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Outrage, Passion, & Uncommon Sense


How Editorial Writers Have Taken on the Great American Issues of the Past 150 Years

WASHINGTON (July 1, 2005)--“The editorial is the soul of the newspaper. And, on a good newspaper that knows and understands and loves its hometown, or its home country, the editorial is the heart and the soul of the town, or the nation, as well.” So writes Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Michael Gartner in a new book from National Geographic that takes a compelling look at critical moments in U.S. history over the past century and a half through the prism of eloquent and stirring editorials.

OUTRAGE, PASSION, & UNCOMMON SENSE (National Geographic Books, ISBN 0-7922-4197-5, October 2005, $30), by Gartner and the Newseum, explores topics from slavery and women suffrage to war and politics. Mining newpaper archives and the journalistic expertise of the Newseum interactive museum of news, Gartner has selected and analyzed some 50 editorials, penned between 1842 and 1998, that offer a stirring commentary on history as it was being made.

Some are outrageous, others passionate. Some are contentious -- even vicious. Many are spectacularly insightful, while others are spectacularly wrong. They are among the most important -- or most interesting, or most spiteful, or most eloquent -- editorials ever written. Through them is reflected the anguish of war, divisions of race, intrigue of politics, glory of freedom -- and even the magic of Christmas.

Gartner, who himself won a Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing in 1997, identifies the four greatest editorial writers in the nation’s history as Horace Greeley, founder of the New York Tribune in 1841; Henry Watterson, editor of The Courier-Journal of Louisville, Ky., from 1868 to 1918; William Allen White, editor of The Emporia Daily Gazette of Emporia, Kan., from 1895 to 1944; and Vermont Royster, editorial writer, executive and columnist of The Wall Street Journal from the 1940s to 1980s.

“On any given day, they could be outrageous, outlandish, outspoken or outstanding. The editorials of the young White helped elect a man to the White House. The editorials of an old Watterson helped stir a nation to war. Greeley, in his day, was as influential as any politician. Royster, in his way, set the political agenda for business leaders and the business agenda for political leaders,” Gartner writes.

He suggests that the most powerful editorial ever published was “The Prayer of Twenty Millions,” Greeley’s critical letter to President Lincoln on Aug. 19, 1862, in the midst of the Civil War, stating that many of the people who had voted for him were “sorely disappointed and severely pained” that the president had not freed the slaves. Within six months, Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation.

Irony, compassion, lyricism, dismay, despair -- editorial writers use all these devices. “Ever since the Revolution, through war and peace and crisis and calm, [editorial writers] have been explaining and exploring and expounding issues and ideas for the American newspaper reader...The best editorials are as consistent in their beliefs as they are in their writing. Editorials represent the views, the heritage and the traditions of the newspaper itself. By hewing to that line, they allow the readers to use the editorials as a yardstick for their own views and beliefs,” writes Gartner.

He bemoans the fact that today’s editorials, especially in newspapers owned by big corporations, are often bland and boring -- “they inform, but do not inspire,” he writes. “Editorials both make and mar a newspaper -- and a town and a nation. They make it when they expose and inspire, they mar it when they’re expedient and insipid. In this age of instant news reported without interpretation or context...strong editorials are needed more than ever. Democracy needs their passion, their outrage and, especially, their uncommon sense.”

Gartner won his 1997 Pulitzer Prize when he was editor and co-owner of The Daily Tribune in Ames, Iowa. He now lives in Des Moines, Iowa, where he is principal owner of the Iowa Cubs, the Triple-A affiliate of the Chicago Cubs, and president of the Iowa Board of Regents.


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