by Clarence Brown
American Reporter Correspondent
January 17, 2001
SEATTLE ON STRIKE: ALWAYS APOLOGIZE, ALWAYS EXPLAIN
t SEATTLE, Wash. -- I am not a journalist. You knew that, right? Yet I have been all my life a sort of camp follower. Editor of my high school paper, I wrote and drew cartoons for my college paper, published comic strips in London and New York newspapers. I was even a real editor -- Cartoon Editor of the Saturday Review.
But, with no right to the title, I am still touched by what happens to my brothers and sisters in the trade. The agony of some real journalists here in Seattle, where the two papers were struck on November 21 by the Pacific Northwest Newspaper Guild, might touch you as well.
The Seattle Times belongs to the Blethen family, except for 49.5 percent, which belongs to Knight-Ridder. The Post-Intelligencer, known as the Pig Eye, is a Hearst paper. By some weird arrangement that only a lawyer could love, the papers are editorially separate but have the same business office and are printed on the same presses. The strikers put out their own paper, the Union Record.
Nicole Brodeur, a columnist for the Seattle Times, went out with her co-workers but decided a month later to cross the picket line and go back to her desk inside.
Naturally, she wrote a column about this. "Something died when I passed colleagues to return to a newsroom that now holds considerably fewer of them. ... And I am well aware of the hypocrisy of being a columnist who speaks for the Man On the Street -- then leaves him out there." Finally, she writes, she took a friend's advice to do "what is right for you."
After an anguished column of explanation and apology, she ends, oddly enough, with the formula of hauteur: "Never explain, never apologize." What the something was that died, or how the Man on the Street feels about the hypocrisy of his spokesperson, will remain to be seen, but Brodeur's muddled mea culpa naturally elicited an answer in the Union Record. It came from Steve Johnston, also a Seattle Times columnist. He get about in a wheelchair and has five children. This does not prevent his carrying a sign on the picket line through which Ms. Brodeur, never apologizing and never explaining, walks every day.
Without naming his former colleague, he writes: "She said she agonized over the decision before deciding to cross. Apparently this columnist thought her high salary was paid to her because she was individually talented, not because generations of equally talented writers came before her and demanded to be paid fairly for their work. ... I may be known asa humor writer, but even humor writers have to look in the mirror in the morning." (You can find both columns archived on a Webpage for journalists: http://www.poynter.org.)
Workers at the P-I broke ranks and went back to work a few weeks ago. A settlement with the Seattle Times, when finally reached, left the Guild with a few bitterly small gains.
One of the stories in Camas' "LISLE et le Royaume" (Exile and the Kingdom) which, at the time of the strike, I happened to be reading at the gym on my stationary bike, is about a strike. The title "Les meets"("The Mutes") refers not only to the strikers' refusing to speak to the victorious boss who tries to ingratiate himself, but also to their essential voicelessness.
Columnists may be many things, but mute is not one of them. Yet I will finally stand mute on this conflict, with its bitter splintering of old friendships. I would, however, replace the slogan Never Apologize, Never Explain with one more likely to promote healing. It is: With malice toward none, with charity for all.
Clarence Brown is a cartoonist, writer, and Professor Emeritus of comparative Literature at Princeton University.