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Quality of discourse endures.

NCEW highlights the best in journalism; politically correct resolutions the worst.

You always remember your first time. My first NCEW convention was Milwaukee in 1965, and it was a revelation.

It was a shock, if a pleasant one, to realize that many editorial writers were in existence, and that so many would attend a convention. It was like attending a convocation of an endangered species. (It still is.) Being the only full-time editorial writer in Pine Bluff, Ark., I had us pegged as loners. Call it projection.

Maybe because we are relatively few and not necessarily loners but just lonesome, the sense of fellowship was overwhelming. Here were a hundred or so other folks who understood. All these people seemed at home not just with the requirements and possibilities of the job, not just with the lingo and mechanics, but with the spirit of the venture.

Everything back at work seemed to conspire against the whole object of the enterprise - to write the world's greatest editorials. To attend such a convention revived that aspiration. (It still does.) One came away reminded that, in the words of Grover Hall Jr., we've got "the grandest job in the world."

Even then, when I had no other journalistic forums to compare NCEW with, the lack of airs impressed. NCEW truly was a conference of editorial writers, not one of your stiff professional associations with its serried ranks to protect and interests to further.

But how could we be anything but informal and tolerant? We're editorial writers; our stock in trade is a wide range of opinion.

NCEW at its best and most enjoyable and useful has always been a kind of anarchists' convention. From the first I realized, to borrow a line Will Rogers employed to describe his political party, that I belonged to no organized profession; I had joined the National Conference of Editorial Writers.

Lawrie Joslin of the Calgary Herald, an editorial writer and a gentleman in the rare tradition of North Carolina's Bill Snider, put it like this: He said NCEW had taught him a lot about editorial writing over the years, but more about friendship.

Yet even then there was an undercurrent of what only decades later would have a name: political correctness. The stifling thing usually remained safely contained among the more intense, but as partisan antipathies mounted NCEW was called on from time to time to go beyond the usual, unobjectionable freedom-of-the-press resolution. And keeping the outfit out of the partisan grinder became harder and harder.

The debate that remains emblematic of the problem for me occurred at Calgary in 1977, with good ol' Clarke Thomas presiding. It seems the CIA, or maybe it was the FBI, had been using journalists as spies, or at least intelligence sources, and some in NCEW wanted to pass a resolution demanding an end to the practice.

The proposed resolution typified some of the worst impulses of the American press, arrogance notable among them. We were told that, while using doctors, lawyers, and Indian chiefs might be permissible for American intelligence, the press should be exempt.

In the struggle between freedom and tyranny, editorial writers were supposed to declare ourselves neutral. (I think Dante reserved a special place for people like that.) And those of us who would willingly have done whatever we could to help destroy an evil empire were told not to - on ethical grounds! In the ensuing discussion, the irony grew as thick as the arrogance.

If memory serves - and it doesn't as often as it once did - we won that round for freedom. But doubtless we lost others to those who wanted to impose political orthodoxy on editorial writers and call it ethics.

Meanwhile, few attempts were made to strengthen the vague and largely meaningless code of ethics we now use principally as ornamentation for The Masthead. That would have meant a lot of work. When we did try, the result was usually as jejune as the original.

Let it be noted that we did amend the code to demand ethical behavior from newspaper syndicates. Moral: Making demands on others is always easier than on ourselves. Which doesn't seem, well, ethical.

Usually lost amid all those confusing fights was a singular truth: The great heritage and proud function of the American editorial page is the expression of conscience, not the reflection of fashionable group think. Our newspapers cannot have the unique, individual character they should if we ourselves do not.

Those old fights were a lot of things by turns: refreshing, pedantic, funny, obscure, and, soon enough, forgotten. They always mattered less than the fellowship. They still do.

As with an editorial, the most important test of a national conference of editorial writers is not whether a certain opinion carries the day, for another day will come, but whether it elevates the level of discourse.

NCEW member Paul Greenberg is editorial page editor for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
COPYRIGHT 1996 National Conference of Editorial Writers
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Copyright 1996, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:journalists and professional ethics
Author:Greenberg, Paul
Publication:The Masthead
Date:Sep 22, 1996
Words:820
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