Tribute to Eugene Patterson, the epitome of the socially conscious editor and journalist
In the days, weeks and months to come, there will be many amazing tributes to Eugene Patterson, the accomplished, talented former editor of the St. Petersburg Times who set the stage for so much of how we do journalism at the Times and in the Tampa Bay area while speaking out on one of the most important issues of his time -- racial equality. (the Tampa Bay Times obit is here)
But I wanted to pay tribute here to Patterson, who died Saturday at age 89 after a long illness, for serving as one of the best examples of an editor, columnist and journalist who made a difference by taking the right stand at the right time -- challenging many who would eventually acknowledge they stood on the wrong side of history -- in a way every person who slings opinions for a living dreams of accomplishing.
Pick up The Changing South of Gene Patterson, the wonderful selection of Patterson's columns in the Atlanta Journal Constitution newspaper from 1960 to 1968 for a look at how his willingness to advocate strongly for the rights of black people at a time when may corners of white society resisted racial equality, proved a brilliant template for how to push social change in prescient writing.
"Patterson's real audience was white," read a passage from the book's foreward. "He wrote for them and about them because he was unabashedly one of them. He never forgot his roots in rural Georgia, following behind mules and worrying about getting by during the Depression...He wrote always as a Southerner--but one who had fought against Nazism and cruelty during World War II and had lived long enough outside the South to know that it had to change lest it lose its soul."
In a media world where so many commentators are working commercial angles, advocating ideas to sell books or get on television, it is even tougher to conceive of a public opinion maker willing to challenge the orthodoxy of his audience strongly and repeatedly because it was what needed to be done.
The list of newspapers in the South which didn't do that back then can be measured in the roster of publications which have since apologized for their unfair, pro-segregationist coverage of the civil rights movement, including the Tallahassee Democrat and Lexington (Ky.) Herald-Leader. But Patterson, who was writing a daily column while editing one of the most-read newspapers in the South, avoided that trap; as the book notes, his columns also wound up detailing how some Southern white people struggled with issues of race in facing the essential unfairness of segregation.
I didn't meet Patterson until many years later, of course, during a reception for international correspondent Charlayne Hunter-Gault at the Poynter Institute (Patterson had written about her back in 1961, when she was one of two black students who were the first to desegregate the University of Georgia. In The Changing South, Patterson wrote about speaking with the state's then-governor, urging him to use state police to escort both students back to class when protests broke out).
But I was most inspired when sitting on a public panel with him in 2011, discussing modern-day civil rights issues. Patterson spoke of reading Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson's book The Abandoned, and wondering how to deal with a persistent underclass of color who haven't benefited as much from civil rights advancements as we all would hope. "Can 'burn baby burn' be replaced with 'learn baby learn?'" he asked, referencing a classic '60s-era protest chant.
Patterson's seminal work as the first editor after Nelson Poynter to lead the St. Petersburg Times shaped so much of the journalism landscape in this town, from the way we cover DUI arrests in the paper (Patterson put his on the front page) to the unique relationship allowing a school or journalists to own the largest daily newspaper south of Atlanta.
But it was Patterson's example of challenging the audience for the greater good -- an example most publications could follow on these days issues such as gay rights, women's rights and political partisanship -- which looms largest for me.
For an impressive example of how you can move the world by making the right moral choice, Patterson stands as an important touchstone.
All we have to do now, is figure out how to honor his lessons in our own time.
The Poynter Institute has a wonderful collection of Patterson's thought on journalism written by the man himself last November. The New York Times obituary is here. (Despite featuring video and pictures from the St. Petersburg Times, the version below CBS News' obituary Sunday didn't mention the newspaper.) And NPR's David Folkenflik does a great job pulling together a story on Patterson's life and career for radio, embedded below.