Erwin D. Canham, former Monitor editor

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Erwin Dain Canham served this newspaper, the American news media, and the world of international journalism as one of its giants. Word that he had passed on, out in the western Pacific where he had earlier carried out a difficult diplomatic mission for the United States, stirred a host of tributes from colleagues near and far.

Those who know him best understand that his contribution to journalism is not to be found in a list of the responsible posts he held in his profession.

The fact that he was chosen to be president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, was an officer of the International Federation of Newspaper Editors, and on occasion accepted a tour of duty in the world of public affairs -- for example, as a US delegate to the United Nations, where he helped to draft treaties on freedom of information -- was only the outward aspect of his career. The fact that during his editorship this newspaper was repeatedly chosen by the associations of American and international editors and publishers as one of the top-ranking newspapers would be closer to the mark.

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But the inner reality is found in the reasons behind this widespread public regard. Mr. Canham was tireless in his devotion to solving an extremely obstinate problem: how to encourage responsibility and, at the same time, protect freedom, in the matter of public news and information.

He was intimately aware of the dilemma that was created by the writers of the First Amendment to the US Constitution, who gave the press almost unlimited power with no legal, enforceable requirement of responsibility.

Mr. Canham argued that since Congress is debarred by the Constitution from ''making any law'' that would impose responsibility, then responsibility can only be self-imposed. He often said that his experience showed him that self-discipline comes hard in an industry that is highly competitive, and that codes of ethics in the news industry are often written but rarely followed. He decided, therefore, that example was far more useful than preaching.

He considered himself fortunate that the newspaper which he edited was in a position to put principles first.

The story of how he went about this task at his own desk, always seeking to be realistic and to avoid a self-righteous kind of leadership, is told in his book ''Commitment to Freedom: The Story of The Christian Science Monitor,'' published in 1958.

His purpose, he said, was ''to tell the facts about a newspaper which is to professionals a kind of daily astonishment. In telling (these facts), there has been another difficulty: to avoid institutionalism and false pride. We have to remind ourselves that the Monitor is good enough to tell its own story. We know, too, that the Monitor has a long way to go to be worthy of its ideals and objectives.''

Mr. Canham was equally candid about the unusual position of the Monitor among newspapers, and understood this to be the source of its success.

He wrote in the introduction to his book, ''This does not pretend to be a neutral history of The Christian Science Monitor. How could it be? The author has been on the Monitor's staff since he was a cub reporter in 1925. . . . And so, in this account, we try to tell something of what lies behind the newspaper.''

What follows is best told in his own words. In three paragraphs, he laid out the base on which the Monitor rests:

''Christian Scientists have a deep consciousness of the spiritual nature of man. Their teaching derives from the first chapter of Genesis: that God made all and made it 'very good,' that He created man in His image and likeness; and that , as Jesus declared, God is Spirit. The Christian Scientist thus regards the spiritual or true man as being as incapable of evil as his Maker. Sick, sinning mortal man is seen as a merely material misconception of the true man. This false conception, the Christian Scientist believes, can be corrected by an increasing understanding of man's spiritual selfhood. . . .

''Such an approach explains the attitude of confidence in good which underlies the entire experience of the Monitor. The newspaper, like the individual Christian Scientist, does not ignore or dismiss the assertions of evil which confront human experience. It has to deal with them. But it does not believe these evils are the truth about man, and it seeks to replace and correct them with more upright and noble concepts and deeds.''

Turning, then, to the operation of the Monitor:

''The Monitor's special method, in its task of serving mankind, is to give proper emphasis to significant news. It does not leave out news just because it is unpleasant, nor seek to throw a rosy glow over a world that is often far from rosy. To describe the Monitor as a 'clean' newspaper is correct but incomplete. It also strives to expose whatever needs to be uncovered in order to be removed or remedied. It seeks to put the news in a sound perspective, giving greatest emphasis to what is important and reducing the merely sensational to its place in an accurate system of values. It seeks also to amuse and entertain, but in wholesome and socially desirable terms. . . .''

As for Erwin Canham himself, it suffices to record that he tackled this solemn task with the lightest touch. At morning news conferences, when the day's paper was planned, he would often pour out good-humored, and sometimes hilarious , accounts of his travels in the realms of politics and journalism, where he had been representing the Monitor and picking up new information and analysis from his personal friends in high offices.

The paragraphs quoted above, however, are the legacy that he leaves to his successors.

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