Each semester I quote to my students from Alexander Hamilton’s first number of The Federalist:
“It seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force.”
In the early Republic, reflection and choice rose from reading newspapers, which were openly partisan and frequently scurrilous. It took a long time for American journalism to develop standards of accuracy, balance, and fairness, and it remains a struggle to maintain them.
But in my time it has been the daily newspaper that most broadly attempted to support Hamilton’s vision of an adult, literate population making informed choices. Those choices are not simply political. We publish financial information. We publish reviews of restaurant, plays, concerts, films, and television programs so that people can make choices about where to spend their money. We keep people up to date about the fortunes of the teams they follow. We supply crossword puzzles and columns on chess and bridge to encourage innocent amusements.
We attempt to provide enough reliable information so that you, our readers, can make decisions on all manner of things so that, day to day, those decisions small and great can be made from reflection and choice rather than from accident and force.
For the better part of forty years it has been my task to make the information you receive as accurate and clear as my colleagues and I are able to make it, and that will remain my task from this moment until the day that I take my rocking chair on the porch of the Old Editors’ Home.
I tell my students that editing is not just a job but a vocation: a responsibility to the readers we serve that is bound up in the foundation documents of the Republic, that is fundamental to our sense of who we are as a people among the nations.
This is not a trivial purpose to which to commit one’s life.