Why au­thors of news­pa­per ed­i­to­ri­als don’t take credit

The Washington Post Sunday - - COMMUTER - Twit­ter: @johnkelly

I have a ques­tion about by­lines. Why does The Washington Post ed­i­to­rial page, where I of­ten read in­ter­est­ing points of view that I would like to in­ves­ti­gate fur­ther, not iden­tify the au­thors?

— Dave Bar­rish, Rockville

An­swer Man sup­poses that the one-word an­swer is “tra­di­tion.” But that just raises the ques­tion of where that tra­di­tion comes from.

Be­fore we go any fur­ther, re­mem­ber that the ed­i­to­rial pages — at the back of the A sec­tion in the printed news­pa­per — are dif­fer­ent from the news pages. The news pages are meant to be ob­jec­tive, free from opin­ion. (Ex­cept for col­umns, of course.) Ed­i­to­ri­als are opin­ions that ar­tic­u­late a point of view and of­ten rec­om­mend a course of ac­tion.

“The thing that sur­prises peo­ple most about ed­i­to­ri­als is how much re­port­ing goes into them,” Fred Hi­att, editor of The Post’s ed­i­to­rial page, wrote in an e-mail. (He was on va­ca­tion when An­swer Man pestered him.) “To write a good 500word ed­i­to­rial you have to learn as much as if you were writ­ing a long fea­ture; then you have to fig­ure out what’s re­ally im­por­tant, and dis­till what you’ve learned for your reader.”

The ed­i­to­rial board meets Mon­day, Wed­nes­day and Fri­day morn­ings to dis­cuss top­ics they might take on. At­ten­dees in­clude Hi­att and the five full­time ed­i­to­rial writ­ers, along with car­toon­ist Tom Toles and the opin­ion ed­i­tors. (Post pub­lisher Fred­er­ick J. Ryan Jr. gen­er­ally at­tends the Mon­day meet­ing.)

“Our board mem­bers do not agree on ev­ery­thing,” Hi­att wrote. “Our ar­gu­ments ideally lead to bet­ter ed­i­to­ri­als; what­ever po­si­tion we take, the de­bate forces us to ac­knowl­edge and re­spond to the best case on the other side.”

When top­ics are se­lected, writ­ers are as­signed. Each writer pens three to five ed­i­to­ri­als a week. Hi­att said no one has to write some­thing that he or she dis­agrees with.

With all the work in­volved, you’d think they’d want their names on the darn things. But no. Ed­i­to­rial writ­ers write in the name of The Washington Post, with an in­sti­tu­tional iden­tity, not a per­sonal one.

In the case of The Post, Hi­att said, that iden­tity in­cludes “a com­mit­ment to hu­man rights and civil lib­er­ties, at home and around the world; to a role for gov­ern­ment in help­ing the poor and widen­ing op­por­tu­nity; to free trade and hu­mane cap­i­tal­ism; to a ro­bust U.S. role in­ter­na­tion­ally in help­ing to keep the peace and stand with the forces of free­dom against au­thor­i­tar­i­ans of all stripes.”

Another rea­son ed­i­to­ri­als do not have by­lines, Hi­att noted, is that “they truly are prod­ucts of our group process.”

There is a cer­tain el­e­vated qual­ity to ed­i­to­ri­als, in that they speak not for a sin­gle per­son but for The Pa­per. There was a time when The Pa­per was syn­ony­mous with the per­son who owned it, which was usu­ally the per­son who served as its editor.

Ed­i­to­ri­als in 19th-cen­tury news­pa­pers were un­signed, but there was gen­er­ally no doubt about the au­thor, said Michael

Schud­son, a pro­fes­sor of jour­nal­ism at Columbia Univer­sity. “It was the editor/ pub­lisher of the pa­per,” he wrote in an e-mail to An­swer Man. “It was Ho­race Gree­ley or James Gor­don Ben­nett and news­pa­pers were un­der­stood to speak for these ed­i­tors.”

Schud­son wrote that “as news­pa­pers grew and pub­lish­ers were much more rarely also ed­i­tors, pub­lish­ers ap­pointed ed­i­to­rial-page ed­i­tors who would re­flect their gen­eral views.” He added that “the con­tin­ued anonymity of the ed­i­to­ri­als sug­gests that the ed­i­to­rial is some kind of col­lec­tive judg­ment that the rep­u­ta­tion of the news­pa­per as an in­sti­tu­tion stands be­hind.”

As press critic Jack Shafer put it in a lively 2012 ex­am­i­na­tion of by­lines for Reuters: By be­ing un­signed, ed­i­to­ri­als come across as some­thing “too im­por­tant to have been writ­ten by mor­tals.”

But it wasn’t just the ed­i­to­ri­als that were un­signed back in the 19th cen­tury.

Ev­ery­thing was un­signed. By­lines on news sto­ries are a some­what re­cent in­ven­tion.

Schud­son looked at a week’s worth of New York Times front pages ev­ery four years from 1920 to 1944. There were six front-page sto­ries with by­lines in the week he ex­am­ined in 1920, 37 in 1944.

“By the 1960s, al­most all front-page sto­ries were by­lined,” he wrote.

That was the case at The Post, too. On July 26, 1920, two of 17 front-page sto­ries had by­lines. On July 26, 1960, six of the 10 sto­ries on A1 were by­lined. An­swer Man doesn’t know how many sto­ries are on A1 to­day, but he’s pretty sure ev­ery one will have a name at­tached.

There is one place where the veil of ed­i­to­rial anonymity is lifted. That’s in the Pulitzer Prizes, the Academy Awards of jour­nal­ism. Sub­mis­sions in the Ed­i­to­rial Writ­ing cat­e­gory are nearly al­ways en­tered in the name of the per­son who wrote them.

Cu­ri­ous about the in­ner work­ings of some Washington in­sti­tu­tion? Send your ques­tion to an­swer­man@wash­post.com.

For pre­vi­ous col­umns, visit wash­ing­ton­post.com/johnkelly.

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