A well-worn stereotype has long caricatured the American news editor. Think of Perry White in the "Superman" fantasies, Orson Welles' Charles Foster Kane, television's Lou Grant — or of a hundred other editions in fact and fable.
The editor of collective imagination is an ill-tempered, disagreeably likable curmudgeon, snarling at reporters and complaining readers alike, while positively relishing the comprehensive frailties of the human race — that inexhaustible wellspring of "good" stories, the kind that conjure the holy trinity of the news business: trouble, scandal and conflict.
Like most stereotypes, this one is just accurate enough, just often enough, to endure.
I have been an editor and writer for publications of various kinds for 45 years. I stumbled into this charmed racket essentially by following the advice of H.L. Mencken, who plied the scribbler's trade with unexcelled gusto and belligerence in the first half of the 20th century. Mencken recommended that aspiring literary geniuses should support themselves with an ordinary job, at least if they couldn't marry money. Journalism, he said, was a good option.
The news business, Mencken advised, "offers an agreeable living at small exertion." It is "as far from literature proper as astronomy is from the pants business," yet it "stores the memory with brilliant images of the fleeting world. It induces a pleasurable melancholy. What could be better preparation for poetry?"
That's what I was looking for decades ago. I had started work on (I expected) my first novel, a shrewd murder mystery. The only part I actually wrote was the title. I was going to call my whodunit "Only the Young Die Young."
Trouble was, I got so busy as a newshound that it now appears I may never finish my peerless masterpiece. Dying young has surely become yet another distinction I'll never achieve.
But I have attained a pleasurable melancholy. So it's with more gratitude than grumbling that I retire from full-time duty at the Star Tribune.
That said, I do leave harboring a worry or two about my profession.
I realize looking back that I came of age during the last years of the American news media's golden age. By the late 1960s, generations of journalistic giants from Mencken and Lippman to Murrow and Cronkite had set America's agenda and given a quarrelsome society a common supply of facts to argue about.
A handful of broadcasting networks and newspaper empires were rich, powerful and confident. Before my youthful eyes, largely over the Vietnam War, the press turned against a powerful liberal president, Lyndon Johnson, and the powerful conservative who succeeded him, Richard Nixon. And they both came tumbling down.
In 1976, according to the Gallup organization, just 4% of American adults said they had no trust in the nation's mainstream news media. Some 72% reported a "great deal" or "fair amount" of trust. Democrats back then were only slightly more likely to trust the press than were Republicans.
That was then. Last fall, Gallup reported that 10 times as many Americans (39%) now express no trust in the news they receive. More remarkable and unsettling, Democrats are now five times more likely to trust mainstream news than are Republicans.
Lucky thing I was on the job all these years.
Part of what's happened, of course, are technological and economic revolutions. Newspapers were born centuries ago mainly as political party organs, the "partisan press." The news "business" began as a kind of sideline — selling ads to defray costs. But in time savvy publishers realized that by downplaying one-sided ideological propaganda they could appeal to a broader readership, dominate local markets, and sell more papers and more ads.
And so the ideal of a professional, "objective" press arose not least as a business plan. Always flawed, it worked well enough that soon pushy news gatherers, far from doing the bidding of political bosses, had become a healthful bother to power brokers of every persuasion.
A genuinely (or at least largely) independent press — committed to at least the appearance of impartiality on news pages, and adversarial in all directions if only to dig up all the available trouble, scandal and conflict — served America well, adding to the nation's array of watchdogs on all concentrations of power.
Ironically, this relatively balanced press was the byproduct of a largely monopolistic media marketplace. In time, as the news market fragmented, incentives changed. The "fairness doctrine" was lifted from broadcasters as the number of stations and cable outlets expanded. Scalding political talk radio and tribally biased cable news networks followed. The internet finished the job of flooding the modern information marketplace with so many sources of facts, fallacies and flamethrowers that the historic mass-market business model for evenhanded journalism has, well, become history. Many news organizations seem to be searching for a path to survival in resurrecting the older partisan model — feeding smaller audiences the precise flavor of facts they prefer.
Beyond economic pressures, I have watched as many journalists gradually succumbed to the political seduction that has overtaken so many modern American institutions, from education to law to big business. In journalism it took the form of a growing impatience with the old-fashioned "objectivity" model. Impartiality came to be seen as false equivalence, an irresponsible coddling of untruths. Surely journalists had a more important, more gratifying duty — to proclaim the Truth, to save Democracy.
But as I step away from a challenged profession, I wonder whether we journalists ever really had a more essential contribution to make than simply to provide a trusted supply of common facts — trusted so long as journalists were humble enough to embrace the "artificial" impartiality they sometimes found tiresome, not unlike the forced neutrality endured by every unprejudiced judge, every fair umpire, every scrupulous scientist, every honest broker in every walk of life.
All this may seem easy for me to say, having spent large portions of my career on the "Opinion" side of journalism. The very existence of columnists, editorial boards and commentators in news organizations has always been a risky tradition for a profession founded on fairness.
I take curious comfort knowing that a regular criticism I've faced as an opinion writer throughout my career was one repeated by a commenter when my retirement was announced a couple of months ago. "He always pretended like he was some neutral arbiter," wrote one detractor, who added that he won't miss what another critic memorably called my "inveterate bothsiderism."
Well, fair enough. Let my closing argument be that there are two sides to this pretended neutrality debate.
Meanwhile, in editing others' commentary here for some 15 years I have sought, with the steady support of Editorial Page Editor Scott Gillespie and my other colleagues, to make room for a broad diversity of ideas, never favoring or disfavoring submissions merely because I agreed or disagreed with the argument. No doubt mistakes have been many, and for them all I beg pardon.
And most important, for my part I will dearly miss our readers — most of them, anyway.
Opinion editor's note: In October, commentary editor and columnist D.J. Tice announced his plan to retire at the end of 2023. We convinced him to stick around another month to help us kick off the new year, and with any luck readers will see occasional columns from him in the future.