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I was reading the editorials in the Sunday New York Times, and I had a thought: editorial writers should sign their work.
My reason has nothing to do with public accountability; I’m not drawing an analogy between anonymous editorials and anonymous sources, which happened to be the concern of the Times‘s public editor, Margaret Sullivan, writing on a nearby page. (“For many readers, anonymous sources are a scourge,” declared Sullivan.)
No, my thinking is simply this: if editorials were signed, maybe fewer of them would be so badly written.
I’d just read an editorial that began with this line:
“Revenge porn is one of those things that sounds as if it must be illegal but actually isn’t.”
The sentence makes a common mistake in grammatical logic that’s one of my pet peeves. What the writer meant was this:
“Revenge porn is one of those things that sound as if they must be illegal but actually aren’t.” (The subject as a specific member of a general category.)
But that’s not the only improvement that could be made. What’s wrong with getting to the point?
“Revenge porn sounds illegal, but it isn’t.”
Editorial writers are susceptible to a mistake identified primarily with high school sophomores, that of believing that if you can find a way to say the same thing in twice as many words it sounds twice as deep. Another editorial on the same page of the Times discussed cholera in Haiti. The second-to-last paragraph began:
“There is no disputing that the United Nations has saved and improved lives in Haiti since the quake . . .”
The last paragraph began:
“There is no denying that the United Nations has failed to face up to its role in a continuing tragedy . . .”
If the author believed the incantatory power of repetition was bringing the editorial to an irresistible conclusion, the author was deluded. All the repetition persuades us of is that it was written by someone bored silly. Besides, why should the imperious New York Times, of all papers, feel it has to insist things are true that by its own admission no one disputes or denies. This does the job:
“The United Nations has saved and improved lives in Haiti since the quake, but it is has failed to live up to its role in a continuing tragedy . . .”
If editorial writers signed their editorials, they’d put a little more effort into writing them.
But, you say, the editorial page is the voice of the institutional paper, not of anyone in particular on it. That’s true, and that would continue to be understood, but every editorial has an author. A hundred years ago reporters didn’t get bylines; it was the newspaper that told us what happened, not some specific employee at a typewriter. But even though almost every article has a byline these days, it’s still the newspaper informing us. Newspapers stand behind their stories and are legally responsible for their stories, and, to the chagrin of reporters, most readers pay no attention to the bylines and finish an article having no idea who wrote it.
Even so, the name matters to the person whose name it is. Editorials might ring with greater conviction if they were written with greater pride.