The Reluctance to Change: A History Lesson

By Bovee, Warren G. | The Masthead, Spring 1998 | Go to article overview

The Reluctance to Change: A History Lesson


Bovee, Warren G., The Masthead


Editorial writers tell their readers how things can be done differently and better: Reduce class size in the schools to bring up the reading level of the students; assign additional police officers to districts where there has been widespread drug dealing; plant more trees along the city's busiest streets.

That's good. As times change, so also must the related and affected activities change.

But what about the editorial page itself?. Journalism is changing. Are editorial pages doing the same?

I asked Robert L. Bartley, editor of The Wall Street Journal, about the possibility of changing from unsigned to signed editorials. Not signing editorials, he replied, is a "tradition about as old as journalism - and traditions are usually based on sound reasons even if they can't be crisply articulated."

But if we take a quick glance at his understanding of the history of editorials, we can see some problems.

It is true that when editorials first began to appear in American newspapers near the end of the 18th century, they were not signed. They did not have to be signed. An editorial was an article written by the editor, and the readers knew who the editor was. In 1800, for example, the New York American Citizen and General Advertisers was known as "Mr. David Denniston's paper."

Earlier, the New York American Minerva was Mr. Noah Webster's paper. Editors were as familiar to their readers as parents are to their children.

When newspaper staffs became larger, some of the great editors began to sign their editorials. By 1850, for instance, Horace Greeley's Tribune had a staff of 12, and he was signing his most important writings, including the 1862 "Prayer of Twenty Million" that urged Lincoln to declare free all slaves who had escaped into the Union lines. The signed editorial brought a prompt - and published - reply from the president.

But even if Bartley's appeal to tradition must be peppered with qualifications and exceptions, that was not his only point. "Editorials," he also said, "at least at their best, are something more than the opinion of one person . . . in our cases reflecting not only collaborative discussions but a tradition reaching back a century." And, "I don't know whose name we would sign - the editor who came up with the idea, the writer who reported it and did the first drain, or the editor who rewrote and crafted the final prose."

Is it really so difficult, as Bartley claims, to determine to which person an editorial should be credited?

It turned out not to be so when William H. Grimes of The Wall Street Journal was identified as the writer who should receive the 1947 Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. Six years later, at the same paper, it was determined that Vermont C. Royster had written the prize-winning editorials. And, when someone picked out the author of those editorials that resulted in the 1980 Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing, we discover they were written by, of all persons, the WSJ's Robert L. Bartley himself.

In other words, when it comes time to select editorials for submission to the Pulitzer Prize board - and to the hundreds of other national, state, and local groups that give awards each year for editorial writing - papers have no difficulty determining who deserves credit for "their best." Yet most of the large papers refuse to supply this same information to their readers at the time the editorials are first published.

Howell Raines, editorial page editor of The New York Times, doesn't deny that the writers are known; he simply claims there is no need to provide this information to the readers. …

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