While home from college 41 years ago, I read a newspaper column that changed my life. It was 1966, and most Americans had not yet received the epiphany that the Vietnam War was a deceit-driven adventure in imperialism.
But the war had caught my attention. I had orders that a few months later would take me to active duty in the Navy.
The column I read in my hometown newspaper, the Miami Herald, boldly proclaimed:
"There is no victory in sight. Nor can there be considering the instability of the Saigon government, and the lack of support from the countryside and the warring factions within South Vietnam itself. ... The blood of our youth, which has consecrated the earth of many a battlefield, is being spilled in the jungles of Vietnam for causes which are uncertain and in pursuit of unattainable objectives."
A hate-America hippie leftist didn't pen those words. Rather, the patrician chairman of Knight Newspapers, John Shively "Jack" Knight, wrote them with a passion that would later win him a Pulitzer Prize for his "Editor's Notebook." Knight was a patriot, and understood the responsibility of owning a newspaper. He had served in the U.S. Office of Censorship during World War II – a job where he had to weigh the costs of withholding news in order to save lives. Unlike, say, George H. W. Bush, he didn't pull strings to get his son into a playboy military outfit that would never see combat; Knight's eldest boy died in Germany.
I talked to Jack Knight only once, along with some other reporters who'd run into him in the Herald's lobby. He was anguishing over Knight Newspapers going public, and the pressure of shareholders to boost earnings at the expense of quality journalism. He said that profits in excess of 10 percent or 12 percent were a theft from what we promised to give readers. He'd later say: "I'd rather be known as the man who had a good newspaper ... than the guy who had ... the most money."
About the only words you hear from publishers nowadays is how many Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists they've fired, usually with the nonsense mantra of "we're going to have to do more with less." In the 1960s, the Herald was the dominant paper in the southern half of Florida, from Vero Beach to Key West to Fort Myers, with two international editions and reporters who boasted, "Nothing's too good for Jack Knight's boys." Forty years later, the Holy Grail is profit margins of 30 percent and 40 percent, and the Herald, as with most American dailies, is a pathetic shadow of its former greatness. In the fever of "deals," the Knight name last year vanished from American newspapering.
Moreover, there are no new Jack Knights in the business. Publishers' and editors' abject cowardice in the face of the right-wing propaganda machine is the media story of the last few years. Any of the media moguls of the 21st century – Rupert Murdoch, Conrad Black, James Cox Kennedy – could have written words in 2002 or 2003 that echoed the bravery and truth of Knight's column, shifting the setting from Vietnam to Iraq. None did.
Knight's column – which I carried with me through the Navy (I was never sent closer to Vietnam than Iceland) and college – summoned me to become a journalist.
Two other Knight publishers taught me to love cities. I went to work for the Herald in the early 1970s, and the chairman of what was then called Knight-Ridder Newspapers was Alvah Chapman. Miami was in a crisis of leadership, balkanization and direction, so Chapman used his commanding personality and his mighty newspaper to galvanize the community. The tangible result was passage of the "Decade of Progress" bond issue that built a transit system, an awesome zoo and much of Miami's infrastructure.
Chapman's successor was James K. Batten, twice my boss, who fervently believed newspapers should devote their resources to building their communities, not as boosters but as leaders critically dissecting issues and hammering out solutions.
Those halcyon days of newspapering are gone. The rags don't lead; they tremble in the face of technology and an economy they don't comprehend. At a time when they should be dispatching legions of smart journalists to unravel the big questions of our day, newspapers are cutting back. So, few people pay attention to them.
One of the most powerful resources newspapers in the past brought to their towns was incisive thought – great thinkers in their own ivory towers and even greater minds from academia, industry, government and the nonprofit world. Now? We still quote sources, but we report the surface and seldom understand the depths of what's going on.
I got into this hellish trade because I wanted to change the world. I still do. I want to better the cities that I so very much love. A few months ago, I began thinking there were new ways to tackle the so-serious-they-could-be-fatal problems plaguing cities. With a few friends – some journalists, and others just committed dreamers – we're going to start a think tank. We'll seek out the best thinkers and look for radical, yet effective, alternatives to urban dilemmas.
That's another way of saying I'll be retiring from Creative Loafing at the end of January, although probably not entirely. I'll likely continue writing this column – in large part because our CEO, Ben Eason, and editor, Ken Edelstein, are guys who passionately care about Atlanta. This company has been my home for almost 13 years, I love it and own a tiny bit of it, so I won't disappear.
In the spring, if my pals and I can ever decide on a name for our nascent think tank, we'll spread the gospel as we see it.
My earliest hero in journalism, Jack Knight, said shortly before he died in 1981: "I hope I haven't given you the impression that I'm bleak on the prospects of journalism. I'm not." Neither am I; I just think we have to find new venues for what we do.
Knight also asserted – words I've paraphrased many ways to describe myself: "I'm an individualist. I know what I know, I know what I think. I'm not afraid of anybody. I have my own code, how I live, and I live up to it."
I'm proud to sign this column:
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