Press Box

The Should-and-Must Rap Sheet, Vol. 1

Which editorial pages broke Rosenthal’s Law this week?

Back when Jack Rosenthal ran the New York Times editorial page (1986-1992), he barred his editorialists from using the words “should” and “must.” As he explained to George magazine’s Timothy Noah in 1999, the two imperial directives tended to produce weak editorials that argued by assertion, and he preferred persuasive editorials supported by logic.

Besides, Rosenthal told Noah, should-and-must editorials made it sound as if the Times’ message to readers was, “You must, by God, because we said so, and we’re the fucking New York Times.”

Howell Raines abandoned Rosenthal’s dictum when he assumed command of the Times editorial page, and today it’s a rare week that the Times doesn’t issue several should-and-must proclamations. But the Times isn’t the only offender. A data dump from this week reveals egregious should-and-musting on the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe, and Chicago Tribune editorial pages.

(Relatively innocent of the journalistic crime this week is the Wall Street Journal editorial page, where they must tattoo Rosenthal’s Law on editorialists’ foreheads.)

The worst sort of should-and-musting is the generic and modular kind, such as in this foreign-aid lecture by the New York Timesinsisting that the United States, “as the richest country on earth, must lead” and “must do more to breathe some life into” an aid program. An editorialist who follows the generic and modular path can save himself countless hours of reporting and research by inserting arguments about U.S. wealth into any editorial. A variation of the, “Yes, we should spend more money” appears in this New York Times editorial: “The federal government must increase both state and federal unemployment benefits to a level that’s closer to the national average, and increase their duration, which is now 26 weeks.”

Whenever belaboring the obvious, editorialists reach for the language of decree. Mulling over the tax code this week, the shining lights at the Washington Post  conclude that “lawmakers should know the long-term price tag before proceeding.” Responding to the scandal at American University, the Washington Postbravely declares in one paragraph that the school’s audit efforts “must be improved,” and its board-selection practices “should be changed.” Over at the Los Angeles Times, the page announces that the “United States should continue to preach the merits of free trade and the rule of law.” Opining on Alito, the New York Times believes that the nominee “should be given a serious hearing” and that “we should pay attention” to his radicalism.

The most craven expenditure of the forbidden words comes when an editorialist places one in the last sentence of an editorial. The New York Times did this twice in one day (Oct. 31) last week in its energy policy and Michael Brown editorials. It must kill poor old Rosenthal to read the page these days.

Some editorial pages spend their shoulds-and-musts as if they purchase them in bulk. A 445-word Boston Globe editorial from yesterday contains four: “Employers of these people should pay a special assessment … everyone in the state should be required to buy health insurance … there should be no free riders in the system … The Legislature should improve it, not bury it.” Another Boston Globeeditorial burns through three shoulds and one must. The Chicago Tribune’s anti-torture editorial states, “McCain’s amendment should be adopted, and the administration should drop its rear-guard action to gut the measure. … torture should not be in the toolbox of the military or CIA. … When it comes to torture, the Bush administration should listen carefully to a man [Sen. John McCain] who carries the weight of experience.” Los Angeles Times editorialists similarly splurge by dictating that “Bush should apologize to Plame”; “Cheney should spend the bulk of his time at undisclosed locations and funerals for foreign dignitaries”; “and Bush should continue to express respect for Special Prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald’s inquiry.”

This Washington Post editorial page takes the award for the tightest packing of shoulds last week: “We oppose capital punishment, but even its supporters should agree that a sentence so severe and irreversible should be meted out only when the arguments for it are overpowering. When a qualified juror is not persuaded, prosecutors should not get another chance.” And the paper wins the week’s should-and-must overkill award for its Oct. 31 editorial “A Deal on Social Security,” in which five shoulds and two musts command the president, Democrats, and the Bush team to take action.

You should read it. No, really. You must.

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