Setting Editorial Policy

Ombudsman

October 11, 1992|By ERNEST F. IMHOFF

One editorial writer has done four political biographies (Ted Lippman). Another had a baby boy six months ago and writes a syndicated column on death (Sara Engram).

One concentrates on state/local government, and an annoyed governor thinks him "beyond help" (Barry Rascovar). Another mulls over his editorials while he jogs before breakfast (Joe Sterne).

Editorial writers here are considered ghosts because they don't sign their editorials. Their editorials can be other people's worst nightmares. They are seen as possible power-brokers whose election endorsements some voters take into polling booths.

There is some truth to these views. But on the fourth floor of The Baltimore Sun, they are also mild-mannered professionals who talk quietly but love to argue, churn out hundreds of editorials a year on deadline to persuade or inform, work the phones like reporters but feel their job is tougher, and embrace the middle class values of their fans and critics.

When editorial page editor Joseph R. L. Sterne rings his little camel bell around the editorial offices at 9:30 a.m. each day, the ++ writers may well be walking into a debate over health care, the deficit or making Baltimore and its suburbs safer. Editorial stands for The Sun and The Evening Sun often result from these discussions.

There was no such vigorous debate in a recent routine daily conference, but several writers touched on an intriguing subject: the continuing feud between Gov. William Donald Schaefer and Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke. "It's worse than ever", said one. "The city is rotting away and this feud couldn't come at a worse time."

Let three editors answer questions about their job:

* Why do Sun writers tend to be liberal? Mr. Rascovar, editorial-page director for The Sun: "Virtually all metropolitan papers hire reporters and editors from cosmopolitan backgrounds. These people tend to look at things more with an open mind, not in a small-town way. We're not gung-ho liberals. ** Most of us approach the job by examining issues from all perspectives and coming to a conclusion."

Mr. Sterne: "If there's any ideology here, it's pragmatism . . . though we tend to be more liberal in social issues and more conservative in economics and foreign policy."

* How does the publisher or the parent Times Mirror influence editorials? Mr. Sterne: "I have worked under four publishers here . . . and each has allowed the editor to be editor. They have not second-guessed or interfered. I've gone for days without talking with the publisher, but we always talk on issues affecting the newspaper. They have often taken the heat for our editorials."

* Why don't writers sign their editorials? Mr. Sterne: "Editorials are the opinions of the institution, not the individual writer. This is not the culture of celebrity journalism. What The Baltimore Sun says carries more weight than what I say. True, the institutional tone can be boring. We try to give it flesh and blood."

* How do you decide where to stand? Mr. Sterne: "The writers specialize in certain areas. I allow myself to be persuaded by their expertise. They spend hours reading, talking and listening. We talk together and a decision evolves. We can change with new developments. We don't write on concrete, we write on paper."

Ms. Engram, editorial-page director for The Evening Sun: "On most issues we reach a consensus, but this is not a democracy. The editor bears the ultimate responsibility" and may decide in the end.

* How does The Evening Sun differ from The Sun? Ms. Engram: "We are more intensely local but no longer separate. The Evening Sun used to be more liberal; now we all write for both papers. After we write the pieces, I choose the editorials for The Evening Sun, Barry for the morning. We rewrite some editorials for the second paper."

* Why are the editorials so biased? Ms. Engram: "We're paid to write an opinion. When angry people call and say an editorial was 'biased,' I say, 'Good.' Too many editorial pages are too even-handed, they don't have a strong point of view."

* Where are you on abortion? Ms. Engram: "It's the most divisive issue in the country. Everyone here [editorial writers] would be uncomfortable with indiscriminate abortions. All would be eager to reduce the number of abortions. But I don't know of anyone who'd support making abortion a crime again."

?3 Editorial writers will be profiled next Sunday.

Ernest Imhoff is readers' representative for The Baltimore Sun.

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