MAXWELL:  For the record, no one will be excused

9/17/1997 – Printed in the EDITORIAL section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


Regular readers of these pages probably know that I write a twice-weekly column, one appearing in this space on Wednesday, the other in its usual space on the front of the Sunday Perspective section.

In a sadomasochistic way, I already miss the daily grind of writing editorials. Few jobs anywhere are more personally rewarding than the awesome responsibility of expressing the views of one of the nation’s best news organizations.

During the last three years, I have had this honor many times. Now, as a full-time columnist, I am offering a snapshot of a day in the life of an editorial writer, along with an attempt to dispel a few ugly misconceptions about me and my work as a columnist.

Mine is one of the best jobs in journalism because I get paid well to share my opinions with millions of readers across the nation and in some foreign countries.

On average, my workday starts between 4 and 5 a.m., when the St. Petersburg Times and the New York Times are tossed in my yard. I make coffee, read both papers, listen to National Public Radio’s Morning Edition, watch the local news, CNN’s Headline News and C-SPAN. Arriving at work at 9, I am familiar with the major events at home and abroad.

My colleagues and I on the editorial board meet in the downtown office for more than an hour, discussing the issues and deciding which ones the paper should weigh in on and what we (the Times) will say.

Sometimes, the process is uglier than making sausage. Strong-willed, highly opinionated, well-read, well-traveled and from different ethnic and socioeconomic groups, we often yell and curse. The door has been slammed a few times, too.

After each session, however, we remain professional and amicable. Several times a week, one of us takes a colleague aside to explain what we really meant. The process would fail if hard feelings lingered. Our job is further enriched when we meet with leading lawmakers, business executives, foreign dignitaries, heads of social organizations and others.

I pinch myself each day, marveling that I receive a check to listen to brilliant people discuss with insight and wit the important issues of the day. After our morning meeting, Phil Gailey, the editor of editorials, assigns the writing _ the hard part.

Now, we must produce succinct editorials that logically, clearly and earnestly present the paper’s stance on selected issues. Although I now write editorials only occasionally, I remain on the board and attend all meetings.

On a personal level, many readers, especially blacks, misconstrue who I am and what I write. The biggest misconception I hear from angry blacks is that I am “Phil Gailey’s boy,” meaning, of course, that my boss tells me what to write and how to write it.

Folks, that just does not happen at the Times.

Although he has the power to do so, Gailey has never told me what to or what not to write. Nor has he censored any of my columns, even those he vehemently disagrees with. This wrongheaded notion _ that Gailey personally controls my writing _ is grounded in ignorance of journalism and comes from my rejecting the double standard of lambasting whites while treating black culture as a sacred cow, an object that is above negative criticism and public condemnation.

Few things are more insulting than being the excused, special side of a double standard. In most cities where I have worked, for example, the worst landlords in the black community have themselves been black. We, blacks, own most of the rat- and roach-infested shacks and the abandoned dwellings that become crack houses. We sell dope to our own children; we gun down one another.

We commit these sins against ourselves, but most black journalists and black leaders remain silent or make excuses. If whites committed these same deeds against us, we would blast them.

Such silence created the likes of the Rev. Henry Lyons. Everyone I know in St. Petersburg’s black community knew about many of Lyons’ transgressions. But no one spoke out. After the media wised up and exposed the good reverend, many of these previously mum blacks cried “racist establishment press.”

My column, with Wednesday’s often focusing on local issues, has not excused and will not excuse anyone. Nor will it single out anyone. And it certainly will not duck the truth _ no matter how unpleasant. Just thought I should explain myself at the beginning of this new adventure.