The Times' Editorial Page Editor Gail Collins discusses the media's editorial voice.
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GUEST: Gail Collins
I’m Richard Hefner, your host on The Open Mind.
And the title of today’s program: “Who are ‘We’…as in ‘The Editorial We’? harks back almost a generation to two Open Minds I titled “The POWER of the Editorial We”, having as my respective guests then Robert Bartley and Jack Rosenthal, each an Editorial Page Editor … Bartley at The Wall Street Journal, and Rosenthal at The New York Times.
Of course, today’s conversation is with Gail Collins, who became the Times’ Editorial Page Editor in the summer of 2001 – not long AFTER the Supreme Court made George W. Bush President of the United States, and JUST ABOUT THE TIME that 9/11, the Iraq War and continuingly conservative White House domestic policies gave Times’ editorialists quite so much grist for their mill.
Gail Collins has now left her vaunted editorial position to write still another book to add to her best selling history of “America’s Women”; to “Scorpion Tongues”, her account of “gossip, celebrity, and American politics”; and to “The Millennium Book” co-authored with Dan Collins, her husband.
In due time, expect Ms. Collins to return to the editorial pages she has expanded so dramatically during her tenure.
But before memories of her years as Editor of these pages fade, however, I want to ask my guest to comment on something that Max Frankel once added in summing up the qualities that produce distinguished editorial writers.
Max had headed its Editorial Board before he became Editor of the Times itself.
“And gullibility is crucial”, he said: “Why else would a person with all these extraordinary qualities think it mattered what he wrote on an editorial page?”
And so I want to begin by asking Ms. Collins … whether she thinks hers were just years of “Gullible’s Travels”?
HEFFNER: That fair?
COLLINS: (Laughter) What a great thought. Gee whiz. I don’t know, it sort of felt like people were listening out there, in a weird way, while, while I was doing it. I mean if, if what you think an Editorial Page is supposed to do is to convince the decision makers to change all their decisions, then obviously it, it almost never works.
But what it does is that it … helps … it stimulates the conversation about whatever’s going on in the world. And on that front, yeah, I felt like, I felt like it made a difference … it was, it’s a great job.
HEFFNER: And the power of the editorial.
COLLINS: It’s for that … I mean you, you don’t … especially on the national level, you know … if we write an editorial saying George Bush is wrong about Iraq, as we have done 99 million times or so, it’s not going to cause George Bush to get up the next morning and say, “Good god, I’ve changed my ways.” It, it just doesn’t resonate in that way. But it, it changes the conversation, it adds to the conversation of the people, the Senators, the Congressmen and the people in Washington, and the people in New York and the people who read the paper all around the country, that they have … we have a very chatty readership, and, you know, they talk about current events all the time and we add to that conversation … that’s our deal.
HEFFNER: Well, you know, your predecessor, Jack Rosenthal said something very much like that … the notion of the power of the editorial “We” he, he set aside, but almost every journalist who comes to this table says “There’s no one in here but us chickens”. Sort of wants to avoid any thought of power. For me your editorials have power.
COLLINS: Well see you’re part of the conversation, that’s why.
HEFFNER: Okay. But that is power. Isn’t it?
COLLINS: Yeah, it’s great. I’m not … it’s, it’s, it’s a very important post and it’s a very … one you don’t take lightly at all. It was, it was a very big deal to have the job. And it’s great fun. It’s really a very neat occupation, I must say.
HEFFNER: Well, who occupies that occupation?
COLLINS: Who becomes …
HEFFNER: Who does it?
COLLINS: Who becomes …
COLLINS: Well, we … the editorials are written by the Editorial Board. And if you go on the web which I know you hate to do, if you go on the web, you can actually see all their pictures and their bios and their areas of expertise.
Everybody who writes for us is an expert in some thing and we meet all the time and discuss these matters and then the person who’s the expert writes the editorial. The editors edit the editorial. If there’s a difference on the Board … usually you come up with a consensus. If you don’t the Editorial Page Editor wins, every time. Very neat.
HEFFNER: But why isn’t it management and ownership that makes these big decisions?
COLLINS: Well the publisher is the last guy in line. The Editorial Page Editor reports to the publisher. I never ever, ever, ever in my five and a half years had a conversation with Bill Keller or Hal Raines about what I was going to put on the page. They have nothing to do with the Editorial Page.
HEFFNER: The Editors?
COLLINS: Yeah. The News Editors; their operations are totally separate. The Editorial Page Editor reports to Arthur Sulzberger and he has the power, you know. We’re come and gone. I’m gone now. You know I was there for five and a half years. Arthur is there, on behalf of the paper’s management forever. And you … the publisher is the person at the end who makes the decision. But Arthur being incredibly smart does not attempt to figure this stuff out himself. He hires the best people he can find to do the job.
HEFFNER: But is it figuring it out or is it knowing what you want? I mean you’re dealing with major, major, major issues. Major issues that he votes on …
HEFFNER: Now, how much …
COLLINS: Well, Arthur doesn’t vote on them, usually. Arthur has the power, if he wanted to at any point in time to call up and say … you know, we shouldn’t say this, we should say that. He doesn’t do that.
HEFFNER: Why doesn’t he do it?
COLLINS: Because he’s busy. (Laughter) He has all this other stuff to do. And he, he hired me and now Andy Rosenthal to do that. And … but, but he would have the right, certainly to say, “No, don’t endorse this guy, endorse that guy. Don’t say this; say that.” But he has a very, very, very light hand. And that’s been true of most newspapers I’ve worked for. It’s very seldom that you have a publisher that gets directly involved.
HEFFNER: I’m puzzled by that. I literally am puzzled by that. What makes the “We” of the editorial board, the editorial “we”? What, what endows them with the wisdom or the power … I understand that it may not be Mr. Sulzberger’s wisdom …
HEFFNER: … though you believe that it is. But I know that it’s his power …
COLLINS: Sure. But you know the weird thing is … and I tried when I first got this job … I’d been on the Board for a while and I was a columnist for a while and then I was offered the Editorial Page Editor’s job. It was hard for me at the beginning and it would have been impossible if I hadn’t been on the Board before … to differentiate between my own personal opinions and The New York Times Editorial Page’s positions.
The New York Times Editorial Page is an entity all to itself. It’s been around for more than a century. It’s had very, very, very strong opinions; it’s evolved on certain issues. It has a world view.
And while nobody in their right mind would want to be on the Board unless they generally shared that world view … I don’t think there’s anybody on the Board, certainly not me, who’s exactly the same … The New York Times is a very … it doesn’t have much of a sense of humor as an Editorial Board (laughter). It’s not cynical. The New York Times Editorial Page is not cynical at all.
HEFFNER: Why do you say that so …
COLLINS: It …
HEFFNER: … defensively, if I might …
HEFFNER: … suggest.
COLLINS: That’s one of the ways I differentiate between it and me. Sort of, you now, I’m much more cynical. I’m much less perhaps hopeful about the possibility of great change than the Times Editorial Pages. But the Times Editorial Page believes in certain things; it’s believed in forever. You know.
And some of those things evolve and as they evolve you have to be very careful to tell the readers how they’re evolving. If you change your mind about something, you’ve got to be very careful to make it clear to the reader why it is you’ve sort of turned the ship around. But it’s, it’s a thing unto itself. And I did the best I could while I was there to, to take that ship in, in the direction it needed to go in the future.
But it’s not the same as me and it’s not even the same as Arthur. It’s a thing unto itself that both of us, you know, are there to protect and move forward.
HEFFNER: Do you think someone watching us could think to themselves, “That’s an awfully peculiar thing to say.”
COLLINS: I know it a strange thought.
HEFFNER: And find it unbelievable.
COLLINS: I’ve got to tell you … you know, you have to kind of go in there. But it’s, it’s actually … I think it’s “no”, anybody who has had a job running something whether it’s a school or a theater or whatever, if it’s been around for a long time and they’re the last, the most recent in a long line of people to do it … has a sense, I think that there’s a difference between them, as a person and this institution … that they’re, that they’re trying to serve. I, I don’t … you know, I think it does take a little bit of mind getting to get around it, you know.
HEFFNER: Now, do you object to characterizations of the Times in terms of its Conservatism or its Liberalism? I guess …
HEFFNER: … the answer is No.
HEFFNER: Because you say it has such a history.
COLLINS: Well, I would … I object violently and I spent a great deal of over the last five and a half years objecting all the time to people who put our positions on the poor news reporters. And the new report. The news report is not the same as the editorial page. The editorial page is this one little piece of the paper, most days two pages … one page of which is devoted to the opinions of columnists and outside OpEd writers and we try to get a whole bunch with different positions. And the Letters section which we also try to make varied … you’ve just got this one column of editorials representing The New York Times Editorial Page. And anybody who doesn’t think that they’re Liberal has not been reading very carefully. In general the Times editorials are Liberal. There’s no question about that.
HEFFNER: And you have no problem with that characterization?
COLLINS: You have to be crazy to argue … I mean there’s some things on which many Liberals disagree with the Page, the Page has always been strong for free trade, for instance, which is something that a lot of people now are not so crazy about.
HEFFNER: And you?
COLLINS: As a person or as the Editorial …
HEFFNER: No, no, no. You.
COLLINS: Me as a person is not as mad about free trade as the Editorial Page is, but it’s a long, strong and virtuous tradition that they’ve had.
HEFFNER: You know … I, I … I’m … forgive me, but I’m still puzzled …
HEFFNER: … because you talk about the tradition. Yet you have 18 people there, as I understand it. All born, I would think, not in this century, but in the last …
HEFFNER: … all come to maturity …
HEFFNER: … in the last few decades. How does that correspond? How do you make that fact correspond with what you call this long tradition, you recognize the Times?
COLLINS: Well, the paper evolves and the Editorials evolve with new people who come on. They … particularly in the sense that everybody new who comes on to the Board brings with them their own interests and their own concerns.
We write a ton more now about health issues, for instance, then … and, and science issues … then was ever done, I think in the past, just because we have people on the Board now who really care about those issues.
We wrote, for a while … I hope we’ll always be really concerned about Africa. But there was a while, for a few years, when one of our Editors was very, very, very, very deeply involved in Africa and I bet we wrote more about Africa than we ever had before … or since. That happens with a lot of different issues. The great joke of my tenure was that I really hate wild geese …
COLLINS: (Laughter) We were really tough …
HEFFNER: It couldn’t be …
COLLINS: We were really tough on certain wild animals during my tenure (laughter) and that will end now. Andy has his own things like that … little things. But … so things evolve that way. And the world evolves.
You know the Times was … when the Times was a Liberal paper 30 years ago, the definition of Liberal and the definition now was very different. The world was very different, the government was very different. The politics was very different.
For this election, it was the first time in our memory that we didn’t endorse a single member of Congress who was a Republican. And I hope that will never happen again. But, you know, the Republican Party had evolved a certain way. So all those things change and the paper changes with it.
HEFFNER: Now, just between the two of us …
COLLINS: Of course, no one else is listening …
HEFFNER: Will, will anybody be able legitimately to look back at the past five and a half years … during the time that you were the Editorial Page Editor … you ran the Editorial Page with your colleagues … can they characterize it, do you think fairly, in terms, maybe not overall Liberal/Conservative because we’ve, we’ve agreed …
HEFFNER: … with what you’ve said about it’s …
HEFFNER: … Liberal policies. But have you had “a thing” besides wild geese … that characterized the way the page moved in certain important areas?
COLLINS: The way the page moved was exactly the opposite of the way I expected it was going to move. When I got the job one of the things … when I was talking with people about what I would do it … what I brought to the table that, you know, would be, you know, useful … was that I’m really … always been pretty really good at making boring issues of policy sort of interesting … I mean that was kind of always my favorite thing to try and do.
And when I came on I really thought we were moving into an extremely boring period. You know the election was just over and that was very traumatic, but the country was at peace, the economy was doing pretty well, there weren’t really any major issues on the table at the time, it seemed. And I thought that there’d be a lot of sort of second level stuff that I’d be trying to make fascinating.
And then, of course, about a month after I came on, the World Trade Center was attacked and, the whole deal shifted, pretty dramatically right away.
I thought I’d be writing about no child left behind for five and a half years. But, what a surprise. So the stuff that it turned out we were writing about was not the stuff that I thought we’d be writing about.
And the thing that I spent most of my time doing over the last five and a half years was dealing with George Bush’s war on terror. I mean that was my great assignment. And … it was a total surprise.
HEFFNER: But you see, when you sort of denied the power of the press …
HEFFNER: … or pigeonholed it … I thought that what you wrote, over these past years was so wonderful …
COLLINS: Thank you.
HEFFNER: And I’m not saying it because you are here now; it did more even than set an agenda, it just did and I, I, I sort of have to reject this notion that … the power is limited to stirring up the conversation.
COLLINS: Well, setting the conversation is a big deal. You know …
COLLINS: … when the, when the people who are reading the paper and doing the conversing are the people who are our readers. It’s, it’s no small matter at all. And, you know, that’s what … that’s what they pay us to do. They don’t pay us to run the government. Other guys do that as well as they’re able, I guess (laughter). They pay us to do the conversation. That’s what we’re for. Our readers pay us so that they’ll know what’s going on and they can contribute to the conversation and contribute to the decision making in whatever ways they happen to be able to do it.
And you know, when you were talking … we were talking before about the Times’ own sort of existence. The Page’s existence apart from me … at the beginning …the hardest thing that I had to do was in the beginning when we were having the run up to the war … trying to figure out where we were at then. Because we believed … most people on my Board believed, and I’ve written more times than I … I’m really bored writing on this now that, you know, we should have paid more attention to the people on my Board who didn’t think there were weapons of mass destruction. But most people on the Board did. I did.
And given that, you know, we were, we were very hard on Saddam Hussein … we didn’t like Saddam Hussein at all. We really wanted something done about Saddam Hussein. And why at the end did we oppose the invasion?
We opposed the invasion basically because The New York Times Editorial Page has always had a very internationalist vision of the way the world should operate. A very … a very consultative, a very every other country counts as much as this country and they’ve all got to be included in the conversation if they’re willing to take part kind of view of the way the world should run. And in the end attacking Iraq the way we did was just … it was just not the way The New York Times Editorial Page has always viewed how foreign affairs should be conducted. And that was really the thing, not any kind of great smart consensus on our part that Saddam Hussein wasn’t as bad as we thought he was and he wasn’t as dangerous … and all that. We weren’t that smart. We were only smart because of the way The New York Times has always viewed those issues.
HEFFNER: What was the relationship there? Not between efforts to lobby the Board, but between reading what you were printing … what the Times was printing …
HEFFNER: … on the non-editorial pages, meaning almost all of the Times?
HEFFNER: What was your Board’s thinking, how did it relate to what was going on, on the news page?
COLLINS: We’ve always been guided by the news report in the same way that our readers are. I mean it’s the greatest news report in the world and we read it and we, you know, draw so much of what we know about the world from that report.
But we don’t … are not obliged to follow the report. We, we don’t sit down in the morning and say, “Oh, my god, well we’ve got this story that says that, you know, Ahmad Chalabi really is smarter than we thought he was. (Laughter) We should change our minds about …we don’t go there and we … it’s not … we don’t feel attached in that way to, to the news report.
HEFFNER: How would you put, again, succinctly your most … your most obvious regret about what you and your Board did over the past five and a half years.
COLLINS: Well, I’ve said a million times, I’m really sorry that we didn’t … I didn’t listen harder to what people on the Board who didn’t think there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq were saying. And that they were … they were people who were listening to the weapons inspectors, basically. And I didn’t spend enough time listening to them.
HEFFNER: And your second regret?
COLLINS: My second regret, after I got done with that one … god …that one took a while. Mmm …let’s see … well we endorsed Mark Green for Mayor three times in one year. (Laughter) That was probably not my best moment, ever. I underestimated Michael Bloomberg that was for sure.
HEFFNER: But you see what puzzles me … you say, not your best moment. But you? Or the 17 others?
COLLINS: Oh, we’re all in it together. But in the end, you always, it’s always the Editorial Page Editor. And the Editorial Page Editor has so much power to lead the Board that you can’t possibly blame the Board for, for anything.
HEFFNER: Have you said that before?
COLLINS: I don’t know.
HEFFNER: Because what I have been getting, always, is … there are the 12 members when Jack was on this program …
HEFFNER: … 20 years ago, “there are 12 of us” and what I thought I was getting here was … “there are 18 of us” …
COLLINS: There’s more of us.
HEFFNER: But now you’re saying something else.
COLLINS: You know, there used to be a thing about Editorial Boards in general … everybody felt constrained to give this impression that there weren’t any people there, it was like one of those caves in Sparta, where you’d throw a rock in and, and the voice would come out and tell you … you know, whether to invade Athens or not. That there were sort of faceless people who just came together in some mysterious consensus … you know was evoked from it. That … and we’ve given up on that completely. It’s not true. That’s why their pictures are in the paper … everybody knows who these people are, they’re incredibly, incredibly smart … I’m … when I was editor, I was totally influenced and guided by them because they were all so smart.
But, but in the end they didn’t have to put, you know … decide what to do … it was, it was always the Editorial Page Editors decision in the end.
HEFFNER: And that’s why you would meet with the publisher, not the members of the Board?
COLLINS: I met with the publisher a lot; partly because Arthur is, is … he used to be journalist and he’s very smart about a lot of these things. Whenever he would take an interst in a particular thing … and it was usually not … you know, he … he did not oversee the daily editorial product before it went into the paper.
But if there was something in particular that we were doing that I knew he was interested in, I’d let him know. And he’d read it, and he’d usually … his responses would always be stuff like, “I don’t think you made the point in the third paragraph you were trying to make.” Or, “You know your reasoning kinda goes squishy over here.” They were usually very useful editing points rather than, than any attempt to change the bottom line.
HEFFNER: How is it going to change now? What comes out of the Editorial Board … new, new Editor.
COLLINS: Yeah … I … you know I think it … Andy and I were … Andy was just the greatest partner, you know. And having him as Deputy was just fantastic. And he wrote a lot of the editorials that everybody regards as sort of the definitive editorials of the last few years, particularly all the editorials about treatment of prisoners and civil liberties and Guantanamo, all of that stuff is Andy’s area, so there hasn’t been a whole lot of light between Andy and me on almost anything.
But as time goes on, new stuff is going to happen in the world … George Bush will not be President anymore in a couple of years.
HEFFNER: Can you assure me of that?
COLLINS: (Laughter) Failing a coup … yeah … and if there’s a coup, that would be a great editorial. (Laughter)
HEFFNER: Great. Great stuff to write about. What do you think, by the way … you’ve left your position.
HEFFNER: What do you think will be so big in the two minutes we have remaining ourselves … what do you think will be the big things to editorialize about in the next few years?
COLLINS: Well, I don’t think it will be the boring things that I was worrying about in 2001.
HEFFNER: No geese?
COLLINS: I don’t know if there will be a goose thing in there somewhere. But, the, the whole Social Security thing, the whole people getting old thing, the whole Medicaid and Medicare health care thing. If we’re lucky enough to be able to concentrate on domestic agenda, I think that will just be huge. If not, then it will be more war on terror.
HEFFNER: Do you think the Board and the Times itself are going to survive the changes in the economics of journalism?
COLLINS: I really do. And you know part of it is because there are so many smart people figuring out how to do it and partly it’s because anywhere I go in the country there are people who define themselves very personally as New York Times readers. You know if you’re in San Francisco or Cincinnati or somewhere and you’re a “New York Times reader” it really is a central part of your personality. It’s very interesting. The communities that grow up all around it. I just … I can’t conceive of the world without it, I can’t conceive of the country without it.
HEFFNER: Let’s not even try.
HEFFNER: Please. Gail Collins, thank you so much for joining me today …
HEFFNER: … I particularly appreciate it. And hurry back to the pages of The Times.
COLLINS: I will.
HEFFNER: Thanks. And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time, and if you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send $4.00 in check or money order to The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, New York 10150.
Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”
N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.