Papers offer balance, not bias

In mid-December, Bret Stephens, one of The New York Times’ conservative columnists, wrote a piece headlined, “Biden Should Not Run Again, and He Should Say He Won’t.”

This caused quite a sensation. Such a sensation, in fact, that Bret Baier, the anchor of the 6 o’clock news on Fox, reported that,  “the Times said Biden shouldn’t run again.”

The Times said no such thing, of course. One of its opinion writers did and Baier, considered one of Fox’s more reputable  journalists, should have known better — and surely did.

Had the Times actually published an editorial saying Biden shouldn’t run again, it would have been a major news story.

There is, of course, nothing new about readers being confused by a newspaper offering a mixture of news and opinion without making it clear which is which. In fact, the practice is older than the nation itself.

In Colonial times and during the 18th and early 19th centuries, newspapers were usually partisan tracts. The news almost always gave the reader the publication’s opinion in the same story, with the emphasis more often on the opinion.

For example, the New York Post, the first daily newspaper still being published, was started in 1801 by Alexander Hamilton to give the Federalist Party of Washington, Hamilton and Adams a platform for attacking Thomas Jefferson, the first Democratic-Republican president. (The Hartford Courant, the oldest newspaper, was founded in 1764, but as a weekly.) Many other newspapers were devoted primarily to expressing the opinions of their owners and investors.

Most journalism histories credit Horace Greeley and the New York Tribune he founded in 1841 with  being the first to separate news and opinion writing. He did it by printing the latter on a page he labeled “the editorial page.” And one of his earliest editorials, “Go West, Young Man,” encouraging western expansion, is still considered one of the best, up there with the New York Sun’s “Yes, Virginia, There Is a Santa Claus” and William Allen White’s indictment of politics in his home state, “What’s the Matter with Kansas,” in his Emporia Gazette.

This may come as something of a surprise to its critics, especially those who don’t read the paper, but some of the best conservative columnists of the past century have been found on the opinion pages of The New York Times.

The New York World, which progressed from being one of the founders of sensational, yellow journalism, along with Hearst’s New York Journal, into one of the nation’s finest papers, was among the first to print signed columns by talented journalists like Heywood Broun and Franklin P. Adams.

But the World ended in 1931, a casualty of the Depression, and the next year, Adolph Ochs, the owner of the Times, assigned his Washington bureau chief, Arthur Krock, to write a signed opinion column for the paper’s editorial page as an experiment. The experiment lasted until 1966 when Krock retired as a  major voice of conservatism in America and the only winner of four Pulitzer honors.  Krock was considered a stern critic of the Roosevelt New Deal and a firm conservative “in matters political, social and economic” throughout his long column-writing career.

He would have many notable conservative successors at the Times. One of the best was  William Safire, a former Nixon speechwriter who is also remembered for temporarily making Vice President Spiro Agnew look clever and witty by having him describe the anti-Republican media as “nattering nabobs of negativity.”

Safire was as popular as his more liberal colleagues James Reston and Tom Wicker in the latter half of the last century.

He added to his luster as the author of “Safire”s Political Dictionary,” his exhaustive study of the words and phrases of the language of American politics — everything from A to Z,  “the Abominable No Man,” a tribute to Eisenhower chief of staff Sherman Adams and his ability to take the heat for his boss, to “Zero Based Budgeting,” the claim of starting from scratch when making the federal budget.

The Times — and many other dailies — enhanced the diversity of the opinions they offered by establishing, in the 1970s, on the page after the editorial page what came to be known as the Op-Ed page.  The Washington Post, another great paper with a center to left editorial page, has regularly featured two conservative icons on its op-ed page, the late Charles Krauthammer and George Will.

Today, the editorial and op-ed pages of the Times and many other dailies are both labeled opinion pages and are dominated by signed opinions by writers representing the left and right and sometimes even the middle. In addition to Stephens, a former Wall street Journal columnist, conservative opinion is regularly offered by contributors and columnists like Ross Douthat and David Brooks, a protégé of the late godfather of modern American conservativism, William F. Buckley.

The reduction of editorials in the Times and other dailies and their replacement by signed opinion pieces have gone largely unnoticed in the American press.

When, in fact, I was gathering information for this column, I googled “disappearing newspaper editorials” and found just one article — by me in this newspaper. It did not enhance my research.

 

Simsbury resident Dick Ahles is a retired journalist. Email him at rahles1@outlook.com. 

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