of liberals are worried about, but apparently the Breeze represents a different point of view.
The Breeze argument starts off by taking a partisan shot: "For better (his push for tax cuts) or worse (his embrace of pork barrel spending), Tom DeLay, R-Texas, has been one of the most effective lawmakers in modern times. At the least, DeLay's sudden resignation as House majority leader after his indictment on a campaign finance charge will loosen the GOP's reins on Congress."
Let's keep in mind that assertion that DeLay has been "one of the most effective lawmakers" and continue.
The editorial goes on by suggesting that the charge against Delay really isn't all that big a deal: "An awfully strong case can be made that DeLay is an ethically challenged, compromised leader. But the felony charge against him - being part of an alleged criminal conspiracy that used the Republican National Committee to launder $190,000 in corporate donations to help state GOP candidates in 2003 - doesn't involve influence-peddling. Instead, it looks just like the sort of distasteful but routine accounting tricks endemic to U.S. politics."
The editorial continues by suggesting that the man who has been leading the DeLay investigation, Travis County prosecutor Ronnie Earle, is politically motivated: "Earle's appalling record in the prosecution of Texas Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison suggests that when there's a chance to bring a big Republican down, he pounces."
The Breeze finishes with this razzle-dazzle shake of its partisan pompoms: "So don't write the political obit for DeLay just yet. The Hammer may end up an unlikely martyr if Ronnie Earle's latest crusade goes as badly as his last one."
So much for complaints about liberal bias in the news media. The editorialist makes it clear that Republican Party success is the proper goal in life. It may be necessary on occasion to deliver up some pro forma concession to an unpleasant fact, but that shouldn't affect party loyalty.
Anyone who has been reading this column with any regularity will remember that I have been critical of the "objective journalism" now being served up by daily newspapers. If I have been calling for a little more editorializing in the news pages, you may ask, then why this attack on something that is truly editorial? Isn't that what we have been asking for?
No, not quite. The critique of 'objective journalism,' as it has come to be labeled, is that it isn't really objective. The formulaic collection of point and counterpoint, pro and con, without the use of informed judgment is a serious problem in news writing. For example, the current approach to writing about global warming is to cite the generally prevailing scientific position along with the contrarian view. There is seldom any attempt to come to an informed judgment about which side is right.
The cult of journalistic objectivity revels in the collection of facts and quotations, but generally avoids the critical next step, which is the use of logical inference to draw conclusions. It is a continuing curiosity why the news isn't written in a more thorough way.
When considered in this light, the Breeze editorial is simply the mirror image of so-called 'objective journalism.' In a classic bit of circular logic, the argument begins with its conclusions, then gallops all over the terrain, neglecting to establish a logical chain that could lead to those conclusions.
For example, consider the opening sentence, which commends DeLay for cutting taxes. Whether the Daily Breeze editorial board (whoever that might be) is willing to admit it or not, there is a huge assemblage of data, logic, economic theory and real-world experience which argues against President Bush's tax cuts. The Breeze, as a newspaper that covers foreign trade through the Port of Los Angeles, should be the first to recognize this and consider it in its editorials.
That would be the honest approach, the logical approach. It would be more like what a truly objective journalism might be.
In writing this column and in thinking back over the past 105 On Media columns I have written for The American Reporter, one point comes to mind: This is probably the first time I have written about a newspaper editorial as the main subject. I may have mentioned editorial positions in passing, but taking one as the theme and evaluating it critically is a first.
And there is a reason for this.
I hardly ever read them.
This may seem like a startling admission coming from your amateur media critic, but there it is. I hardly ever bother to read the main editorials in daily newspapers. I read lots of other parts - columns, letters, news stories, the bridge column, college football - but out of the two or three newspapers I read each day, I might glance at one editorial.
In pondering this lack of interest, one explanation that comes to mind is the lack of a signature. There is something slightly irritating about being told how to think by an entity that refuses even to tell me what it is, much less who it is. Is it the publisher, the editor, some board of writers and editors? If it's a board, who are the members?
It's different with authors who are willing to sign their names. I may disagree strongly with George Will, but at some level we have a history together. He has taught me many things over the years, and even if I often don't agree with his premises, the arguments are always of some interest.
By contrast, for all I know, newspaper editorials may be written by different people every day of the week. Perhaps there are committees that draft editorial policy and in so doing, squeeze every drop of life out of the product, as committees are wont to do. Whatever the reason, the personalities that shine through on the Op Ed page make for better reading.
To a certain extent, reading Op Ed columns is a sport in which the reader gets to cheer for his side and boo the opposition. That is the fun of taking a hearty but mixed dose of William F. Buckley, Mollie Ivins, George Will and Paul Krugman. Reading the editorial page is more like being told where to stand in line at the Department of Motor Vehicles. It is full of prescriptions about how we should behave, written by anonymous authorities in mumbling boiler plate.
Another contributing factor to my ennui is that editorials are the product (or at least the position) of the ownership. Why should I accept political views that benefit only the billionaire owners (in this case, the Copley Newspaper chain) and not me. That argument supporting the recent tax cuts (which we saw in the editorial's first sentence) represents a policy that only benefits a small set of very wealthy people.
There are better ways to do things.
We might consider a signed column that has been widely cited around the internet (thanks to Kevin Drum's blog for the tip). Jonathan Alter's "Newsweek" column is currently available online at http://msnbc.msn.com/id/9557669/site/newsweek
To demonstrate how a well written editorial includes facts processed through the lens of reason, let's consider the first two paragraphs of Alter's piece:
"Oct. 10, 2005 issue - A decade ago, I paid a call on Tom DeLay in his ornate office in the Capitol. I had heard a rumor about him that I figured could not possibly be true. The rumor was that after the GOP took control of the House that year, DeLay had begun keeping a little black book with the names of Washington lobbyists who wanted to come see him. If the lobbyists were not Republicans and contributors to his power base, they didn't get into "the people's House." DeLay not only confirmed the story, he showed me the book. His time was limited, DeLay explained with a genial smile. Why should he open his door to people who were not on the team?
"Thus began what historians will regard as the single most corrupt decade in the long and colorful history of the House of Representatives. Come on, you say. How about all those years when congressmen accepted cash in the House chamber and then staggered onto the floor drunk? Yes, special interests have bought off members of Congress at least since Daniel Webster took his seat while on the payroll of a bank. And yes, Congress over the years has seen dozens of sex scandals and dozens of members brought low by financial improprieties. But never before has the leadership of the House been hijacked by a small band of extremists bent on building a ruthless shakedown machine, lining the pockets of their richest constituents and rolling back popular protections for ordinary people. These folks borrow like banana republics and spend like Tip O'Neill on speed."
Comparing the unsigned Daily Breeze editorial with Alter's column, it is easy to see which is the intellectually vacuous product of a dying tradition and which is the lively product of a robust art.
As to one issue though, both the Breeze and Alter seem to be in agreement, namely that DeLay has been "one of the most effective lawmakers." It's just that they seem to be in disagreement about what he has been so effective in doing. Alter, by building his conclusions upon history and logic, shows how to make the more convincing case.