“They Were Unambiguous, Individualistic, Full of Themselves…and Sometimes Dead Wrong”

By Mike Feinsilber

They were thunderers, the editors of American newspapers of an earlier time. They wrote on asbestos. They felt no need to give the other side of the case. If there was one, let the scoundrel who put out the competing rag down the street champion it. Usually, there was a competitor down the street; in the 19th and early 20th centuries nearly every town with a population of 500 had two or more papers.

For old times’ sake, now that many newspaper presses are threatened with silence, let’s recall those editors. They were unambiguous, individualistic, full of themselves, full of spit and beans, full of spunk and spirit, sometimes mean-spirited, narrow and petty, sometimes humane, rarely humble. Sometimes they were dead wrong, and when they were they sometimes later acknowledged it and sometimes did not.  Wouldn’t the New York Times like to take back its 1915 editorial opposing women’s suffrage? It said the women’s vote, which would be granted by amendment five years later, would dilute the electorate “by the infusion of unpracticed, uninstructed feminism!”

The fury of some of these trumpets were recorded in a book, Outrage Passion & Uncommon Sense produced by Iowa journalist Michael Gartner and the Newseum in Washington and published in 2005 by the National Geographic, from which many of these examples are drawn.

Vitriol has often been the common currency of editorial pages.

Nearly 30 years after the Civil War, the death of a Union general in the war, Benjamin Butler—nicknamed “The Beast” and known for his unsparing treatment of rebel citizenry in New Orleans—was celebrated by The Daily American of Nashville, Tennessee: “He was a truckling demagogue whose selfishness amounted to pollution…he was mean and malignant, a hangman from prejudice, the insulter of women, a braggadocio, a trickster and a scoundrel…”

Vitriol? Try this:

In 1975, Leonard Edwards was a twice-convicted murderer awaiting trial for the rape and murder of a 14-year-old girl. In Philadelphia, Richard Argood of the tabloid Daily News lost patience with what he saw as slowpoke justice. He wrote an editorial advocating Edwards’ execution which ended with these words: “Fry him.”

And in Kentucky in 1979, the Louisville Times grew tired of the “bumbling leadership” of the city’s mayor and said so: “He has worn out his welcome with everyone. His party wants him to go. The city’s elected legislature wants him to go. According to the Times’ recent poll, the public wants him to go. So git.”

That was mild compared to the low opinion editor Grover Cleveland Hall of the Montgomery Advertiser held of Alabama’s U.S. senator, Tom Heflin, “a bully by nature, a mountebank by instinct…a gent with a mission and without a muzzle.”

Throughout, nothing pumped editorial adrenalin faster than race.

On March 6, 1857, in the Dred Scott case, the Supreme Court ruled, 7-2, that black people, slave or free, were not citizens and not protected by the Constitution. In Albany, New York, the Evening Journal dissented: “Unworthy of the Bench from which it was delivered, unworthy even of the previous reputation of the jurist who delivered it, unworthy of the American people, and of the nineteenth century, it will be a blot upon our National character abroad and a long-remembered shame at home….It falsifies the most reliable history, abrogates the most solemn Law, belies the dead and stultifies the living…”

Nearly a hundred years after Dred Scott, the Supreme Court overthrew the “separate but equal” doctrine that allowed public schools to segregate students by race. In Mississippi, the Jackson Daily News cursed the court: “Human blood may stain Southern soil in many places because of this decision but the dark red stains of that blood will be on the marble steps of the United States Supreme Court.”

When Freedom Riders rode buses into Jackson in 1961 to test a new federal law prohibiting segregation in public transport, they met with the scorn of Daily News editor Jimmy Ward:  “These people are crackpots.”

These editors also could get personal. H. L. Mencken, the sage of Baltimore, was one of the celebrated wordsmiths of his time, but in Emporia,  Kansas, William Allen White, the editor of the Gazette, saw the ham in him:

“With a pig’s eye that never looks up, with a pig’s snout that loves muck, with a pig’s brain that knows only the sty, and a pig’s squeal that only cries when he is hurt, he sometimes opens his pig’s mouth, fanged and ugly, and lets out the voice of God…”

Patriotism also brought out editorial rancor.

“Once or twice since Pearl Harbor, The Times has likened the Japanese to rattlesnakes,” said the Los Angeles Times in 1943. “This is to apologize to rattlesnakes.”

Respecting the rights of Americans of Japanese descent was too much to ask of the San Francisco News after Pearl Harbor: “The only course left is to remove all persons of that race for the duration of the war.”

On race, newspapers have been ahead of their readers or as bigoted as their readers.

Here’s one that was ahead. In 1937, the Delta Star in Greenville, Mississippi, ran a picture of Jesse Owens, who had won four gold medals in track and field at the Berlin Olympics. Some readers objected; they didn’t want to see a black man’s picture in the newspaper.

“We’ll print it again when we feel like doing so….Get this straight, everyone of you,” editor Hodding Carter II told readers. “We were brought up on a Louisiana farm.…But we personally have never felt so unsure of our status as a white man that we had to bully a negro, to return courtesy with rudeness or to make him think that he was a despicable beast…”

And in Emporia, William Allen White, noting the tendency of his neighbors to belittle black people, asked, in 1922, “Who in God’s name are we?”

Some newspapers with a racist history could—and did—acknowledge a change of heart as the nation moved toward equality and fairness. That was especially easy when the newspaper also had a change of ownership.

The other paper in Jackson, Mississippi, the Clarion-Ledger, for years helped lead the charge against the civil rights movement. Then the paper acquired a new owner, the Gannett chain, and a new editor, Jackson native Charles Overby.  In 1982, on the 20th anniversary of James Meredith’s riot-causing integration of the University of Mississippi, an editorial announced the paper’s new view: “We were wrong, wrong, wrong.”

And even the proud Wall Street Journal, still the proprietor of a strong-willed editorial page, could announce a change of heart. In the 1960s, the Journal was a cheerleader for America’s war in Vietnam. But by 1968, the Journal ate crow.  “Everyone had better be prepared,” it said, “for the bitter taste of a defeat beyond America’s power to prevent.”

The L.A. Times, also a war supporter, shared that view: “The time has come for the United States to leave Vietnam, to leave it swiftly, wholly, and without equivocation.”

Not often, but every once in a while, these editorialists could display their human side. William Allen White did it in an editorial pleading for a meal:

“Public Notice. Mrs. W.A. White has gone to New York, called there by the illness of her sister. Mr. W. A. White is in Emporia. How about Sunday dinner? This is not only an opportunity but a duty, as we have said before on many cases of public need. Don’t all speak at once but phone 28 after six o’clock.”

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