Even editorial writers are only human

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Given the ire yesterday's editorials on Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's troubles and City Councilman William Peduto's withdrawal from the May primary generated on talk radio and local blogs, it's not really in my interest to remind folks that I'm a member of this paper's much-maligned editorial board.

But here I stand, shoulder-to-shoulder with my colleagues as every calumny is called down upon our heads. It doesn't matter how many times we're called Marxist dilettantes or pro-establishment stooges, we do the best we can within the parameters of our admittedly finite knowledge.

An editorial I wrote about Mr. Ravenstahl's trip to New York came under attack for "piling on" the mayor's ethical lapses only after they have become obvious to everyone.

It was also faulted for being inconsistent with the PG's alleged history of "enabling" the mayor's slippery relationship with the truth. The editorial took heat for waiting until Mr. Peduto dropped out of the race to "finally" get tough with the mayor and for not being as quick on the draw as the blogs and talk radio to skin him alive.

There was even a bizarre suggestion that we wouldn't have endorsed Mr. Peduto for mayor anyway, a notion that caused the editorial board to roll its eyes. Really? No chance?

If I hadn't written that editorial along with a previous one about the mayor's scandalous handling of the Cmdr. McNeilly-Dennis Regan affair, I might have believed there was an institutional disposition to ignore the mayor's faults, too -- and I know better.

When I read and hear conspiracy theories about the editorial board's dark intentions, it's all I can do not to recite the Lord's Prayer backwards.

Life would be simpler if folks had a better idea of what we do. One of the silliest holdovers of 19th-century journalism is the cloak of anonymity that covers editorial boards.

Alas, tradition dictates that editorial writers alternate between affecting the voice of God, the voice of the publisher and last, but not least, the voice of the people. Jesus said that no man can serve two masters (to say nothing of three), so channeling conflicting perspectives can appear to play havoc on editorial voice, emphasis and consistency. That said, we do better than most. If nothing else, the PG usually sticks close to editorial precedent until we find a reason to break with it.

In a perfect world, all editorial pages would be vast zones of populist and informed opinion. But as blogs gain more prominence and influence, we're discovering that not even the Internet can guarantee such a lofty ideal.

Sure, as much as we try to make the reader forget it, we're a very human enterprise down here at the Boulevard of the Allies, especially on the editorial page. Any editorial board that has me as a member is already suspect.

As individual members, we harbor competing ideas that sprout from lives informed by vastly different experiences. We're not monolithic, though there seems to be an assumption on the part of many outsiders that newspaper editorials represent a Solomonic fusion of all perspectives in the room that day.

It would probably disappoint folks to learn that we think of ourselves as less an oracle of God than a gang of opinion writers trying to stay ahead of the day's events before our notions are rendered completely useless an hour later. In that respect, we have a lot in common with our colleagues in the blogosphere.

Editorials are also more collaborative than blog entries, but the process isn't as democratic as folks imagine. There is no group hug. We don't sit in a room chanting incantations until we arrive at a line-by-line consensus. We write our pieces in isolation, the editorial page editor does a final edit and the publisher signs off on it -- or not.

That's why it helps to have a Zen attitude in this job. A published editorial may or may not look the way it was originally written, but that's OK. Unlike a column in which the writer usually has final say, an editorial is shoved into the world like an ugly baby of indeterminate parentage. It isn't always pretty, but someone will surely think it's cute.

In the original Ravenstahl editorial, I wrote that we were "disappointed" and "appalled." Appalled was dropped in the finished copy. Of course, that became evidence of our mendacity because another editorial about Mr. Peduto used tougher language. Am I my fellow editorial writer's keeper? Yeah, I suppose I am.


Tony Norman can be reached at tnorman@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1631.


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