Vermont Royster, one of the editorial greats

Paul O’Connor is nothing if not brave. Here, he dares to review a book written by the senior associate dean with whom both of us work at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Journalism and Mass Communication. And to think some people question the ability of journalists to be objective.

I’m particularly interested in this review, having had the pleasure of interviewing Vermont Royster many years ago at the home in Chapel Hill where he lived after he retired from The Wall Street Journal.    – Linda Brinson

Reviewed by Paul T. O’Connor

THINKING THINGS OVER: VERMONT ROYSTER’S LEGACY AT THE WALL STREET JOURNAL. By Chris Roush. Marion Street Press. Trade Paper. 160 pages. $18.95.

It took Jon Stewart of The Daily Show to crystallize for many Americans just how far the quality of civil debate in their country has fallen.

In October 2004, as the presidential election neared, Stewart appeared on CNN’s Crossfire and berated co-hosts Paul Begala and Tucker Carlson for “hurting America.” When they tried to defend themselves, Stewart charged:  “You’re doing political theater when you should be doing debate.”

As the medium for public policy debate has shifted from the nation’s dying newspapers to cable news screamfests like the now maybe-dead, maybe-not-dead Crossfire, it is important to remember that there were once many great American editorial writers who led our political debate as independent thinkers.

Such names as H.L. Mencken, William Allen White, James Reston and Walter Lippmann come to mind first. They were editorialists with established political philosophies, for sure, but they were not accomplices, as are today’s cable pundits, to political parties or factions thereof. They saw it as their professional purpose to provide a civil society with insights that would assist democratic rule.

Here in North Carolina, we can claim one of those great names of American opinion as one of our own. Vermont Connecticut Royster, long-time editor of The Wall Street Journal, was born in Raleigh in 1914, studied at UNC Chapel Hill, taught there in retirement, and then died in Raleigh in 1996.

Chris Roush, a professor of business journalism at UNC Chapel Hill and the senior associate dean who makes life miserable for both Linda Brinson and me, has written a short biography of Royster, one focused on his professional contributions.

Forgive me for saying this, but 160 pages of tight copy is about all I want to know about Royster. There are longer biographies, but if I’m going to dedicate a month of reading time to a bio, I want it to be about someone with a more exciting life than Vermont’s – someone like Teddy Roosevelt or Frank Sinatra. For example, Royster spent four years in the Navy during World War II and came away without a single great battle story to tell. See what I mean?

In Roush’s tight bio, we get the essence of Royster’s contribution – intellectual and journalistic integrity in which loyalty went to an idea well considered rather than a political faction and its talking points. If Royster pissed off Republicans, so be it. If he did so to Democrats at the same time, all the better. And vice versa.

As Roush tells us, in Royster The Wall Street Journal had an editor dedicated to ideas. He quotes Royster as saying that the editorial page was the place where the reader would find a discussion of ideas related to the news reported in the rest of that day’s paper.

In Royster’s days, the Journal’s editorial page was much more centrist than it is today, and that’s because that’s what Royster was. Today, centrists are denigrated, told that those in the middle of the road are likely to be run over.

But no one ran over Royster. He wrote with such skill that he could destroy an ill-considered idea without being nasty. Check the book’s appendix for several examples.

As for Roush, he writes better than most academics. But he is a business writer, so don’t expect prose as good as Linda’s. His book is worth the read because he gets to the gist of why Vermont Royster was so important.

  • Paul T. O’Connor, contributing editor, is a university lecturer who is available for freelance writing assignments. Contact him at ocolumn@gmail.com.

 

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