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.
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 thatâ€™s been drained from todayâ€™s whitewashed world.
It may seem strange that Iâ€™m musing about my death in the wake of Michaelâ€™s untimely passing from the North Coast Citizen. Yet the event prods my sense that Americaâ€™s press is becoming a lifeless shell of what it once was. The march of todayâ€™s media makes it easy to imagine that columnists like me wonâ€™t be around much longer.
In his own words, Michael was â€œforced to resignâ€ from his position as editor of the North Coast Citizen. That statement is firmly disputed by the newspaperâ€™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 â€œforcedâ€ is used.
It bears noting that Michaelâ€™s resignation occurred amidst a heated local election. Days before Michaelâ€™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 â€œBBQ.â€
Welsh explained that the Citizenâ€™s editorial content prompted his son Jon â€“ also a candidate for local office — to stop stocking the local newspaper of record for customers at his business (Manzanitaâ€™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 Michaelâ€™s departure couldnâ€™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 newspaperâ€™s [the Citizen] former advertisers â€“ a business closely associated with the Tea Party — complained to the paperâ€™s owners, who then somehow forced Michael to leave.
A different impression emerges from my conversation with Dave Fisher, who is serving as the Citizenâ€™s interim editor. It appears the newspaperâ€™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 thatâ€™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 â€œsome of both.â€ It could be a blend of these things plus other factors Iâ€™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 â€œcommon goodâ€ 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 Iâ€™ve observed, thatâ€™s the gist of the Tea Partyâ€™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 â€“ direct or indirect — on what happened to Michael Burkett? I want to believe it did not, but I donâ€™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. â€œUse your words,â€ weâ€™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.