How to save the dying newspaper editorial
The old days of newspaper editorials swaying big elections or telling public officials what to do are over. But here's a way that news orgs actually can make a difference.
Recently, I've been thinking a lot about something that most people aren't thinking about much at all these days: Newspaper editorials. They've pretty much been around since Gutenberg invented the printing press, and -- especially in smaller cities and towns where up through the end of the 20th Century a newspaper was a near-monopoly source of news -- they've been known to actually wield influence.
At their occasional worst, newspaper editorials can be tools of a bullying millionaire (or billionaire) publisher, but at their best these screeds can force public officials to deal with society's problems or to look at hard facts they might wish to ignore. Well, that was once true, anyway. The reality is that artful newspaper editorials are supposed to take a step back and bring two things to the complex issues of the day: Knowledge and reason, which are the lingua franca of an educated elite. In other words, exactly the kind of thing that America's angry and feeling-betrayed middle class wants nothing to do with these days.
It all came to a head in the fall election. One survey found that only two of America's 100 largest newspapers endorsed Donald Trump; twice as many (4) endorsed Libertarian Gary Johnson (remember him?) and 57 endorsed Hillary Clinton, including some newspapers that hadn't endorsed a Democrat for president in decades. That's both shocking and not at all shocking. After all, Trump is a human being who seems created in a lab to offend every value of the typical newspaper editorial writer, even one with a mildly conservative bent. Trump lied, repeatedly. He was accused by a dozen or more women of groping or other sexual misconduct. He proposed actions -- from his Muslim-arrival ban to restoring torture -- that violated the U.S. Constitution, and he promised to change libel laws and otherwise conduct a war on a free press. Come to think of it, how'd he even get those two endorsements?
And yet the dude with the two endorsements got 304 electoral votes. In some pro-Trump communities, newspapers and their damned "logic" have since been greeted with everything short of torches and pitchforks. A writer in Enid, Oklahoma, recounted to the New York Times recently how he was almost punched out in the Western Sizzlin restaurant -- after Sunday church, no less -- because his small-town paper had endorsed Clinton over Trump.
They say the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. Since November 8, I've noticed that the tortured insanity of the newspaper editorial has reached new heights, particularly in a bellweather left-leaning newspaper editorial page like the New York Times. Day after day, its lead editorial calls out some preposterous thing "Mr. Trump" has said or done, uses facts and reason ("There you go again!") to explain why it's preposterous, and then expresses the hope against all hope that miraculously "Mr. Trump" will change his ways.
"Sell the Business, Not the Presidency, Mr. Trump," the Times editorial page declared on Tuesday, even though Mr. Trump has already insisted that conflict-of-interest laws don't apply to him. Any similarity to the Dec. 9 editorial, "One Job Is Enough. Sell the Hotel," is...well, not a coincidence, and, oh, he hasn't sold the hotel, either. The Dec. 23 editorial that "Republicans Are In Denial Over Health Care" has yet to move a single Republican out of the denial colum so far. On that very same day, the Paper of Record tackled Trump's muddled views on nukes and wrote: "Instead of engaging in macho competition, Mr. Trump should seek a new dialogue with Russia on reducing nuclear dangers."
But here's the thing, New York Times. Mr. Trump. Is. Not. Listening. Every day, when I get to final paragraph and the inevitable pleadings with Mr. Trump to come to his senses, I instead find myself asking the same question.
Why bother? If 2016 has taught us anything definitive about journalism, it's the impotency of the modern newspaper editorial, at least in the arena of national politics.
It's not 1968 anymore. A president won't be so moved -- as some claim that LBJ was influenced by an editorial commentary on CBS -- to declare that "if I've lost Walter Cronkite, I've lost Middle America" and then change his Vietnam policies and withdraw from the presidential race. News orgs don't wield that kind of monopoly power, and Trump has shown the world that a president-elect no longer has to give a flying you-know-what about what the major news orgs think. Increasingly, this apathy over editorial opinion is working its way down to the state or local level.
The newspaper editorial is dying -- and yet I believe it can be saved with a fairly simple operation. In fact, much of it is already in good health. The core functions of calling out public officials who don't call the truth, and offering readers the basic facts -- how the Affordable Care Act actually works and who is actually covered, for example -- will be more essential in 2017 than ever before. The failing organ here is the demand for action. It's time for elite editorial writers to stop pretending they're in a conversation with elite politicians who aren't giving them the time of day.
Instead of hectoring politicians, it's time for newspaper editorial writers to think long and hard about how to empower the people, the only real force for positive social change that we have left. Consider climate change, for example. Trump has made it clear with his rogues gallery of Big Oil execs and climate-change deniers that he won't do a damn thing, but citizens and local communities can do quite a lot, from installing solar panels to better recycling to driving fuel efficient cars. And on the big-ticket items like the Affordable Care Act, no Republican senator is going to listen to a newspaper, but they might listen to thousands of empowered constituents, and the media can play a role in making those connections happen. Or getting busloads of folks to the Jan. 21 Women's March on Washington, which has a much better chance of defending reproductive rights than the best-crafted 700-word opinion piece ever will.
That might require some folks in journalism to think outside their normal comfort zone -- but the normal comfort zone has already been blown up. If the 2016 election showed anything, it's that everyday citizens want somebody to fight for them. It could be an authoritarian strongman. Or it could be your hometown newspaper. I'd vote for the latter.