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August 16, 2008

Moms, editors always knew what was best


The way it used to be, there were always two people who knew what was best for you.

One was your mother.

The other was the editor of whatever newspaper you happened to read.

The editor felt he should be in charge of all the news you needed to know ... and what you didn't.

Mom felt she should rule every other aspect of your existence.

On the one hand, the editor wasn't the reason you spent the better part of your adult life in therapy.

On the other hand, Mom loved you no matter what.

As the years have gone by, the influence of Mom (or the memory of her) and the editor have eroded to the point where you almost feel somehow entitled to make a lot of your own decisions.

While this development is generally a good thing, it can be a little hard to get used to _ for you, Mom and the noble editor.

For our purposes today, issues with your mother are best left to your psychologist or the publisher of the "Mommy Dearest" memoir you've been meaning to write someday if only you could find the time.

For now, let's remember back to the days before the Internet, blogs and 24-hour cable TV programming. Newspaper editors had great power _ although every editor I know would call it great responsibility _ over what folks learned about their towns, their country and their world.

Gatekeepers, that's what editors were called.

Since 1896, the front-page motto of The New York Times has been "All the News That's Fit to Print." The editors, of course, have decided what's "fit to print."

It has been, at best, a mixed blessing.

Contrary to some spirited opinion regarding us as a lower species, editors are human. Try as we might to be fair, we are capable of prejudice, susceptible to flattery and often filled far over the brim with hubris.

On a bulletin board in my office is a 70-year-old quote from an editor named Maxwell Perkins that serves as a useful reminder.

"Editors are extremely fallible people, all of them," wrote this wise man. "Don't put too much trust in them."

It's hard to imagine, given the recent uproar surrounding the admission by John Edwards that he has been unfaithful to his wife, that there was a time when the press thought that sort of thing was nobody's business.

Rumors about extra-marital dalliances by John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson and Franklin Roosevelt never appeared in daily newspapers during their presidencies.

Reporters surely knew about them, and they certainly told their editors. But whether it was a chauvinistic "boys will be boys" attitude or just a respect for the office, the gatekeepers decided it wasn't news.

Today, there is a plethora of freakish websites and sensationalist supermarket tabloids hounding celebrities and politicians, and paying for information to cast them in the worst possible light.

The National Enquirer, the best-known of that unsavory breed, uncharacteristically got the Edwards story mostly right. This has caused great rejoicing by throngs of ethics-deprived Internet bloggers who delight in bashing what they call the "mainstream media."

The bloggers can't seem to understand why responsible newspapers and television networks didn't report on the Edwards affair based just on the Enquirer stories.

I love the answer David Carr, a columnist for The New York Times, gave on CNN's "Reliable Sources" program.

He said many news organizations "tend to pick up stories from the National Enquirer with tongs."

That's because the magazine has a sleazy reputation, uses mostly unnamed sources, has been inaccurate far more often than not on major stories, and has had to settle a ton of lawsuits.

Lest anyone think that the Edwards matter was just the "liberal media" protecting a Democrat, that same media rightfully ignored a 2005 story in the Enquirer titled "Bush's Booze Crisis," stating without evidence that Republican President Bush's drinking problem had returned.

With the tabloids and the bloggers' gullible audience demanding the "mainstream media" cover events real or imagined just because they are "out there," it's tough for any newspaper editor to retain the coveted gatekeeper role.

One of the many benefits of being a small-town editor is the absence of a lot of noisome bloggers and irresponsible media outlets. That enabled me in a fairly recent election to play the traditional role of gatekeeper.

As it turned out, both candidates in the election had regrettable incidents in their past that weren't terribly relevant to the office for which they were running. I decided that if one or the other made a direct accusation, it would become an issue and thus worthy to write about.

But neither one did, and despite some unsuccessful slimy efforts by a few zealous letter-writers and whisperers, this newspaper was able to help keep the campaign clean.

It was good for the candidates, good for the community and good for the newspaper. My mother, who knows all about what's good for me, would think it was good for me, too.

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Sam Pollak is editor of The Daily Star. He can be reached at spollak@thedailystar.com or at (607) 432-1000, ext. 208.