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Taking orders from customers runs contrary to great tradition.

Community advisory boards would appall the great editorialists of the past.

I'm disturbed by all this prattling about "community editorial boards" to "advise" editorial writers and help them understand the people of their community.

Are newspapers now becoming some kind of public utility, subject to review by "customers," like citizen utility boards? Are we to have editing and opinion formulated by committees - and by committees of amateurs at that?

That is not what newspapers were supposed to be about, surely. It is not what made this nation's great newspapers great.

Imagine H.L. Mencken calling upon the "booboisie" of Baltimore to tell him what he should say and how he should say it! Mencken, who described the American public as "the most timorous, sniveling, poltroonish in Christendom since the end of the Middle Ages."

Well, hardly. Mencken wrote what he thought, even when he was "invited to come in and and be lynched by the citizens of three of our great Christian states of the Union."

Or Marse Henry Watterson soliciting community participation in the policy of the Louisville Courier-Journal of his day? Watterson dared to support the Gold Democratic ticket against William Jennings Bryan, even though his editorials put Kentucky into the Republican column to help elect McKinley.

That bold position - obviously not in harmony with the thinking of the citizens of Kentucky - almost cost him the Courier-Journal. It was not until four years later that he could see his subscribers and advertisers returning. And Watterson won a Pulitzer for his editorials.

Did Colonel Robert McCormick ever invite his readers to participate in an advisory board? Certainly not. His biographer described him as being in 1932-1933 the Chicago Tribune's "happy, successful 52-year-old benevolent despot." And this was a self-styled "sympathetic" biographer.

McCormick did have daily editorial page staff conferences. When the conference (which might last three hours) was concluded, his biographer wrote, the writers had clear notions of what the Colonel thought. He seldom if ever wrote an editorial himself, but his writers acted as "expert amanuenses," so that "what McCormick thought and what the Tribune said on its editorial page were in total harmony."

Did William Allen White have a community board advise him on the thoughts of the people of Emporia?

What ails us

Yes, editors and editorial writers should be aware of what their subscribers are thinking and saying, but not necessarily for the purpose of having those thoughts dictate the newspaper's editorial policies.

That editors now seem to feel the need for resoliciting the thoughts of their communities is an indictment of those editors and an acute symptom of what ails metropolitan journalism in the United States.

Too many editors and editorial writers no longer are members of the communities in which their newspapers are based.

They live in splendid isolation in affluent suburbs, scurrying home after a day closeted in their offices by traveling on expressways that separate them from "the masses" who are supposed to be their readers. Their unlisted home addresses and telephone numbers preserve their privacy and remoteness.

Their offices are as tightly guarded as were the walled medieval cities, with grim-visaged rent-a-cops challenging anyone who seeks access to the news or editorial page offices.

Now those editors want to act like those medieval lords who would upon occasion invite in peasants and serfs for cozy chats.

It brings to mind the way of the Old South "aristocracy" in dealing with "those people." The mayor of Memphis in the early 1960s often spoke with great pride of the fact that he held "open house" in his office every Monday so the citizens could come to talk to him about "his" city.

This was also the mayor whose obstinacy in negotiating with the city garbage collectors led to a strike which in turn led to the assassination of Martin Luther King.

Increasingly, editors and staff members "keep in touch" with their communities through their cellular phones and their computers and faxes. Beat reporters who (formerly) spent their days or nights at the police station, the courthouse, and city hall to watch over what the "swivel servants" were doing - or not doing - are being replaced by reporters who "cover" those beats by telephone.

One editor for a time took staff members around his city by bus at regular intervals so they would "know" their city, much as visitors would be given tours.

These "community editorial boards" are another example of newspapers striving to imitate radio and television.

They are an attempt at "interactive" journalism, bringing public opinion out of the polls and into the editorial offices. By personal visitation and perhaps eventually by computer linkage, readers will be able to tell editors "instantly" what they should think, write, and publish.

They are a variation of the radio and television call-in shows, which give "the public" the opportunity to share its ignorance on all subjects. If "the public" wants that kind of "access," let it buy into the Internet or one of the other worldwide linkages that are touted as the ultimate in providing "information" but which provide no understanding of the mish-mash they convey.

'Responsible' journalism

This trend may have begun with the Hutchins report of the early 1940s, which examined the newspaper industry in some detail.

Out of that came the cry for "responsible" journalism, though nobody ever really was able to define that term satisfactorily. Editors debated it endlessly and politicians seized upon it as a defense against exposure of their wrongdoings and failures. The concept died quietly during the war years.

But then came Spiro Agnew mouthing Pat Buchanan condemnations of the "nattering nabobs of negativism" in the Eastern Establishment press.

At other papers, editors who were criticized for rightwing bias scrambled to prove their fine impartiality by hiring the output of a whole new stable of columnists - few of whom really represented the "left" in political and economic thought.

Editorial pages tended to become all things to all people. A new national newspaper was born with an editorial page that deliberately dealt with issues with an "on the one hand, and on the other hand" policy, with a third slot devoted to trying to cut a middle road between them.

We went through a period in which the "answer" to the perceived "bias" of the press was thought to be News Councils, which would receive complaints about the way publications dealt with matters and which then would issue its ombudsman findings. That concept appears to have dissolved, too. Perhaps that indicates the puerility of much of what is printed.

The more newspapers have softened their editorial voices, the more they have encouraged the spawning of the Rush Limbaughs and the Larry Kings of the airwaves - entertainers of the first order. The more newspapers have eschewed identity with strong opinions, the less people have read them.

And so they have resorted to conversion of their columns to the same sort of "entertainment" found in radio and television. Neil Postman warned a decade ago that we were "Amusing Ourselves to Death," but editors either have not read what he said then - and keeps repeating even now - or have blithely ignored his admonitions, even though their circulations decline steadily and one after another of our newspapers disappears from the scene.

Some may read all this as a plea for "irresponsible" journalism. It is no such thing.

It is, rather, a plea for effective journalism in print, a return to the kind of journalism we had when newspapers advocated a range of ideas, each competing with another for the eyes and minds of the people. Some of those editors advocated ideas that we now see clearly were wrong, but they had the right and considered it their duty to express those ideas.

NCEW retired member E.W. Kieckhefer lives in Milwaukee.
COPYRIGHT 1996 National Conference of Editorial Writers
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1996, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Kieckhefer, E.W.
Publication:The Masthead
Date:Jun 22, 1996
Words:1298
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