But many other journalists say Times editorials are consistently well-reasoned and well-written, and they credit Frankel and Rosenthal with making them more balanced, less stuffy and--though still clearly liberal on most issues--less an expression of knee-jerk liberalism than they frequently were under Oakes.
"I think they're generally pretty good, even when they're wrong," said Stephen Chapman of the Chicago Tribune.
Claude Lewis had what he thought was a good idea for an editorial, and he brought it up early in the Philadelphia Inquirer editorial board meeting in Editor Edwin Guthman's office. Philadelphia Mayor Wilson Goode had just announced that he was "leaning" toward decriminalizing some vice laws involving gambling and prostitution, and Lewis thought that was a bad idea.
But Guthman and another editorial writer, Susan Stranahan, both said Lewis was missing the point. Goode had said he was considering decriminalization largely because "the only people who have gone to jail as a result of vice enforcement have been police officers" convicted of accepting bribes to permit those illegal activities to flourish. Guthman and Stranahan thought the issue of decriminalization--the question of whether "victimless crimes" should be crimes--was far less important than that of police corruption; if decriminalization was Goode's only solution to the police corruption that has long plagued Philadelphia, "it's pretty damn feeble," Guthman argued.
The next day, the Inquirer's lead editorial--written by Lewis--made just that point. The editorial called Goode's proposal a "surrealistic vision" and said it was "no answer at all . . . " to the problem of "systemic corruption in the Police Department."
Shift in Emphasis
That kind of shift in emphasis is typical of what happens in newspaper editorial board meetings. Editorial writers often agree on the substance of an issue--on the basic position to be taken--but they often disagree on precisely how to express their views or on what aspect of the issue is most important to write on at a given time.
What frequently happens is that the editorial writer who knows the most--and cares the most--about a particular subject wants to write a far more strongly worded editorial than his colleagues or the editorial page editor thinks is warranted. In such situations, the editor moderates the rhetoric--in the meeting and in the editorial.
Rick Nichols, an editorial writer at the Inquirer, says this often happens at his paper, even though Guthman, Nichols and most of the editorial board is decidedly liberal.
Inquirer editorials are "wishy-washy, wimpy," Nichols said. "Where other . . . (papers) might say, 'Hey, the emperor has no clothes,' we might say, 'Well, The emperor says the reason he has no clothes is because all his stuff is in the dry cleaner today.' "
But Guthman--who said he personally agrees with Nichols on most issues--argues, "What this newspaper ought to say . . . is a little bit different than what . . . I might want to say.
'I'd like to take clear-cut, hard stands, too, but not all issues . . . lend themselves to that," he said. "They're not that simple."
Still, the Inquirer has campaigned vigorously on a number of issues--ranging from court reform to getting more taxis in the city--and Guthman probably has more freedom in running his page than does almost any other editorial page editor. The Inquirer has no publisher and (Guthman says) no interference from Knight Ridder corporate headquarters, and although Executive Editor Gene Roberts is Guthman's direct superior, Roberts does not attend the daily editorial board meetings and generally discusses only major campaign endorsements and long-range policy--not specific editorials--with Guthman.
As a result of this--and of the relatively few overseas trips that Inquirer editorial writers are permitted to take--many Inquirer editorial writers worry that their page is "not a high priority" with Roberts.
Roberts denies this. "I have great confidence in Ed," he said. "I wouldn't feel comfortable being a close part of the editorial page when I'm in charge of the news on a daily basis."
THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
Most mornings, at about 9:30--or 10:20 or 10:40 or whenever is convenient--George Melloan, deputy editor of the Wall Street Journal editorial page, meets with whichever of the paper's seven editorial writers are interested and not otherwise occupied.