George Pyle: How we joined the parade of the editorial pages in defense of the free press

Like a lot of ideas these days — good and bad — it started small and got a lot bigger really quickly when it hit the internet.

The people in charge of the editorial pages at The Boston Globe were planning to publish an editorial pushing back at the president of the United States for his strategy of animating his small but enthusiastic base by demonizing the free press. By calling us “fake news,” or “the enemy of the people.” By encouraging the already vulgar crowds at his permanent campaign events to show open hostility to the journalists who were covering the events, seemingly unaware of — or, perhaps, reveling in — the fact that such visuals only underscore the idea that, as someone once said, they are a “basket of deplorables.”

And the Globe wondered if other newspapers would like to do the same thing on the same day. That doesn’t happen very often. In fact, I can’t remember it ever happening before. When a single big story dominates the news it isn’t unusual to find that many newspapers editorialize on the same topic on the same day. But that’s not a plan. That is newspapers doing what they do, chasing the big story in a pack or, as we ivory tower editorial page types sometimes say, great minds running in small circles.

This idea, though, picked up steam as emails were forwarded and tweets retweeted. A few internal emails among The Tribune’s Editorial Board members amounted to a quick consensus that it was a legitimate topic, whether it was in one newspaper or 100. So we decided we were in.

By the time the appointed day — Thursday — rolled around, the number of newspapers joining the call topped 350. Including Ogden’s Standard Examiner and Provo’s Daily Herald. Even though those newspapers have recently come under the same management, each wrote its own editorial.

Every newspaper wrote its own piece. Some were big picture. Others made a point that I wish ours had, the obvious angle that newspapers aren’t the enemy of the people because, to a large degree, newspaper reporters are the people. They live in your towns and pay the same taxes and send their children to the same schools and go to the same parks and stores and baseball games as anyone else. They just make their livings doing a sort of odd thing, paying attention to lots of details about local government, culture and life so you have time to live and pay taxes and send your children to school and go to ballgames.

At least one, The Toledo Blade, among the most supportive of the president on most days, did a huge “on the other hand” and argued that, while the president’s attacks are over the top, the press is guilty, too, because it is biased against him and should change it’s ways.

This is why the cliché is that newspapers need to hire one-armed editorial writers. So they will never argue, “on the other hand.”

Some editors decided not to participate, including the big guns at The Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle and the Los Angeles Times and the survivors of the recent shootings at the Capital Gazette in Maryland. They were heard to express the reasonable view that anything the mainstream media does in concert only gives support to the idea that we are a big conspiracy plotting to deprive the president of the absolute control he deserves. But, even in making such statements, they supported the free press.

It’s not that the press never makes a mistake or overplays or underplays a story. This first rough draft of history we are writing is often really rough indeed. But, over time, it tends to be self-correcting.

We have a president right now who, more than any other, seems not to grasp what the institution is for. That seems to be because he views everything as to whether or not it serves him personally and, if it doesn’t, why have it?

He feels the same way about Congress, the courts, the FBI and, as we have seen in the last few days, the talking heads of the community of retired intelligence and law enforcement officers whose security clearances the president has begun revoking out of, again, a belief that they are all supposed to be loyal to him, and him only, and not the American people whom they have served for decades. The guys who violate the first rule of talk radio when they are brought on the air to give their opinions because their opinions are actually expert and informed.

The press, like the intelligence demimonde, is not biased against the president. It does, though, have big problems with corruption, cruelty, credible accusations of collusion with foreign actors and a cascade of lies that can scarcely be kept up with. That’s not bias, prejudice or partisanship. That’s following the truth where it leads. That’s what we do, and if that makes someone uncomfortable, well, whose fault is that?

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Tribune staff. George Pyle.

George Pyle, The Salt Lake Tribune’s editorial page editor, does admit to being biased against mosquitoes, loud motorcycles in quiet neighborhoods and paint that doesn’t stay where you painted it. gpyle@sltrib.com