Editorial writers "lie without...


August 12, 1993|By THEO LIPPMAN JR.

WALL STREET JOURNAL editorial writers "lie without consequence," White House Deputy Counsel Vincent Foster said in his suicide note.

What Mr. Foster meant was that editorial writers are irresponsible. We lie and get away with it.

In fact, most people I know, in and out of journalism, think editorial writers' lies -- and truths -- are inconsequential in the sense that no consequences ensue. Nobody cares or acts on what we write. In fact, nobody even notices, is the view of many of my colleagues.

"Nobody reads the editorials," Jack Germond, The Baltimore Sun's syndicated political columnist replied to John McLaughlin

on the McLaughlin television show when McLaughlin asked him to predict an editorial's impact.

But our readership surveys show more people read our editorials than read our political columnists, and so do other surveys. For example, a Belden Associates survey that the National Conference of Editorial Writers points to with pride says that 23 percent of newspaper readers read editorials but only 19 percent read opinion columnists.

The Wall Street Journal editorials are old fashioned in the sense that they are definite and combative. Nothing wishy washy about the Journal's editorials. Many editorials, here and elsewhere, are. Only I wouldn't call it "wishy washy." I'd call it "even handed" or "balanced" or "fair." It wasn't always thus. But in the era of one-newspaper (or one-ownership) cities, it would be pretty irresponsible for a general circulation newspaper to be partisan or propagandistic.

When a city had two or three or more newspapers, each with a different point of view, editorialists could be as partisan and certain and loud-mouthed as they wanted to be. If a reader didn't like one paper's take on a subject, she could always balance that out with another editorial page. Most newspaper readers can't do that any more. So some editorialists give them "on-the-one-hand-this, and on-the-other-hand-that" editorials.

(Loudmouth true believers are on radio today. Rush Limbaugh is the outstanding example. How effective is he with his certitude? Last year pro-George Bush Limbaugh led the charge against Ross Perot and Bill Clinton. Perot got more votes than any third party candidate in 80 years, and Bill Clinton won.)

Who precisely reads editorials? I'm not sure, but I'll tell you who reads them with the greatest regularity and enjoyment. We do. Many years ago, a Virginia editor named Buck Royall said it best: "I have spent my life absorbed in the greatest classics of English literature. I have put whole scenes of Shakespeare to memory. I delight in the works of the famous poets. I have found great rewards in reading Cicero and Virgil in Latin and the plays of Sophocles in the original Greek. But I know of no greater literary pleasure in life than to go to bed with a pint of Tennessee whiskey and read my own editorials."

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