An Editor’s Style

Bill Jr.

WBS Sr., became an editor by luck and by God’s grace. The Witness had been founded basically by Bp. Irvin Peake Johnson and, after a couple of years, the first editor, the Rev. Shutt, died suddenly. Bishop Anderson of Chicago, who had placed Dad in St. George’s Church, let Bp. Johnson know that there was this young priest looking for a job to expand his salary. It might be a good thing to hire him for an interim until the right person was found. At the age of 81, in November of 1972, Dad died, still basically the “interim” editor.

The placement was a case of the right person being in the right place at the right time. No fancy ‘head-hunting’ placement process, which is today’s norm. The two guys met, the bishop fundamentally conservative; the priest radical. Both were
humor and solid in conviction.  As an occasional caddy for both, I knew that neither was a threat to Bobby Jones or Gene Sarazen as golfers. A perfect team!

The Witness, which Dad quickly dubbed ‘the world’s greatest weekly’ (stealing from the motto of the omni-present and conservative Chicago Tribune), was printed in the Clarke Brothers print shop on Cottage Grove Avenue. Frank Clarke was a faithful Roman Catholic and, also, a White Sox fan. They could fight about religion, sports and, if needed, politics and economics. It was the already crowded Clarke house that had taken the mendicant Spoffords in when they first hit Chicago.

I recall being taken down to The Shop by Dad and watching the furious, noisy and overpowering presses grinding out sheets of all sorts of material.  Later, when he built his own plant in Tunkhannock, Pa., he put together one of the best operations in Pennsylvania, only to have computer presses come in, making his dream-machines obsolete.

Dad, by the tutoring of the Clarkes, by insistant questioning, and by trial-and-error, ultimately became’ a printer’s ‘man-of-all-skills,’ knowing how to set type, fire up the ‘pots’, roll the paper, bargain with paper salesman, bind and staple and deliver editions to the post-office at the best time and at the best price possible. He was friends with every postal clerk he ever met, whether in the downtown N.Y.C. sub-station where they discussed the fortunes of the Yankees or in Tunkhannock, where they discussed pot-holes in the state highways between The Shop and the P.O.  And, yet, woe to any clerk or superintendent who didn’t get the ‘World’s Greatest Weekly’ on its way on time.

The point, however, was to get information out. As far as I know, Dad never copyrighted anything in his life.  His conviction was that the purpose of Truth is to be seen, understood and revealed and the reality of Falsehood is to be unmasked, challenged and expunged.  He very seldom paid writers and yet provocative articles poured in, mostly from church folk but, also, he wrote many letters soliciting copy.

Often, as secretary of C.L.I.D., he would solicit articles from friends in the social gospel and human rights and peace communities. He rounded up editorial committees and advisory boards which, at least on their letter-head, over-lapped between his editing and social activist jobs.

At home, we always knew when things were running late at the shop because he might dash home to eat, kiss Mother, pat us on the head or ask about school, and then disappear. When we got home the next morning, he was around and ready to go again.

Most surely, he developed columnists: Irving Peake Johnson as editor-in-chief; Dean Billy Ladd who was writing “Prayer Book Interleaves”; Bp. Edward Lamb Parsons, president of C.L.I.D. and also a liturgist, would weigh in with social commentary; Clinton Kew in the area of theology mental health; Joe Fletcher on social and bio-medical ethics; Massey Shepherd with his “The Living Liturgy” series; Tom Barrett out of Palm Beach, Fla., and C.D.S.P.1 in Berkeley, with his strong satirical “Adventures of Mr. Entwhistle’;  the custodian of the Book of Common Prayer and dean of the National Cathedral, did ‘THE SANCTUARY’ (a brief insert of prayers, spiritual comments and things fitted for parish bulletins; and me as drama and movie critic and general literary factotum

His ‘TALKING IT OVER’ was where the political and economic commentary came through, as well as much of lhis investigative reporting pieces and in which he combined his C.L.I.D. side with his journalistic skills.

He would cover big meetings such as General Conventions in person but had ‘stringers’ in working all the three houses of such affairs. Normally, I would cover the House of Bishops; Bob Curry, head master of Lenox and Shattuck Schools, would do the House of Clerical and Lay Deputies and people like Florence Lichtenberger or Muriel Webb would keep an eye out on the Episcopal Churchwomen.

He delighted in getting scoops. Normally, when a Presiding Bishop was being elected, he would have the front page set-up, complete with pictures and biographies, of the five or so leading prospects. Then I, or another, would phone as quickly as possible and, in short order, presses would roll and The Witness was on the way. (I recall taking the train from Cleveland to Chicago and waiting in the Clarke’s shop for a call and, within an hour or so, getting on the train back to Cleveland so that the edition was on the desk of all bishops and deputies the next morning. Since it was printed on glossy stock then, the bundles were extremely heavy and I arrived with cut hands from the wires that were holding the piles together.

Howard Kurtz, as I write, has just published an article on what is wrong with contemporary newspapers. 3 6. Break the shackles of mindless objectivity; 7. Turn the writers loose; 8. Set the agenda; 9. Make it a picture medium; 10. Satisfy the specialists ; 11. Liberate the Op-Ed page and 12. Connect with the community.

Bill, Sr., did most or all of these from the moment that Bp. Johnson made a deal with him to fill-in as interim. He was still doing it when, due to arteriosclerosis and alcoholic debility, he was editing from memory and by touch and feel, one month before his death.

Of course, he had his critics. Albert T. Mollegan, ethicist at the Virginia Theological Seminary, was on of them. In the BACKFIRE section of the Witness (May 31, 1945)  Dr. ‘Molle’ says he despairs of the Witness editor’s fairness and accuracy. The issue was over the consecration of Bravid Harris as Bp. of Liberia and Dad’s reporting that it was southern bishops who used pressure to prevent the consecration from taking place in the National Cathedral because Mr. Harris was black. The letter was cogent and sharp.

In answering, Dad gives a bit of his editorial and writing philosophy:

“Since I am responsible for the news in this paper I’ll answer personally. I editorialize news frequently and will continue to do so.

“I also check facts insofar as possible. A reporter in checking is frequently told not to reveal the sources of his information, for various reasons, one of which is that it would get people in jams. But I can say, on the highest authority, that pressure and a lot of it was used to prevent the consecration of Bishop Harris from being held in the Washington Cathedral. Also the story was not slanted against Southern Bishops. It was slanted against Jim-Crowism and if there are Southern Bishops who are Jim-Crow in their attitudes that’s for them to worry about, not me.

There is no reporter, or mighty few, able to write ‘pure’ news. To illustrate, I have read the reports of the united Nations Conference, day by day, as they have appeared in about a dozen metropolitan dailies. I will wager that these stories could be read to me, so that I could not identify them by heads or type, and that I could name the paper in which the story appeared and be right 80% of the time since i know the slants of the papers.

Anyhow I haven’t the ability to write ‘pure’ news, nor is that my function in life. I editorialize because I want to. There are those who do not like it; others seem to. So I am not going to worry much about this criticism. I will worry when someone points out to me that the editorializing is off the beam. Up to now, I hope and believe, that it has been on the side of better race relations, more justice in industry, against anti-Semitism, for organic Church unity, for a One-World set-up internationally. When it is slanted in other directions on these and other matters I hope some good friend will take me in hand.

But to return to Mollegen’s letter: the statement made by Bishop Barnwell 4 at his diocesan convention I consider Jim-Crow stuff. I wrote the piece of news deliberately to bring out that fact. Not to have the consecration in Washington–the first Negro to be consecrated in years–was, in my judgment, a great mistake. I slanted my story to bring out that opinion. That pressure was used, and strong pressure, not to have it in Washington is a fact. I so stated. And if to state the fact without presenting supporting evidence is ‘insinuation; then I think a lot of people ought to be happy since a number of the facts are not pretty. Also, I repeat, the story was not slanted against Southern Bishops. It was slanted against Jim-Crowism which I had always supposed Mollegen hated as much as I do.

In his comments on reporting he not only shows a lack of knowledge of that job; he also sounds very much to me like a perfectionist. If so then I certainly want to urge him to take a refresher course with his good friend, Reinie Niebuhr.”

Bill Jr.

Dr. Mollegen, of course, was known in Virginia as one who had taken on one of the most racist congress members in a well-known struggle for interracial equity. He and the editor had, on occasion, had their differences of principles and some actions, centering on theologies of neo-orthodoxy vs. semi-Pelagian ‘Christian activism.’ Through the decades, however, they consistently battled in C.L.I.D. meetings and, speaking from the perspective of 1993, the fights then were more stylish and perhaps creative in resolution. History will tell us, I am sure.

For a ‘labor guy’, Dad was not the easiest employer. Through the years, Ed Mohr, Christopher Morley, Jr., Philip Shutt 5 assorted Antioch college co-op students and I worked with and around Dad. He was sure of what he was doing and wasn’t that sure that any of us had that intensity. Chris Morley perhaps said it in a letter of Nov. 27,1941, just before he went off to join the American Field Service in the Near East (a week or so before Pearl Harbor):

‘….The job, unfortunately, did not at all suit me. Principally, and this was the main reason I left, because it was woefully dull. In the second place, because, while one can gladly drudge for something one feels is really important, I could not, to be frank, muster the essential enthusiasm to carry me through the arid wastes of form-letter typing. Don’t get me wrong: I think THE WITNESS is a very worthy effort, and can become increasingly valuable to the Church. But from my particular angle, it did not seem an adequate justification for the complete devotion which I want to give to whatever job I do.’

Bill Jr. Since Ed Mohr, Chris Morley and I ended up ordained, and Phil Shutt became diocesan historian for Springfield, and since I occasionally meet elderly Antiochians who remember working for Dad In N.Y.C. as dull but involving, it seems that, in one way or another, ‘vocations’ were being discerned and tested.

Except for the last decade and half of his life, Dad was probably the most competent Church journalist going. A lot of secular newspaper folk have said they regretted that his work was ‘wasted’ on the church field.  But what do they know,  asks his son.

  1. the Church Divinity School of the Pacific, the principal Episcopal seminary in the western U.S.
  2. THE WASHINGTON POST MAGAZINE, April 18, 1993, p. 8 ff. [/note} )  Kurtz is media reporter for that respected paper. He is extremely critical of the consolidation of news systems and, at the same time, says ‘there is no magic formula, no all-purpose panacea for revitalizing newspapers.’ But then he lists several things that should be done more often.

    As I list them, I know from the internal evidence of his writings and from his dedication to the exploration of the human condition that Dad’s editing, even as a religious journalist, fit most of them. They are:

    1. Make people mad; 2. Unearth things the authorities don’t want people to know; 3. Make people laugh; 4. Touch readers in their daily lives; 5. Touch readers in their daily lives;2 I do not know if this repetition was intentional. –Tim Spofford

  3. ex-Idaho, translated to Georgia
  4. son of the first WITNESS editor