One of the most vexing and nettling problems that confront editors every day is the need to label people or organizations to help orient the reader. Brevity is vital; so is accuracy. It is often a shotgun wedding, a no-winner. Nobody is ever happy. The solutions can often evaporate with the speed of an ice cube in the midday sun. "Progressive" may be the perfect key for a particular public figure today, but with fast-paced political and social developments, yesterday's "progressive" suddenly becomes tomorrow's "reactionary."
A few years ago, The Post would describe Lyndon LaRouche as "conservative" for lack of a better title. "Conservative" has become a much-coveted political tag in this decade, even with some liberals. Mainstream candidates in the conservative camp began raising their eyebrows and their voices over being lumped politically with this man of unorthodox views. After considerable thought among editors, Mr. LaRouche metamorphosed into "a political extremist." The LaRouche supporters began a campaign to restore their leader to what they felt was his proper niche. The Post is holding firm, and properly so.
Sometimes, editors will attempt to resolve a problem by accepting a group's own designation but then wrap it in quotes, a not-so-subtle but quite effective device for alerting the reader that the title may be self-serving. Several years ago, the news media failed to do this in a kidnapping case of national attention -- the kidnapping of Patricia Hearst by the "Symbionese Liberation Army." Neither The Post, nor The New York Times, nor the Associated Press, ever put quotes around that title and thus gave this ragtag band of four or five violence-prone radical misfits and social outcasts equal credibility with the Soviet Army, the Israeli Army, or for that matter, the United States Army.
The ombudsman constantly gets complaints that this paper glibly refers to "Third World" countries, without defining what it means. Ask a dozen editors to define that term and I suspect you'll get 12 different answers. It would be virtually impossible, of course, in writing a news story to pause and compose a detailed and accurate characterization of the person or group under discussion. The reporter would lose his or her mind; worse, he'd lose the reader.
Some people seem to have a built-in tag; Sen. Orrin Hatch is described as "conservative." When Sen. Ted Kennedy's name crops up in the next sentence, there's no tag at all for his place on the spectrum. Sandinistas are usually alluded to as "leftist." Some readers protest it should be "communist." Others react violently if a story cites an official calling on the Sandinistas to restore democratic values in Nicaragua, as though the country ever had democratic institutions.
More troublesome is how to describe a person who has served his country with distinction and is now toiling for a living just like the rest of us. He writes an article for publication with great authority on a subject of vital world concern, but his clients have a corporate interest now in his public position. Do you simply remind the reader that he is a former distinguished Cabinet official when, in vulgar terms, he is now a lobbyist serving special interests?
On Nov. 23, there was an article on the op-ed page, co-authored by Ralph Nader, in which he was described simply as "a Washington lawyer," hardly an adequate description of a man unarguably the century's most successful advocate of health and safety reform. Mr. Nader may have preferred being characterized as the "consumer advocate," but this could be challenged by consumers who do not regard him as their spokesman. Still, even the impersonal Webster's dictionary identifies him as "a lawyer and reformer." The editor who handled the column said Mr. Nader himself suggested using the term "Washington lawyer," rejecting identification with organizations he has been affiliated with, after being told The Post did not wish to identify him as "consumer advocate" as suggested by his staff. It is my feeling that in any event, this casual identification was inadequate. For years, some of the best editors have considered Mr. Nader a pain. I can well sympathize with them. I imagine the town criers of Biblical times must have felt the same way about Jesus of Nazareth or the Old Testament prophets, Amos and Isaiah.
My instincts for survival also tell me I'd better drop the analogy right there if I want to live out the remaining time allotted to me here.