Horace Greeley must be smiling.
When he pioneered the modern editorial page in his New York Tribune in the 19th century, Greeley, the most influential editor of his day, had no idea that the special province he reserved inside his newspaper for debates, opinions and comments would not only be a much-copied forum in other newspapers but would someday appear front and center on Page One.
On March 31, The Indianapolis Star became the latest in a string of big-city newspapers to bring opinion to the front page with its bold, eye-catching demand to the Indiana Legislature to fix the Religious Freedom Restoration Act that is dividing the state.
“Fix. This. Now,” the paper declared, a position that not only got the country talking, tweeting and texting about the religious freedom law but also prompted debate about whether the front page was the appropriate place for the Star to be so up-front on the issue.
The practice of publishing editorials or analyses on the front page is nothing new. A look through the Newseum’s collection of historic newspapers found a few front pages with clearly labeled opinions on the cover. In every instance, the opinions involved critical, pressing issues that affected the country.
In 1951, President Harry S. Truman’s firing of Gen. Douglas MacArthur for insubordination was condemned in a front-page editorial in the New York Journal American, a daily controlled by media tycoon William Randolph Hearst.
After the 1953 armistice that ended the fighting in Korea, William Randolph Hearst Jr., the tycoon’s son and heir, penned a prophetic front-page editorial in the Times Union of Albany, N.Y., titled “The Korean Truce,” in which he said Americans must not be “foolish enough to be sucked into a ground fighting operation similar to Korea.”
“Front-page editorials are not incredibly common in the Newseum collection,” said Kathryn Wilmot, the Newseum’s print news archivist. “They are certainly an impactful way for a newspaper’s editors to express their opinions.”
What sets The Indianapolis Star apart from the 20th-century dailies is its decision to devote the entire front page to an editorial — a rare practice that has been done occasionally by other newspapers with equal success and impact.
In 2011, the sole content on the Nov. 8 front page of The (Harrisburg, Pa.) Patriot-News was a striking two-column editorial on the sex abuse scandal that rocked Penn State University.
“There are the obligations we all have to uphold the law,” the editorial began. “There are then the obligations we all have to do what is right. … While Penn State University President Graham Spanier has not been charged with breaking any laws, he did not do what is right. … Spanier needs to step aside.”
Earlier in the month on Nov. 3, the New York Post showed its frustration with the Occupy Wall Street movement in an editorial titled “Enough!”
“Mr. Mayor, it is time to reclaim Zuccotti Park — and New York City’s dignity,” the tabloid said.
In a May 2, 2010, editorial titled “Stop Failing Arizona; Start Fixing Immigration,” The Arizona Republic was out front and forceful in condemning the state’s inaction on immigration reform.
“We need leaders,” the paper said. “The federal government is abdicating its duty on the border. Arizona politicians are pandering to public fear. The result is a state law that intimidates Latinos while doing nothing to curb illegal immigration.”
In his day, Greeley ignited public debate with editorials that favored abolition, socialism, temperance, women’s rights, and even vegetarianism. The Tribune, nicknamed “The Great Moral Organ,” was considered by labor historian John Commons as “the first and only great vehicle this country has known for the ideas and experiments of constructive democracy.”
One of Greeley’s most famous editorials, “The Prayer of Twenty Millions,” published in 1862, implored President Abraham Lincoln to free America’s slaves. The editorial was so powerful that Lincoln himself responded in a letter to the editor. His goal, Lincoln told Greeley, was not to save or destroy slavery but “to save the Union.” Yet he soon signed the Emancipation Proclamation.
Greeley’s “Prayer” ran on the editorial page at more than 2,200 words. Today, those potent words most likely would fill the cover.