Robert L. Bartley

The Power of the Editorial ‘We’, Part II

VTR Date: January 16, 1988

Guest: Bartley, Robert L.


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Robert Bartley
Title: “The Power of the Editorial WE”. Part II
VTR: 1/16/88

Heffner: I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. Once in a while, when studio time permits, I’m able to ask a guest to stay put… or to come back to our roundtable… so that we can record a second program for the following week. Well this time, I do that not with the same guest, but with the same subject at hand, namely: the power, not of the press itself, but much more specifically of the “Editorial WE”, of the expressed point of view of the most important newspapers in America.

Last time it was The New York Times, with Jack Rosenthal, Editor of its Editorial Page, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Editorial Writing in 1982.

Today it’s the Wall Street Journal, whose powerful editorial voice is given clear and unequivocal expression by Robert L. Bartley, who won the Pulitzer Prize for Editorial Writing in 1980, and who, perhaps, will today affirm the power of the word, the printed word, the newspaper editorial, as a crucial element in the creation of 20th century American public opinion.

Now, Times magazine recently described Bob Bartley not as lean and mean, but as “lean, incisive and full of certitude”. Let’s see for ourselves. Mr. Bartley, thank you for joining me again here on THE OPEN MIND. You know, there are a number of things that I spoke with Jack about and that I wanted to speak with you about. One had to do with purpose, one has to do with power and so on. This question of purpose. What is the purpose of the editorials you write and the Wall Street Journal publishes?

Bartley: Well, I’ve always thought, Dick, that the purpose of the editorial is the same as the rest of the newspaper, ultimately at least. And that’s to inform. Now we work in a little different milieu than the rest of the newspaper because we write about things in which there is no objective or ascertainable truth. You can’t write a very satisfactory news story about the question, “Does this proposal make sense?” which is the question that we start to address. And we offer opinions, but we hope that the opinions and speculations are ultimately informative to the reader.

Heffner: When you say, “no ascertainable truth”, but as I read the Wall Street Journal’s extraordinary editorials, it read as though you’re saying, “This is the truth”.

Bartley: Well, we are fairly serious about our own views, but in the back of our mind we have the notion that somebody out there in society, or the reader, himself, is entitled to disagree with us. And we hope that out of this clash of ideas the ultimate accomplishment is kind of an elevation of the standards of debate in the society.

Heffner: But you say, “standards of debate: and I hear you when you say that. How does that relate to what you said a moment ago about the same purpose in the entire paper?

Bartley: Well, we hope the debate is more informed. And we hope that information has a positive value in a democracy.

Heffner: Bit you do more than present information. You take…

Bartley: Oh, of course.

Heffner: … a strong point of view.

Bartley: Well, not… not in that ultimate sense, I don’t think. I think they go about things in much the same kind of way. That if you get a point of view and you’re fairly serious about that point of view and people start to turn to you, not only because this is what the Wall Street Journal thinks, but because this is what… the kind of logical working out of certain attitudes that are held by, not just that newspaper, but by a pretty good slice of society.

Heffner: It’s said that… frequently that if you just put down out of the sky into any number of cities in the United States, you really wouldn’t know where you were. One looks like the other. If you have a Wall Street Journal editorial put before you, wouldn’t I be fairly accurate to say, “I’d pretty well recognize that as opposed to a New York Times editorial?”.

Bartley: Oh, I would think… I would think so, sure.

Heffner: What’s the difference? I don’t mean in point of view now.

Bartley: Well, … oh, you just stylistically?

Heffner: Stylistically.

Bartley: Probably you would be able to tell, even if… I mean if someone laid it down in front of you, being the kind of newspaper reader you are, you would instantly recognize, before you started any of the prose, whose editorial it was because you’d recognize the topography.

Heffner: Okay.

Bartley: But tearing that out, and if somebody gave you a typescript of them, you would probably be able to tell which ones are from which paper because I think our are more vigorous, their prose is more hard-punching. And less kind of trying to be a lot of different things to a lot of different people, or at least pretend to be a little above the battle. You know, we’re down in there giving you the benefit of our view.

Heffner: Then, then there is a difference in… a very profound difference. Some papers are not willing to deny being “above the battle”, “we’re above the fray”. The Wall Street Journal is not. IS that true?

Bartley: But that’s a stylistic thing. Yeah, I would think…

Heffner: Not philosophical?

Bartley: No, I don’t think so. I mean, you know, while we’re doing that, we still think that what ultimately we’re doing is informing, so I think that ultimately there isn’t much difference. But stylistically there would be, probably.

Heffner: And the power… is the power of the editorial page…

Bartley: Well, we can’t make anyone do anything he doesn’t want to do.

Heffner: okay.

Bartley: Now that’s what I would call, you know, real power. We do have the power to persuade people. You very seldom are going to change anyone’s mind one hundred and eighty degrees. But you may encourage the people who are inclined in your direction to hold their opinions more firmly. You also sometimes have the power to embarrass people if their actions are questionable. And I suppose that over time you have a certain power to return to certain ideas often enough that it instills them in public opinion, I suppose, in a way that they weren’t before. But you can never measure that and I don’t think that’s the power of one editorial. So, power… you know, I think that editorial writing had a certain kind of power, but it’s a diffuse kind of thing that’s very difficult to measure… exactly get your finger on.

Heffner: So many of your colleagues in the press set forth that “no one in here but us chickens” point of view, or “Pshaw, us powerful? We have power? Never!”. I have, for some reason or other, a desire to deny the enormous power that the press generally has, though we’re focusing on editorials.

Bartley: Well, if you were talking about the news stories, their objective in news reporting is to be… their objective is to be objective… that they really want to try to be a kind of open glass window on the world. And they may not always succeed in doing that. But I think that it’s a goal worth having. Now, one of the things about being an editorial writer, you’re free to have opinions. In fact, you make you living having opinions, it’s rather a different thing, so that I guess that editorial writers wouldn’t be as nervous about talking about power because there’s no hint that if they’re exercising power, they’re doing something they shouldn’t be doing. So I thin that’s the sensitivity the press has about the word “power” and I think, by and large, it’s a healthy thing that they have that sensitivity.

Heffner: I hope that I can get you and Jack Rosenthal here at the same table because, as I listened to him, I had the feeling that he was saying, more that the feeling, I believe he was saying, “Look, there are twelve of us there, we’re all expert in our fields. And the important thing is that we be expert”.

Heffner: it seems to me that you are putting something more that emphasis upon the opinion that e expert holds and it was somewhere here in this mess of notes I have, I guess it was the and it was somewhere here in this mess of notes I have, I guess it was the Time magazine piece that I was quoting about Bartley’s editorials being so lean and hard. You see, here this was October 1987 in Newswatch, Thomas Griffith says, “The Journal’s contentious editorials are a throwback to the era of opinionated press lords, but with one crucial difference. In the old days hired editorial guns often mimicked or tried to give literacy plausibility to the proprietors every prejudice, cynically crafting synthetic bluster. Journal editorial writers had more autonomy to frame policy. But before hiring them the Journal test to make sure that their news are genuinely conservative (liberals need not apply) and that they would not be preoccupied with trying to find the middle of the road”. Fair description?

Bartley: Well, I think it’s a little bit snotty. But I suppose there is some, some truth to the description. It is certainly true that when I set out to hire an editorial writer I don’t want to hire someone whose work we’re not going to publish. And we… I wouldn’t mind having someone around to be a gadfly, but it just isn’t fair to them, if you’re not going to publish the work. And we have, we take our editorial philosophy fairly seriously and try to work, put in quite a bit of work to ensure a certain amount o continuity. So you look for someone who is comfortable in one sense or another with our editorial policies and those are going to be relatively conservative people as the word is used in American political discourse today. I don’t think there’s anything, you know, I mean to be any secret about that, it’s just kind of a fact of life.

Heffner: but there does seem to be a difference there, if what Jack said is literally the case.

Bartley: Well, I doubt you will find Jack hiring Assistant Secretaries of State from the Reagan Administration for his Editorial Board, where he hires Assistant Secretaries of State from a democratic administration and, I think, did very well doing that.

Heffner: So that there is this, “A” political difference. “B” (garbled) and I’d need the two of you to talk this out, the question of what the purpose is. It always has fascinated me and obviously there are others who are equally taken by the disparity between the total… seemingly total objectivity, but with almost a muckraking taint to the news pages of the Wall Street Journal and this strong, conservative point of view that you and your colleagues maintain in the editorial pages.

Bartley: Well, I see nothing really extraordinary about that. I mean the news people are supposed to write objective news and we’re supposed to write opinions and we think that of more incisive they are the better. Although I would say this, that we do our own reporting. That most of the editorials have had some independent reporting in addition to what has appeared in our paper or other papers and over time we develop our set of news sources. And, you know, sometimes if something’s in doubt we go with our sources.

Heffner: What would you, being a very, very, very politically aware person… where would you put your money in terms of the editorial power… first as the power, let’s say of the rest of the paper.

Bartley: Well, we, on the editorial page are free to express opinions and sometimes that gives you a more direct kind of power. And we feel quite uninhibited about going back to a subject… that’s part of editorializing. Whereas, on the news side, if they put out a big, long front page story on something, that certainly will call people’s attention to it and give it a certain amount of speed or velocity, which is a certain kind of power, too. Now I don’t know which would be more important. I think you would have to take particular issues and particular episodes to try and discuss that very intelligently… And, of course, in both cases it’s… I mean let’s say that the news departments, our news department, anybody else’s news department, is really… achieves total objectivity. And it isn’t trying and I don’ think many of them do try to really shape events, but nonetheless their sheer business of going about reporting the news and informing people does make a change in society, I mean if you take all the newspapers and all the TV network out, it would be a much different kind of society. And it’s very hard to discern sometimes what’s the difference between whether or not the events cause a change or whether the reporting of the events cases a change. You get to the question of, you know, when the tree falls down in the forest and no one’s there to hear it, does it make a noise?

Heffner: Yet there are others who say that if you take something like supply-side economics, your personal involvement will delight in the nothing of supply-side economics, did raise that notion to a public imperative.

Bartley: Oh, I think that’s certainly true, that all of the coverage that we gave to supply-side economics in the late seventies and the early eighties certainly did advance it as a political cause. And…

Heffner: The coverage you gave it editorially?

Bartley: Editorially. And… well, the reason I say “coverage’ is that we didn’t just editorialize about it, but we also served as an outlet for a lot of people to write free-lance article. And the interesting thing about that… my view is that we were a kind of a catalyst there, that there was a revolution, intellectually ready to happen. And we just provided the kind of bulletin board and means of communication among these people out there and they learned that each other existed and the whole body of though went along much more quickly than it otherwise would have.

Heffner: That’s a very modest statement, to be just a “bulletin board”.

Bartley: Well…

Heffner: I mean, if you put up on the bulletin board this sign again and again and again, as you did…

Bartley: Yeah, sure. Yeah. But, you know, it’s not as if we thought all this up somewhere in a mountain cabin and came down and promulgated it on the world. There were a lot of other people whose ideas we drew on and publicized and traded ideas with people. So there it was really a fairly broad-based intellectual movement. Not just something, you know, dreamed up one day in the back office of the Wall Street Journal.

Heffner: Any regrets?

Bartley: No, not particularly. I mean there might be a few things I have to think a little bit, a few things that we would have, could, might have done differently. The supply-side movement, I think has always been misunderstood in some respects. And it we… there might have been ways to avoid some of that, I’m not sure whether you really could have. You know, for example, the question of the Laffer curve, which has been the subject of some ridicule because people though, “Well, you know, what this says is that you’ll make back the tax money the first year and you’ll never have a deficit”, and all of that sort of thing. Well, it never said that. It said that “There is a point at which tax rates get so high you start to lode money”. And that had been very amply demonstrated by our experience over the last, since the first Reagan tax cuts and, in fact, now kind of a point of faith in American thought right across the political spectrum. We not have a twenty-eight percent maximum tax rate and you don’t hear any of the political candidates, even on the Democratic side, talking about changing that very much. You know, Paul Simon wants to raise a point or two, but that’s a lot different from the seventy percent tax rates at the top, that we had before Art Laffer drew his curve.

Heffner: You know, leaving out not macro-economics or micro-economics, my napkin economics with the drawing the curve, there is this quote from your former colleague, mentor Vermont Royster, “You never want to get that much in bed with any Presidential Administration, you never know what’s going to happen”. Now, he said that to you about Nixon. But the Wall Street Journal editorially did embrace Ronald Reagan. I don’t know whether I can say it does now. Any regrets about that?

Bartley: Well, the way we like to look at it is Reagan came along and embraced our ideas. You know, are we supposed to change our ideas then because he’s been elected President? You will not find, I think, any point at which we’ve kind of deviated from the ongoing thrust and development of our editorials in order to embrace Ronald Reagan. And, in fact, you will find episodes, for example, the Baby Doe regulations of his Administration issued in which, you know, frankly, we’ve given them unshirted hell. So that it’s not embracing and not being in bed with an Administration. I mean the way I would interpret that would be that the Administration can do no wrong and you will go out and defend its every action. Reagan, well the Administration, I think, is getting tired and slowing down. A lot of the best people have left. The seventh year of the Administration was one in which, you know, he did some things… I think the nig danger in the Administration right now is that they’re overly eager for arms treaties which is not exactly what I would have expected at the beginning of the Reagan Administration and we will be critical of that.

Heffner: Which leads me to ask you this question, Bob, we don’t have all that much time left, but about the arms treaty… should we understand that editorially you feel that basically it’s impossible to some out clean and with our skins on, alive, with the Russian, with an arms treaty?

Bartley: Well, I don’t quite understand why we’re going around rushing to get in a lot of treaties with people we say are the breaking the ones we already have. Now I wouldn’t want to totally say, “Okay, we can never do arms control ever in the history of mankind”, nut it seems to me that if you’re ever going to reach any kind of a entente with the Soviet Union, you don’t do it by letting them break treaties and not reacting.

Heffner: Let me ask, very specifically, do you, Robert Bartley, think that we could ever be safe in arriving entente, détente, whatever one wanted to call it, with the Soviet Union, as essentially now constituted?

Bartley: AS essentially now constituted, no, I don’t think so. I mean, what we have to hope is that they’ll change. And that’s what young George Kennan wrote in 1947 in the “Mister X” article that if you kind of blunt this messianic beast often enough, it will mellow. Maybe we’re starting to see that in glasnost, but, you know, I’m not ready to sign on to that quite yet, I want to see a little more evidence.

Heffner: Then essentially that means, “No deal now”?

Bartley: I suppose so, yeah. I mean, as long as they are violating treaties as the Administration continues to say they are, I don’t see why you want to make new ones.

Heffner: Will you be an on-cause editorialist and oppose any candidate to takes a different point of view of this issues, which is so crucial?

Bartley: Oh, I don’t think so. I wouldn’t… it kind of depends on how far they go. The INF Treaty, for example, that they’ve negotiated, I don’t think is a kind of and end of the world event. You know, I think… I’d be happier if they hadn’t negotiated, but I don’t think it undermines our strategic posture in any definite, you know, any important kind of way.

Heffner: It’s January 1988, who’s your candidate on the Republican ticket?

Bartley: Who’s the candidate (laughter)?

Heffner: Who would your candidate be?

Bartley: Well, I… you know…

You’re not shy.

Bartley: I’m not…well you know, I don’t like to… you’re asking me here to get in bed with an administration in the…

Heffner: No. Candidate.

Bartley: Well, that’s even worse, I guess, isn’t it? We don’t really endorse candidates. We try to talk about ideas and then let candidates fir them or not.

Heffner: Bob…

Bartley: It’s no… it’s no secret that in all of this supply-side movement and so on that we have been close allies with Jack Kemp for a great many years. Now he’s running for President and I would consider him probably by and large closer to my views than any of the other candidates and certainly, you know, a personal friend in a way that the others aren’t. But we won’t devote our editorial columns to electing “a” person President.

Heffner: It’s my own fault for holding off so long in asking that question. Now we’ve reached the end of our time, but thank so much for join me today, Bob Bartley.

Bartley: Thank you, 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, please write to THE OPEN MIND, PO 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.