I recently discovered an early Peanuts cartoon strip that made me smile more than usual.
The Peanuts gang was playing navy, and had fashioned sailor hats out of newspapers. One character asks another where the captain is. “Over there,” he says. “Which one is he?” the first one asks.
“He’s the one with the editorial page on his head.”
Remember the infrequent expression on Charlie Brown’s face when he was all warm inside? Like when he saw the little red-haired girl? That was my face when I read that strip.
We take a lot of flak in the opinion industry, as you might imagine. I’ve been called every name in the book. People have wished me ill. And I was once threatened by a caller who promised to show me “what a 57-year-old man can do.”
Nor is it much fun to publicly call out corrupt or tyrannical public officials. It can be quite unsettling. Trust me.
Moreover, it’s more than a little surreal to realize that when you get up in the morning, everyone in town is capable of having an opinion on what kind of day you had at work yesterday.
But in helping prepare today’s guide to the editorial page – we just thought it would be fun to do, and have been talking about doing it for years – I was reminded again of how very rewarding and meaningful this job is.
Conventional wisdom has it that editorials try to tell people what to think, or some such nonsense. We know better than that. The truth is, editorials serve many other functions.
They simply take note of important events, issues and people. They point out the good and bad in the community or the world at large, perhaps suggesting ways to change the bad. They praise or lament society’s angels and devils. They campaign for things and people. Sometimes they just try to be fun or entertaining. And, yes, they try to provoke thought and even action.
Persuasive writing has always been with us, but no country has the proud tradition of editorial writing that the United States does. It’s a privilege and a thrill being part of that long line of public champions.
We don’t just get brickbats, of course. Not a day goes by that someone doesn’t thank us or compliment us. I once had a man tell me my editorial inspired him to run for office. Another time, I was told that I changed a governor’s mind on an issue. A woman was moved to create a piece of art to go with another bit of our prose. Mostly, people seem to appreciate someone standing up for what they think is right in a tempest of wrong.
I’m often asked how one goes about writing editorials. The truth is, it’s a bit like tying a necktie: It’s nearly impossible to describe; you just do it. And, as with a necktie, you hope it doesn’t choke you.
Besides all the other things we aim for, we try to make our editorials compelling and, with any luck, well-worded. We are, first and foremost, writers who admire a well-turned phrase in others and pray to turn out an occasional one ourselves.
Kenneth Rystrom, in a book titled The Why Who and How of the Editorial Page, listed some of the top qualities of editorial writers – including a wide variety of interests; a background in, or knack for, reporting; solid writing skills; a commitment to justice and integrity; and “the ability to reason cogently.”
To that list I would add – at the very top – a heart for people and their predicaments. To me, it’s the most important qualification. You can pick the other stuff up along the way.
Editorial page work has changed me in many ways, but probably the most profound way is that it has required me to think things through – and to be willing to question basic, even long-held assumptions.
I’ve also had to learn how to argue issues without putting emotional stock in the outcome of the debate. I’ve noticed it’s difficult
for folks to engage in a passionate dispute over issues they feel strongly about without letting anger seep in.
It’s interesting, for example, that people who may not know who their state representative is seem to know how the universe was created.
I’ve come to the conclusion that dispassionate debate is not an innate skill for most of us, and therefore takes learning. I think schools should think about teaching argumentative skills to everyone, not just the debate squad.
We all might get along better – and get at the truth more.