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Colossus of Heart and Verve
Tippen Davidson, 1925-2007

Tippen, conductor [Jessica Webb-Sibley, NJ]

Almost six years ago I was fired from my job as an opinion writer at The Ledger, a New York Times-owned paper in Lakeland, Fla. I say fired: the corporately correct term is “laid off.” None of my editors wanted me gone. My years there had been fun, fruitful, prize-full. But it wasn’t their decision. Times company stock was sputtering. The Sulzberger in charge was more of a wind sock than the Sun King his father had been, bowing to any old breeze from Wall Street. So the Times responded with what’s become biennial lay-offs. One hundred employees had to be “let go” from the company’s regional papers. Other kinds of cost-cuts would be implemented. The Ledger’s Sunday commentary section was being shut down. I was the section’s lead writer. My position was superfluous. It didn’t help that the paper’s publisher, a cookie-cut conservative who long ago outsourced his journalistic soul to the highest-bidding chamber of commerce, had rather see one less flaming liberal on his staff than fight for a breadwinner’s job.

My severance paid for my engagement trip with Cheryl to Mackinac Island (proposing while unemployed seemed like the right stock option to exercise). Meanwhile my editor at The Ledger did what he could to land me on my feet: there was an opening on the editorial board of the Daytona Beach News-Journal, but would I be interested? A lateral move along I-4 hadn’t exactly been a dream, staying in Florida even less so. This state has a tendency to flatline the culturally minded to make room for sprawl, the state’s chief crop. But flaming liberals aren’t exactly in demand on newspaper editorial boards these days: Yes, Virginia, the liberal media is a myth as indisputable as The Times’ closet conservatism. The interview went well. I started my new job literally eight hours after returning from Mackinack. The 2001 attacks took place six weeks later, and I was a proud part of one of the only editorial boards in North America, if not the only editorial board, that declared against declaring a war on terror. “It is hell in Manhattan and Arlington,” we wrote. “It is not war. And if the nation continues to rattle its sabers as it has since Tuesday’s attacks, then something potentially more dangerous than war could develop—a misunderstanding of what war is, and a response to the attacks so overwhelmingly out of proportion with Monday’s terrorism that the United States could plunge itself and the world into a nightmare both will regret.” Those words were published on Sept. 14, 2001 to disdain, opposition and, I’m sure, a few lost subscriptions. How sad that they proved so accurate. The paper would go on to oppose the Iraq war early and often, laying out the Bush junta’s deceptions long before the first shot was fired in March 2003. I was given the weekly Tuesday column in June 2002, with a freedom I doubt I could enjoy anywhere else. I often get letters from bemused readers wondering how I can “get away” with writing what I do, and in a newspaper in Florida of all places. Readers aren’t wrong: the state’s backwardness on so many levels can be staggering. It’s a more Baptist Portugal without the variegated beauty. The News-Journal has been a counterpoint — as a cultural and journalistic force, above all as an independent voice. I’ve been lucky. When I get those letters, I remind the writers that my words would be nowhere if it weren’t for my editorial page editor, who enables them, the executive editor, and one other man: Tippen Davidson, who owns this paper as his father did, as his grandfather did going back to 1924, and whose colossal imprint on this enterprise ensured it to be the independent, family-owned rarity that it has been. Herbert M. Davidson Jr., always known as Tippen, died Tuesday morning at 10:30. He was 81.

It’s odd to feel so shocked and touched by the loss of an employer. Companies love to pretend that their employees are “family.” It’s a stupid and false pretension. Companies are businesses, not families, and in the end the company interest will always trump any individual’s. I don’t come to work to be part of a family. I have a family at home. I come to work to do a job I love, to do it wholeheartedly, seriously and well, and more than anything, to be trusted to do it: That trust is a thousand times more important and necessary than pretending to be a family in a work environment. It’s more honest. It’s more honorable. That’s the trust that produces original work, whether it’s a collective editorial that places the newspaper miles ahead of the national curve or a column that allows me to say what the more mainstream broadsheets and their bean-counting publishers are usually too dull, too predictable, too fearful to say (at least before others say it). Independent journalism isn’t a bromide at this newspaper, nor is it an ideal. In my experience it’s been the way of the job day in and day out.

I have no illusions: This is a big place with fiefs and cliques and gripes and groans like any other. And no newspaper survives on principles alone. Mistakes and compromises, stories missed, columns written for the tenth time from a faintly different angle, sacred toes that mustn’t be stepped on are all part of the trade from The Times on down to the most provincial four-sheet Pravda in the Siberian outback. No exceptions. There’s really nothing romantic about it all, nothing heroic, either: it’s a grind, hopefully a grind well done most of the time, or at least honestly done. Honesty in the marketplace is heroism enough. And one day my time will come here too, whether in the form of a pin and a pen and a good bye after six hundred years’ service or another pink slip wrapped in the regrets of the moment: The company’s controversies are no secret, either. The lawsuit with Cox (the Atlanta-based corporation) is hanging over our heads like a Damocles sword, because Cox, a minority owner, disputed the paper’s “pet” spending on the arts in the community (between spending on the arts and spending on shareholders, give me the former any day). Nor did Cox like the fact that the paper’s 12 percent profit margin is less than what it could be (see the segment about shareholder-abetting firings above). Cox wants out of its 47.5 percent stake, but a federal judge put the price the News-Journal has to pay, to buy out Cox, at $129.2 million (in installments over five years), an astronomical sum. The paper is appealing. That pink slip could be at the printer’s as we speak.

It’s not a stretch to say that the battle destroyed Tippen, or that this odd feeling of being shocked and touched by his loss is wrapped up in fears of a loss that goes beyond his. I hate to think that what he represented and defended — the paper’s dual devotion to culture and independence in this community — is in doubt. I can’t help but think it, all the while resenting the nature of the legal battle for what it says about the corporate mentality that controls how even judges think about media now — as just another cog in the corporate machinery that chugs to Wall Street’s tunes, no matter what the particulars may be. The News-Journal is under assault for having bucked the trend.

What a shame it is that the memory of a man who accomplished and protected so much should be corrupted by these sideshows and encroachments. What a shame that we’re mourning more than a man, and that Tippen may very well have been in mourning before his death. What a shame that he doesn’t get to watch the president make an ass of himself one or ten more times, then enjoy his editorial board call the act for what it was, without quite using the word “ass.” Tippen wasn’t one for profanities in print, or in policy, though I’m biting my tongue. It’s not as if his death evokes only silence and reverence. He was not family, yet cussing this inevitable day, as I once cussed the day my father died, is very much part of the shock of this loss no matter how expected it had been.

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