At the risk of becoming typecast as a newspaper junkie (which I am), I must weigh in with my contrarian opinion on the recent firing of Jules Witcover from the Baltimore Sun. As reported in the Washington Post, Witcover was unceremoniously set adrift on an ice floe last week. He was notified by overnight letter rather than in person and barely given the chance to write his one last brief and classy farewell.
Most of the indignation in the press so far has been over the rather shabby treatment given the journalistic legend. It seems he has been subject to a series of increasingly brutal indignities over the past few years. First, he was threatened with losing his health insurance if he did not take an early severance package the Tribune paylords imposed. Then his thrice weekly column was slashed to once a week with a proportionate reduction in pay. Finally came the brief letter saying his services were no longer needed without even a tribute MacDonald’s gift certificate.
Meanwhile up on Calvert Street, his putative bosses, Not Me and Ida Know, are pointing mutually exclusive fingers at each other over who actually pulled the rug out. In the words of Mark Knopfler, “Two men say they’re Jesus; one of them must be wrong.” This was obviously a corporately demanded drive-by and every one involved is desperately trying to wash out that damned spot. The Today section finally covered the gangland shooting as objectively and factually as possible on Tuesday, probably to avoid being scooped by the Post on their own dirty laundry.
Now comes the uncharitable part: Jules Witcover’s column never really survived the retirement of his partner of umpty-ump years, Jack Germond. Jack was the garrulous, Lou-Grant-at-the-water-cooler, slightly left of center voice of reason during the post-Novak Silver Age of The McLaughlin Group. Along with Eleanor Clift, Fred Barnes, Mort Kondracke, and (when he wasn’t running for Fuhrer) Pat Buchanan, he would opine on cue about anything and everything. Of the regulars, Jack was the only one who seemed to realize the absurdity of the show and would regularly deflate McLaughlin’s more pompous pontifications. This sense of playfulness slipped into his joint column with Witcover.
Jules never sought the spotlight, instead writing a series of very well received, but rather inside baseball, campaign memoirs. Post-Germond columns could clearly and concisely summarize any issue of the day and cut to the chase of the real issue like a Ginzu through soft butter. Unfortunately, the prose style became increasingly dry, and the opinions and calls to action came off as muted even though you sensed a lot of outrage under the just-the-facts verbal veneer. Jules had been part of a team, and like Lennon and McCartney, Martin and Lewis, and Shields and Yarnell, the sum was greater than the parts.
Jack Germond used to brag that he may have been a media whore, but at least the rather paltry $500 a week stipend Monsignor MacLaughlin doled out put his kids through college. I still catch Germond making the Sunday blabfest rounds after a particularly bad week at the track. Unfortunately, rather than being sent out to pasture like an aging thoroughbred, Witcover is being given a one-way ticket to the glue factory. He claims he will continue his syndicated column, which is only carried in 30 papers, many I suspect to be small market Tribune captive fiefdoms. Without the flagship Baltimore Sun byline, I suspect some of these will begin tossing him overboard for the more red-state friendly rabid ravings of Cal Thomas and his ilk.
As tragic as it is for Jules, it is just one more clack in the gears slowly dismantling the Sun as a newspaper of national reputation. Since I subscribed to The Washington Post a few years back, the Sun has become increasingly irrelevant in my personal life except for school board meeting minutes and Ravens injury reports. The Opinion page in particular has suffered several other blows recently. When the New York Times bundled it’s premier columnists like Thomas Friedman with a wire services requirement, the Tribune overlords balked at the price and sent readers online for those folks. Their other name syndicated columnists like Michael Kinsley and Ellen Goodman are available in the WaPo and the Sun seems to have deliberately picked the whiniest rock-headed right-wingers available to present “balance.” Even the home-grown talent like Barry Rascovar never seem to have anything to say I think I need to know.
If the Sun is going to continue to race to the bottom this way by icing their last remaining nationally known writer, the legacy of Mencken should just print the high school sports scores, throw them on everybody’s lawn for free, and give the loyal readers that still want original news and opinion their choice of subscriptions to the Post or the Times rather than make us go down to Starbucks.
Update: See EdRants and Old Hickory's Weblog for more.
Technorati tag:hummingbird rump, Witcover, Baltimore Sun