January 29, 2018

Making troglodytes blush: When the editorial page goes off the deep end


It has been a weird and sad time for journalism of late in my adopted hometown of Pittsburgh.

On Martin Luther King Day, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s publisher ran an editorial entitled “Reason as Racism” — a repugnant bit of writing that was seen as an attempt to justify President Trump’s recent racist and bigoted pronouncements. The piece ran without the consensus of the Post-Gazette’s editorial board and elicited condemnation from all corners, including members of the publisher’s own family, who control the paper.

In some ways, the Post-Gazette kerfuffle is nothing new. As a former practitioner of Old Journalism—think offices a-clatter with telex machines and typewriters—I always struggled with the squishy firewall between the news and editorial pages.  This was of particular concern at my paper, the Wall Street Journal. We’re talking the Journal of another era, of little black-and-white pointillist drawings and quirky middle-column pieces, before it succumbed to color photos and Murdoch men at the helm.

Back then the paper prided itself on hiring promising young journalists directly out of college. “If you’re going to develop bad habits,” one editor said at my job interview, “we want you to develop our bad habits.” Which meant that twenty- and thirty-somethings (read: liberals) populated the paper’s news side — in stark contrast with the editorial side (the “edit page,” as we journalists call it), notorious for opinions that would make even a troglodyte blush. Stories abounded of high-decibel food fights that would break out when the edit page staffers met with, say, those in the Washington bureau.

So imagine the journalistic push-me/pull-you of covering Central America’s Cold War proxy battles in the 1980s! This was during the Reagan administration—which the editorial page worshipped with cultish zeal—when the U.S. was becoming increasingly involved in the region. I’d manage to get a story on the Journal’s front page laying out all sides of a particular conflict — only to have the edit page run a piece the next day virtually calling me a liar. In my own paper! Once, just before I left on a reporting trip to Nicaragua, those esteemed editors published a commentary suggesting, in essence, that Reagan should nuke the Marxist Sandinista government there. When I called the foreign minister’s office to try to set up an interview, his personal secretary responded: “Wall Street Journal? Did you come by nuclear sub?” before hanging up on me.

Extreme as they might have seemed, the opinions on the edit page were still within what were considered accepted journalistic norms. (Although that nuke reference does seem rather odd today, given our current president’s penchant for talking up his big button and the political jitters that generally ensue.) Divergent political views, yes. But—as in the case of the Post-Gazette—an apologia for outright racism? Blatant bigotry? And this, in a paper whose previous publisher was positively revered for his progressive values!

It’s bad enough that President Trump engages in nonstop disdain, denigration, and disparagement of the press, that he seems hell-bent on undermining one of the most vital components of our democracy. Now the basest of his beliefs are infecting the very institutions that are supposed to serve as a bulwark against such intolerance. Where, oh where, is Clark Kent when we need him?



Lynda Schuster is a former foreign correspondent for the Wall Street Journal and the Christian Science Monitor, and has reported from Central and South America, Mexico, the Middle East, and Africa. She is the author of Dirty Wars and Polished Silver.