The Power of the Editorial ‘We’, Part I
VTR Date: January 10, 1988
Guest: Rosenthal, Jack
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THE OPEN MIND.
Host: Richard D. Heffner.
Guest: Jack Rosenthal.
Title: The Power of the Editorial “WE” .
Heffner: I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. You know, today I feel as though I should address my singular guest in the plural – with sort of a non-Southern “you-all”, instead of just “you”. For, as Editor of the Editorial Page of The New York Times, Jack Rosenthal directs that most distinguished newspaper’s Editorial “We”, its Board of twelve wise men and women, authorities in many disciplines, who write the Times’ editorials. And today I’ll ask about their power…not that of his illustrious Editorial Board colleagues, but rather of their editorials, the opinion webs they spin, the positions they urge upon us seven days each week, fifty-two weeks each year.
Now, we’ve often spoken here on THE OPEN MIND about the power of the press. As you know, I’ve usually viewed it with alarm. My journalistic guests have usually denied its existence altogether – you know: the “Who…Us?” and “Nobody’s in here but us chickens” routine. But no one has ever pointed to it – the power of the press, which you and I know darn well exists – with pride. But maybe this doyen of editorialists will, however…for his own editorial page at least, if not for his ink-stained profession at large.
Of course, when he headed the New York Times’ Editorial Board, Max Frankel, now Editor of the whole darn paper, in paying tribute to Mr. Rosenthal, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Editorial Writing in 1982, summed up the qualities that produce distinguished editorial writers, adding: “And gullibility is crucial: why else would a person with all these extraordinary qualities think it mattered what he wrote on an editorial page?” Which brings us back, of course, to that whole bloody business of “What’s it all mean, anyway…what’s it all worth?”, giving my guest today an opportunity to repeat the journalist’s usual disclaimer of power and influence…though maybe – just between you, me and him – maybe he’ll level with us instead. Will you, sir? Will you claim or admit a little more power than most of you journalists do, at least for the editorial page?
Rosenthal: Sure. But it’s a very different kind than I think layman think of when they think of editorial. It’s a very misunderstood art. You ask somebody, “What’s the best known newspaper editorial you can think of?” And every time somebody will say, “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus”. And then you ask, “What’s second?” and they won’t know one. We’re not important or not powerful because we have such smart views or because we sit there and have our hands on all of those typewriters. We’re there…powerful…for a series of different reasons. One of them is national bulletin board.
Heffner: What do you mean?
Rosenthal: I mean that what we write about…you may or may not agree with what we say about the opening of a nuclear power plant in Long Island or about what happens in the West Bank in the Middle East. But whether you agree with it or not, the fact that we’ve written about that subject and maybe from a particular point of view, and written about it to a million plus of fairly influential readers means we’ve put something on the agenda that might not otherwise have been there.
Heffner: That is a real power, an enormous power.
Rosenthal: It’s a power and it’s one that we treat with considerable care. We don’t want to be just capricious, we don’t want to be arbitrary about what we get…but on the other hand, we are a bunch of very curious people, who are, for the most part, expert in their fields, and I think one of my jobs, one of the jobs of the Editor of any editorial page, is to stay out of the way of the curiosity of the people who write the editorials. And take some chances and let people go put up some fairly interesting novel things on the bulletin board from time to time.
Heffner: Do you mean then that what I read, what I read this morning in The New York Times, on its editorial page, doesn’t necessarily represent the collective opinion of that Board or of the publisher?
Rosenthal: That’s a very complicated question. Can I defer answering for a minute because I want to answer your other question about power. Because there is another answer that I think is important to give. Beyond putting things on the bulletin board, there is a question of fact. There’s a wonderful old slogan, a friend of mine once told me from a British drugstore. They had the sign in the back by the pharmacist that said, “We dispense with accuracy”. Now we dispense on our page, lots of prescriptions, but we don’t dispense with accuracy. We try to ground everything we say in fact and do a fair amount of reporting of our own. We work for a great newspaper and depend on it. But a lot of the time your own perceptions of things depends on work you’ve done yourself, not just things you’ve read somewhere else. So, I think of one of our jobs is to be purveyors of fact…fact that can make differences in the way people think of things. And I think this power to focus on, to demonstrate, to call attention to certain facts, which are indisputable facts…I’ll give you an example in a minute…is a great power and it’s a constructive power and one that I prize our being able to use on occasion. I think particularly of a kind of hysteria about AIDS that began to cover the country, oh, maybe a year ago. The issue was the spread of AIDS through heterosexual sex. As a distinguished people as the Surgeon General of the United States, important journalists, other authorities, were saying, “We have the Black Death on our hands, it’s about to break out into the population as a whole”. Nicholas Wade one of the fine members of the New York Times Editorial Board, he writes science and public policy for us, looked at the data, AIDS cases and they’re broken down and figures are put out every month, there was no showing of any heterosexual breakout. He did some other investigation, there was no showing of it in test results or in more current statistics. There simply was no evidence for it. This doesn’t say that it might not happen, it doesn’t say that it didn’t happen in Africa, or doesn’t happen in Africa, but there was, as of then and now, no evidence of a heterosexual breakout in Africa, with the result that American public policy was being driven in this mistaken, at least so far, mistaken direction. The Secretary of Education and the Surgeon General were arguing about how old should school children be before they are educated about sex in schools to protect them against AIDS. When the real thing that government should have been doing and should be doing now, is trying to combat AIDS in the area where it knows to do something, which is drug abuse.
Heffner: You know I’m so glad you raised the question of that particular editorial because I found it an extraordinary, not irresponsible, in my estimation, but an extraordinarily powerful and I though misguiding, not necessarily misguided, misguiding editorial.
Heffner: Talk about the power of that page, I guess correctly, you pointed out or Wade pointed out the statistics, but the power of that page, the power of the page that you edit, the power of The New York Times, therefore, was such that I think it lulled a great many people into believing, not what you said which is, “That it’s possible, but the statistics don’t indicate it at this point”, but lulled them into believing the good, gray Times, no longer quite so gray, the good Times has said, “No, don’t worry about it, we’re not worrying about it”. I thought that was an exercise…
Rosenthal: Oh, not fair, Richard, not fair.
Rosenthal: Lulled is really unfair.
Rosenthal: Because what we said then and have said every time since, in a number of occasions is…the bottom line of that particular editorial, and it’s engraved in my skull, is the AIDS epidemic is tragedy enough without having to be exaggerated. And our theme every since has been, “The responsibility of government is to do something about those aspects of this epidemic that it can do something about. And why isn’t it doing it?”. And the handsome result is that the Governor and the Mayor of the State of New York and, to some extent, the Federal authorities are now beginning to spend some money and in the large methadone maintenance centers so that people who now use dirty needles, the largest single preventable source of AIDS, can now find alternates to heavy drugs.
Heffner: But you know, Jack, this raises an interesting question. You’re the wordsmith, you know words and their meanings. I didn’t mean that The New York Times editorial page lulled people. I do believe that people were lulled into a …to some kind of insensitivity by what they read.
Rosenthal: It’s a fascinating…
Heffner: And there’s a difference.
Rosenthal: It’s a fascinating…I understand and I don’t’ so much quarrel with you as I think I want to ask you to help me think about that same issue, but put a little differently. We were ferociously denounced at the time of that first editorial and a few times later in the Spring by people who, if you pressed them, “What were we guilty of?” we were guilty of failure to maintain the high, shrill, keening pitch of alarm about AIDS. In my view we have the responsibility of the potent medium is not necessarily public propaganda, even in good causes, it’s to try to tell the truth, it’s to try to be factual when we can, even when it is not fashionable among the finest medical authorities, some of them, a number of others have come to our defense, and as you probably know, in the intervening months, other people have finally…including some of the newspapers and public officials who were so quick to pound on us, astonishingly, because we weren’t[‘t pressing some strange, weird set of opinions, we weren’t sitting in some ivory tower delivering personal thunderbolts, we were looking at the same data that came out every month from the Centers for Disease Control and from the New York City Health Department, other authorities have now looked at those, last July Robert Scheer wrote the wonderful series in the Los Angeles Times saying, “Look, there’s no evidence of heterosexual spread of AIDS”.
Heffner: But you know, for me…
Rosenthal: Bob Gould has a piece in Cosmopolitan this month, “Look, there’s no heterosexual spread of AIDS”.
Heffner: You know and someone who wants to believe that will believe that there is no heterosexual spread of AIDS, there is no evidence of it now, but the fact also is that people will think less of the possibilities, which raises the point that I really wanted to make, it wasn’t a matter of saying, when I read that editorial, not wondering “What in the world is Rosenthal doing?”, but rather thinking, “What an incredible responsibility he has, because he has to know that no matter what is printed on his page, it has consequences, it’s read up and it’s read down”.
Rosenthal: Absolutely right. It’s absolutely right.
Heffner: So how do you sleep at night with that responsibility?
Rosenthal: Thought very hard about that and my answer to myself was, and is, answerable in terms of the thousands of Queens housewives who demonstrated outside public schools in the Fall of 1965 “(sic)?” against the presence of one of two kids with AIDS related complex going to school with their children. And in my view they did so because they didn’t have a clue as to how hard it is for AIDS to be transmitted in casual contact. But the hysteria that was abroad in terms of the public as a whole, an ignorant hysteria, we helped cause that. That had its consequences; our well-meaning or ignorant reporting had its consequences, which was to spread hysteria beyond the level of reason. And society paid its price for that, too. It seems to me that the only judge that a journalist or an honest man can use, an honest person can use, “Is this the best judgment you can make based on the reliable information you’ve got at the moment? Have you tested the information and do you believe this to be true?” And in that case, that was the judgment we came to and yes, I sleep fine about that and I sleep even better since everybody else has come around to the same view.
Heffner: Do you see that there is any…do you feel that there is any difference in your responsibility as Editor of a most influential, let’s say, the most influential editorial page and the responsibility of the workaday journalist.
Rosenthal: Dick, I don’t think so. I don’t feel any…I don’t feel as though…I’d go crazy if I thought that.
Heffner: Thought what…that there’s a difference?
Rosenthal: No, if I thought that I should somehow apply different standards. I do, just as you do or just any professional in any business does, you do what you do not because of where you’re doing it, you do it because you want to exercise professional skills, because you love what you’re doing, because you want to be… you want to practice according to the professional precepts. Somebody who’s interested in finding out information, you want to go find it out whether you’re working for the Portland Oregonian or The New York Times. The issue is not where you sit, it’s what you do.
Heffner: Our mutual friend, Floyd Abrams, when he’s here has used that expression, of course where you stand depends upon where you sit.
Heffner: I think it’s a rather honest statement of what we really do. We think in terms of our particular responsibilities today, here “we” are, if I can use the editorial “we”. There you are, Editor of the editorial page of the Times, my gosh, you have a different slot and it would seem to me, lot in life, than when you began at the Portland Oregonian. Fair?
Rosenthal: Sure. Of course, and I’m not trying to pretend or to suggest that people don’t mature in their professions or that they’re…
Heffner: Not only in terms of the slot that you occupy…
Rosenthal: In terms of value? I don’t’ think the values are any different that when I was a kid on the Oregonian trying to prove, trying to show that a bunch of unregulated hearing aid dealer were cheating old people, as compared with what we do about AIDS or do about Iran-Contra. The issues are different, the values are the same.
Heffner: By the way, about values, The question that I most wanted to ask you was whose values, not the value of searching out the truth…the search for truth…but whose values most inform the decisions of the editorial…
Rosenthal: Good. I’m glad you…I put off your question to the same effect before, I didn’t mean to duck it. It’s a complicated question because there are a lot of answers. Another way to say… I think to ask the question is, is to ask “How do we make editorial policy?”. And I think the honest first answer is, “By whom we hire”. Our choices are to go look for people who are expert in a variety of different fields. The world in the last twenty or thirty years, journalism has re-defined news in that time. What was primarily geopolitics when I started in journalism, now we have science and public policy as an important slot. Economics is every more important. What used to be called “Women’s issues” are now social questions of a high order. And so we look around a lot of the universe for people on the Editorial Board with expertise in a variety of different fields. Some of our Board members are former public officials; Les Gelb the Deputy Editor was a distinguished Assistant Secretary of State. Roger Starr and Herb Steier were city officials of high note. Other people were academics, I would say, oh, about half and half expert-experts and the other half journalistic-experts, who know quite a lot about their fields.
Heffner: But, Jack, you make that sound, I think of Walter Lippmann’s “organized intelligence”, the notion that we’ll pick experts and somehow or other out of their expertise, will come opinions that we will necessarily embrace. We’re talking now about opinion. I mean I’m not now talking about who will come up with the most valid…
Heffner: …but the decision you make.
Rosenthal: There are two things to be said about that. The first is, it is truly interesting, and it’s one of the things that is misunderstood about editorials, it’s truly interesting how rarely we have knock-down, drag-out fights. How rarely opinionated opinion makes a difference and how frequently knowledge of an issue makes a difference. What you think about the report of a Presidential Commission on the stock market has very little to do with whether you’re a conservative, a liberal, a Republican, a Democrat, a neo-con, a neo-lib. A lot has to do with what you know about the way the free market works and the way the stock market institutions work. My point about expertise is not that we’re hiding behind expertise, on the contrary. It’s that you get a sophistication and level of knowledge that earns you an opinion. It is not enough to be interesting.
Heffner: Well, Peter Passell may be an expert in an area and I respect him and love him dearly. But I would think that the opinion of The New York Times, as expressed editorially, on your page, is an opinion that says, “here are facts and here are facts and we are opting…
Heffner: …to take one direction…
Rosenthal: Absolutely right.
Heffner: …rather that the other. You know, I…
Rosenthal: You just anticipated the other half of what I wanted to say. The first part was the experts and the second part of it is, the “We”. We are a “We”, this is not a place where some pompous editor sits there and says, “Well, I choose that opinion and so write that one. Or, I direct you to write that opinion”. It don’t work that way. The Times has never worked that way, it’s always prided itself on editorial writers never write anything they don’t want to or don’t agree with. We sit around and somebody will say, “Isn’t that outrageous that he City still hasn’t given out free needles to all those junkies to help stop the spread of AIDS”. And somebody else will say, “Why you no-good-so-and-so, isn’t it outrageous that anybody’s even thinking about that because the idea of encouraging drugs is every bit as much of a terrible epidemic as AIDS is” and then the conversation will explode. The probably the hardest issue I can think of that we’ve had to deal with. But the point is the “We”. By the time you finish that kind of conversation, a glib or facile original opinion is pretty soon tempered or beaten back. The conversation itself, we don’t ask the person who started that conversation to back up, but honest, intellectual interchange may modify the views and in any case, Peter Passell or whoever, will go back and write that piece, knowing that he owes his colleagues an honorable answer to their questions, even if he comes out the way he’s going to, he’s got to think it through out loud, because in a way, they’re proxy for the public.
Heffner: Olay. So much for the editorial “We”. What about the publishers’ “I”. I shared with you before this clipping I have. I remembered 1952, I remembered going out evening after evening, late in the evening, looking for The New York Times, for its editorial decision as to whether they were going to…you were going to support Eisenhower or Stevenson and there is that incredible, lengthy editorial which read as though it were going to conclude, “Therefore, we are for Stevenson”, but it concluded, “Therefore, we are for Eisenhower”. And there was all that fuss afterwards in which people wondered, “What in the world happened to that Editorial Board?”.
Heffner: And the assumption, that ultimately, quite fairly, quite appropriately, the decision had been made not by “We”, but by an “I”, the publisher. Is that a fair statement? Not of that particular incident, you were young, you weren’t there, but of what could and perhaps should happen any day of the week?
Rosenthal: I can only tell you about…that’s history and there are stories and stories about that and what happened four years later. But what I can talk about is what I know and that is, of course, if the publisher of this, or any other newspaper wishes to make his influence felt, it’s his newspaper. Or it’s a newspaper over which he presides. There’s no illusion here, it’s like Lincoln and his Cabinet.
Heffner: The vote, you mean?
Heffner: The one “I” has it.
Rosenthal: Versus “Abe knows”. Right?
Rosenthal: But the question is not, “Does the publisher, or a publisher have that authority?” the question is, “How does he exercise it?”. And in this case I regard this an extraordinarily easy and decent and graceful relationship. He can weight in anytime he wants to and he looks over our shoulder a lot to see on this issue, do we really know what we’re talking about, it may be one that he’s particularly interested in. Or he may just read over everything we plan to run the next day, just to see what’s happening. To see what we’re thinking about. And he’ll argue with us. But he won’t …he rarely argues with a stick in his hand. He argues as an equal or argues as another person whose views are entitled to be heard. And I think that’s an extraordinarily honorable and constructive role to play.
Heffner: When the publisher’s “I” and the Editorial Board’s “We” do get together, whatever formulation there is, what would you say is the objective of an editorial? To stimulate decision-making on the part of the public, to push the final point of view that is expressed, whether it is the Board’s or the publisher’s, whatever. What’s the point?
Rosenthal: All of the above and then some.
Heffner: What’s the “then some”?
Rosenthal: Well, there are a lot of different kinds of editorials; the functions are…it’s interesting to sub-segregate. There are the standard policy analysis kinds of editorials, the staple of an editorial page in which somebody who knows about the subject goes through the pluses and the minuses and says, “therefore, isn’t it an outrage that …or, isn’t it wonderful, that… or why doesn’t somebody do such and such?”. And that’s often very useful. You may read, the reader, may look at that and I’d like to think it’s a little bit like the relationship you establish with a drama critic or movie critic. You may or may not like Woody Allen quite as much as Vincent Canby normally does, but when he writes a review of a Woody Allen movie you know that and you discount accordingly. Similarly with an editorial page, if a page which takes “this” kind of position on energy de-control says what it says on an oil subject, then you know what they’re saying and it can be useful to you, whether you agree with the outcome or not.
Heffner: But there you’re talking about my use as a reader, of that editorial page. And I’m really asking you about your purpose.
Rosenthal: That’s one of our purposes, is to be analytically informative and helpful to readers who look to us provide concise, carefully analyzed précis of public issues.
Heffner: Well, you wrote about Bork, Judge Bork. You wrote at length…
Heffner: …and, of course, in a way, that I must admit that I agreed with. But I have to ask what your point was…simply to share your information about Judge Bork? Or to get the influential public, that reads the editorial page of The New York Times, religiously or politically, to take action in terms of what you concluded.
Rosenthal: Advisory. In somewhat the same way that I think of our political endorsement editorials. In the case of the Bork case, or in the case of any other big, dramatic public issue that comes on to the public stage, I think we have a responsibility to tell readers what we think. In the case of presidential elections, it’s, I think, simple. I think a responsibility is easily determined. There are those who say, “Isn’t it awful for newspapers to be so arrogant as to say, ‘We’re going to tell you who to vote for, for President’ “. I think it’s the other way around. I think readers depend on us every day of the year. We look at Ronald Reagan’s performance as how many foreign Service officers he lays off, as to how he deals with a corruption scandal in this part of the government, as to how he spends on the military, on his diplomatic…at every aspect of the Administration, from Nancy’s dishes to the MX missile. And then come the last minute, at the time of the campaign, and comes time to add it all up and say, “Well, here’s how we balance it”, for us then to say, “Oh, no, we’re not going to offer an opinion, we have too much respect for the readers’ intelligence”. On the contrary, we do have respect for the readers’ intelligence and the reader is entitled to know how we add up our own views. And then to discount it, throw it away, be persuaded, at his pleasure. With the Bork case, it was something like a Presidential campaign in the sense of both sides weighing in. And we saw the result.
Heffner: Jack Rosenthal, I’m really grateful to you for being here today. It’s obviously a theme we’ve got to pursue. Bob Bartley, who’s the Editor of the Editorial Page of the Wall Street Journal is going to join me and continue this discussion. Maybe at another program I can get both of you together to see if you…
Rosenthal: That would be a lot of fun to do.
Heffner: …see your responsibilities in the same way, because I detect a…
Rosenthal: Would be a lot of fun to do that.
Heffner: …difference in the conclusions. Thanks so much for joining me today.
Rosenthal: Thank you very much, Dick.
Heffner: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next week. And if you care to share your thoughts about today’s program, today’s theme please write to THE OPEN MIND, P.O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150. For transcripts send $2.00 in check or money order. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”.
Continuing production of this series has generously been made possible by grants from:” the Rosalind P. Walter Foundation; the M. Weiner Foundation of New Jersey; The Mediators and Richard and Gloria Manney; The Richard Lounsbery Foundation; Mr. Lawrence A. Wien; and the New York Times Company Foundation.