An Editor's Legacy

06/15/2015 04:22 pm ET | Updated Jun 15, 2016

Most of the obituaries marking John Carroll's death rightfully praise his legendary reputation as a veteran newspaper editor, his ability to rally a dispirited staff, his tireless push for journalistic integrity and his uncanny, almost magical, ability to mold stories into Pulitzer Prize winners -- of which there were many.

What's less talked about are the journalistic characteristics and personal beliefs that formed the basis of his philosophy. Call them Carroll's rules of the road -- rules that are challenged mightily by an Internet-driven society that provides every voice, no matter how dissonant or anonymous, with a megaphone.

In some ways, Carroll's passing may represent the further erosion of standards that have guided great journalists in the post-Watergate era. As journalists move steadily away from Carroll's rules on a daily basis, it's important to remember -- even in this new landscape -- some of the core values of what he practiced.

While this is by no means a complete list of Carroll's guiding principles, they underline what he valued most:

Wash out bias. Not long after becoming editor of the Los Angeles Times, Carroll issued an open letter to the staff in which he berated the "liberal bias" that one writer showed toward anti-abortion advocates in a story. Carroll vowed to wash that kind of mindset out of the newsroom. Today, many journalists are pressed to opine, rather than report, and emphasize their personal views as a way of gaining an audience.

Elevate language. Carroll, who was known to tell salty jokes, would rarely, if ever, put up with vulgarities or street language in news reports or expletives in headlines, saying it was the duty of newspapers to elevate the discussion and educate their readers. Today, the language of "the common man" and much worse can be found on many news sites, often in part as an attention-getting device, an effort at comic relief, or simply as a means to seem mischievous or bold.

Avoid the circus barker approach. He also felt that a newspaper should let its stories speak for themselves; and that it should not undermine its credibility by excessively touting its own work and those who do it. Today, many journalists are strongly encouraged to use Twitter, Facebook and whatever other means are available for self-laudatory comment -- even when the merit is dubious or undeserved. Carroll was by no means against using social media, but he would always prefer that his editors and reporters focus their energies on promoting the substance or impact of their pieces rather than themselves.

Be thorough even if it takes time and money. Carroll's key to publishing Pulitzer-worthy pieces was simple: Never run a major story before every effort has been made to check its facts and hone the writing into a compelling narrative, regardless of how many drafts it requires. The rule today is more often to get it out first, even if basic facts need to be revised or corrected afterward -- something obviously far easier to accomplish and encourage on a website than in a print product. That the immediacy of the web doesn't always provide a clear reward for such careful editing can have damaging effects on a publication's long-term credibility.

Be courageous, even if it means challenging the business model. Today, journalists are encouraged to understand the business model of news sites and work with the business side of the operation to help assure financial success. One of the most controversial stories undertaken by the Los Angeles Times under Carroll's direct supervision accused Arnold Schwarzenegger, on the eve of his election as California governor, of being a serial groper of women. Carroll ordered the story published even though he knew it would anger many readers who supported the popular movie star. Schwarzenegger later admitted that, at times, he had behaved badly toward women. But the paper still lost thousands of subscribers in the aftermath and never gained them back.

These days, such rules might seem quaint, naïve, overly idealistic and bad for business, especially in the face of the changes and challenges that now beset the world of journalism. Carroll would never suggest that journalists ought to return to a newspaper mindset of print deadlines or eschew the advantages of the web. Rather, he would argue that we should strive to keep this philosophy -- of courage, of impartiality, of independence, of integrity -- front and center. And if we forget these principles, we risk falling into some echo chamber where hard-fought original journalism and grappling with difficult topics gets crowded out by what's expedient, fun and quick -- but not necessarily informative.

As Carroll used to say, doing the right thing is seldom the easy thing, but you do it anyway.


Leo Wolinsky and John Montorio were Managing Editors of the Los Angeles Times during John Carroll's tenure there. Montorio also served as Executive Features Editor of The Huffington Post.