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A merry fool and his serious legacy

Editor's note: Jim Naughton, journalist and former president of the Poynter Institute, died Saturday night.

Jim Naughton was a fool, in the best sense of the word.

In another era, the Renaissance perhaps, he might have been dressed in motley, banging on a drum, turning cartwheels while speaking irreverent truths to the king and court. In Shakespeare, the character of the fool was "licensed." He could get away with speech or song that would earn a normal man the ax or noose.

Cut to that reporter wearing a chicken head.

The year was 1976 and Jim Naughton was covering the Gerald Ford presidential campaign for the New York Times. One of the famous "boys on the bus," Naughton grew bored and frustrated with the manipulative artificiality of political campaigns, stop after stop with the same photo ops and sound bites. Nothing of substance. Nothing in the public interest.

During a swing through California, President Ford eschewed serious encounters with the press in favor of a rally featuring the sports mascot, the San Diego Chicken. "He'll pose with a man in a chicken suit," thought Naughton, "but he won't engage the press."

Naughton hatched a plan. He procured a spare head from the Famous Fowl and appeared at an airport press briefing in costume. In one of history's great retrospective surprises, he was ushered to the front of the line to meet the president by none other than that Republican operative and madcap mischief maker Dick Cheney.

The incident became national news and shaped Naughton's reputation forever as journalism's merry prankster. In a profession that suffers from omnivorous solemnity, Naughton's stunts became legion and legendary, especially during his tenure as a top editor at the Philadelphia Inquirer. From 1977 to 1996, he helped the Inky turn daily newspaper writing into an art form and win a dozen Pulitzer Prizes along the way.

There was the day a camel arrived in the newsroom to mark great coverage in the Middle East. There was the day that his boss, nicknamed The Frog, found 46 bullfrogs in his executive washroom on his 46th birthday. On his final day in the newsroom, he wore a dinosaur suit to the party, a bittersweet commentary that his style of journalism — and the esprit de corps he created around it — might be dying out.

His final professional stop was in St. Petersburg where in 1996 he became president of the Poynter Institute and my boss. The zaniness walked through the doors of our stately building on the bay right behind him. He converted an executive office into a play room with a pool table. But he also doubled the size of our staff and facilities, created our website and distance learning programs, and spread Poynter's mission (good journalism in the public interest) to the far corners of the Earth.

It was because of Naughton's folly that his colleagues took him seriously. That is at the heart of what it means to be a classic fool. The chicken head was not an end in itself, but a means to an end, a critique of the president, of our political system, and of his own newspaper's conventional disinterest.

Clowns these days are a dime a dozen. Back then Naughton played the fool for a cause and then wrote politics with high seriousness.

If you care about democracy and journalism, you deserve to know about Naughton's life and legacy. For a man without a grand public persona, he was among the most influential journalists of the last 40 years. His influence flowed from a deeply held and often practiced set of core beliefs: that the work of reporting, writing and editing was a democratic duty; that to perform that duty well required a lot of fun and laughter along the way; and that if you truly loved an institution — be it church, state, school or newsroom — you had a responsibility to make it better.

I leave the final words of tribute to none other than Ted Giannoulas, better known as the San Diego Chicken. I had sent him a message notifying him of Jim's death from cancer.

"Jim was a titan in this life," wrote the Chicken, "not only as a master journalist who was renowned and deeply respected, but a kindred spirit in humor as well. These were the hallmarks of his virtues which even inspired me upon meeting him backstage at the Ford rally in 1976.

"Jim epitomized the ultimate in values of journalism that makes America special — a hard work ethic, an ironclad trust, a deep well of good faith, plus the glint of a honest smile in his eyes.

"Ironically, this summer, I've retold the chicken head story in several radio and TV interviews during my visits for ball clubs across the country, including Grand Rapids, where the actual head still sits on display at the Gerald Ford Library. As you might imagine, it continues to generate great laughs and immense fascination, especially in an era where such exploits of camaraderie are unheard of."

It takes a fool to know one.

Roy Peter Clark teaches writing at the Poynter Institute, which owns the Tampa Bay Times.

A merry fool and his serious legacy 08/14/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 14, 2012 9:56pm]
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