The recent firings of Juan Williams from National Public Radio, Helen Thomas from Hearst Publications and Octavia Nasr and Rick Sanchez from CNN for expressing their personal views have impacted the state of journalistic opinion in America.
These firings were uppermost in my mind when I spoke at the 18th annual St. Petersburg Times Festival of Reading last weekend.
I am usually a blunt speaker, so how would my words be interpreted or misinterpreted? Who would be filming or recording me?
I do not now how many people attended my talk, but more than a dozen latecomers had to stand along the walls. I always am humbled, and frightened, when a lot of people attend one of my talks. I am humbled because I never fancied myself as being important enough that so many people would want to listen to me. I am frightened because I actually can draw a big crowd — not just any crowd, but smart people who say smart things, who listen attentively, who ask probing and interesting questions.
I do not know about other columnists, but I am uncomfortable with being able to shape people's opinions with my words. I am wary of the responsibility that comes with that kind of influence.
During my talk, for example, a woman said in front of the audience that because of a column I wrote in 1998 about a restaurant where I had been mistreated as a black man, she has never gone back. Over the years, others have shared how they embrace my words and have acted on them. One mother bought books I recommended in order to entice her son to read. "You changed his life," she wrote in an e-mail message. "Now he reads all the time. Thanks." I felt useful.
Then there are the controversial and volatile ideas that I and most opinion columnists often espouse, ideas that unsettle and produce enmity. Readers learn our print personas and hold us to certain expectations. They expect us to take specific lines of argument. These expectations affect columnists. Former New York Times columnist Russell Baker aptly wrote: "In writing a column, you create a personality — and you become very quickly a prisoner of that person who is the column." I fully understand Baker's observation.
I recall my introduction to the power of the columnist. I was in 10th grade at all-black Dillard High School in Fort Lauderdale. My civics teacher, a native of Baltimore, would bring in a folder of H.L. Mencken columns he had clipped from the Baltimore Evening Sun. He would read aloud from the yellowed pieces, pausing to elaborate or explain. He said that if Mencken, "the fearless gadfly," had expressed the same opinions in many other countries, he would have been imprisoned or executed.
Of course, I immediately admired Mencken's irreverence, wit and use of the language. I wanted to be like Mencken. On my own, I began to read all of the columns each day in the Miami Herald, the Fort Lauderdale News and the Fort Lauderdale Sun Sentinel. I wrote letters — my version of columns — to the Herald, News and Sun Sentinel. None were ever published. I dreamed of being a columnist for a major newspaper. I wanted to inform and insult and entertain just like Mencken, known as the "Holy Terror of Baltimore."
Although I never became a holy terror, I have had for 25 years, through syndication, the privilege of informing, insulting and entertaining hundreds of thousands of readers in nearly every state and a few foreign countries.
Now, I am watching, in real time, my profession retreat into extreme political correctness. I am not talking about Fox News and a few other cable news programs. Who would publish Mencken today? Who would invite him to be a guest on a network Sunday morning news show?
Opinion in America, particularly in the traditional media, is a shadow of its old self. The nation is poorer as a result.
I conclude with the insights of Karl E. Meyer in his book, Pundits, Poets, and Wits: An Omnibus of American Newspaper Columns: "Columnists … have benefited the land of the free by contributing as Walter Lippmann did to what the first President Bush has called 'the vision thing.' More commonly, they have been energetic advocates exerting influence through the quality of their arguments, and their independence from an electorate that has learned to put up with them."