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Editor’s sudden exit raises questions

WHEN I DIE, it would be great if Michael Burkett were still around these parts and would say something at my funeral. If that happens, I hope he talks about our common passion for words.

Mike Burkett
Michael Burkett

Personally, I would be honored if Michael would come to the gathering dressed in the same duds he wore at the first human Be-in at Golden Gate Park — the opening event for the Summer of Love. Hopefully my funeral would recycle some of that living color that’s been drained from today’s whitewashed world.

It may seem strange that I’m musing about my death in the wake of Michael’s untimely passing from the North Coast Citizen. Yet the event prods my sense that America’s press is becoming a lifeless shell of what it once was. The march of today’s media makes it easy to imagine that columnists like me won’t be around much longer.

In his own words, Michael was “forced to resign” from his position as editor of the North Coast Citizen. That statement is firmly disputed by the newspaper’s owner, Steve Forrester, whose family also owns the Daily Astorian and other news outlets. Both men could be correct, in my opinion, depending on how the word “forced” is used.

It bears noting that Michael’s resignation occurred amidst a heated local election. Days before Michael’s departure, a Manzanita-area Tea Party organizer singled out Michael as the reason why the North Coast Citizen fails to meet the political standards for a small-town newspaper. This opinion was posted by Jim Welsh, a candidate for local office, on a popular email list serve called the “BBQ.”

Welsh explained that the Citizen’s editorial content prompted his son Jon – also a candidate for local office — to stop stocking the local newspaper of record for customers at his business (Manzanita’s largest grocery store). For the past several months, shoppers have had to go elsewhere to buy the Citizen in order to read local news articles, commentary, and public notices.

The heat of this drama is turned up by the broader political context. Both Jim and Jon Welsh and their allied local candidates have upped the ante with anti-incumbent rhetoric. This mirrors the Tea Party insurgency against public officials that has been broadcast by the media at the state and federal levels.

In other words, the timing of Michael’s departure couldn’t have been worse. It makes it look as if the long arm of the Tea Party was successful in getting rid of him. Or, more specifically, that one of this newspaper’s [the Citizen] former advertisers – a business closely associated with the Tea Party — complained to the paper’s owners, who then somehow forced Michael to leave.

A different impression emerges from my conversation with Dave Fisher, who is serving as the Citizen’s interim editor. It appears the newspaper’s owners may have taken Michael to task for his colorful and sometimes biting efforts to tell the truth. Was that done to help restore calm to a community that’s become too inflamed for the common good? Or, was it done to mend relations with a former advertiser?

The answer to those questions could be “some of both.” It could be a blend of these things plus other factors I’m not privy to.

Regardless, this little drama prompts me to ponder bigger questions about our society. What happens when the loudest voices in the room are able to stifle communication? What happens when those voices treat the idea of “common good” as if it were communist hogwash, professing that most if not all public services should be either eliminated or controlled by private interests?

From what I’ve observed, that’s the gist of the Tea Party’s influence on public discourse in America, since it took the stage to disrupt town hall meetings on health care two years ago. At every turn, the idea of discussing and resolving problems by public or collective means has been torpedoed by this well-promoted group.

Does that kind of anti-public influence have any bearing – direct or indirect — on what happened to Michael Burkett? I want to believe it did not, but I don’t know.

In any event, the timing of this drama helps fuel the appearance that we are living in a corporate state. On the broader front, a collusion of business and government has depleted our limited resources. Rather than band together to counter this dynamic, citizens fight amongst ourselves while remaining resources are diverted from public needs into the hands of a private few.

What troubles me most is that I can picture a future where Americans are unable to freely discuss this concern in small-town newspapers. “Use your words,” we’ve told our children since they were toddlers. This column records my effort to model that advice as a grown-up.

I hope to see such efforts make a difference before I die. Maybe readers will be moved to think, debate, and try to integrate various viewpoints into greater truths. Perhaps all media outlets and businesses will become more supportive of open public discourse in our community.

At a minimum, it would be nice to know my family can pick up copies of my obituary at the local store that sells our favorite orange juice. Such things should foster common ground for the civil exchange of ideas, opinions and news.

By Watt Childress

Watt is a freelance columnist who owns Jupiter’s Books in Cannon Beach. His work has appeared in Hipfish, the Cannon Beach Citizen, the North Coast Citizen, the Daily Astorian, the Seaside Signal, and the Upper Left Edge (bless the Rev. Billy’s soul). Email him at wattchildress@yahoo.com.

One reply on “Editor’s sudden exit raises questions”

Three days after my abrupt end as editor of the North Coast Citizen, I was sitting in a California nursing home, enjoying a long-planned visit with Mary Duffield, my beloved and now-96-year-old high school journalism teacher.

At one point, I said, “Mary, do you remember when I wrote that story for the school newspaper, and it made the principal so angry he threatened to suspend me and shut down the paper?”

“Because you told the truth!,” Mary said, banging the table with her tiny, wrinkled fist.

It was (egads!) 48 years ago that Mary marched into the principal’s office, told him to get off of my back, saved the paper, returned to the classroom, and promptly gave me my first regular newspaper column. Today — even though she is wheelchair bound, nearly deaf and fearlessly determined to become the first human being to ever survive pancreatic cancer — there’s no question that Mary would do exactly the same thing.

I can’t begin to tell you how deeply it touched me to be reminded that, after all these many decades, “Mrs. Duffield” is still in my corner.

Then, I returned home and was even MORE deeply touched — by countless friends, neighbors, acquaintences and near strangers who had gathered in the same corner. The passionate emails they’ve sent and phone calls they’ve made are, to me, a mirror reflection of Mary Duffield, storming the principal’s office.

When my visit with Mary came to an end, I was pretty sure I’d never see her again… and certain that I’d never see the LIKES of her again.

I was wrong. Right here, in our three tiny communities, I’m surrounded on all sides by the likes of Mary Duffield.

I can think of no higher compliment for ANYONE.

Thank you all so very, very much.

Michael Burkett

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