Let’s get it over with.
This is my last column for the Miami Herald. I didn’t plan to write about that because there’s actual news to be covered, but my dear friend Dave Barry told me I’d look like a jerk if I didn’t say some sort of goodbye.
So here goes. I grew up reading the Herald and what was then the Fort Lauderdale News, my parents holding this radical notion that being factually informed would help us develop into conscientious, fully functioning citizens.
I fell for newspapers and ended up at the University of Florida’s journalism school, still one of the best. The Herald shelved my first job application, but in the summer of 1976 I got hired as a city desk reporter.
Reubin Askew was governor, and a harmless fellow named Gerald Ford was president only because the paranoid criminal who preceded him had been forced to resign, and the criminal president’s criminal vice president had also quit after getting busted for taking bribes.
Those were the days when all of us wanted to be Woodward or Bernstein.
Meanwhile, South Florida was growing into an outrageously fertile news mecca — weird, violent, drug-soaked, exuberantly corrupt — and eventually I landed on the Herald’s epic investigations team.
Years later, my oldest son, Scott, was doing that same job for the paper. I wasn’t always good at telling him how proud I was, so I’m telling him again now.
I was equally proud of my only brother, Rob, a columnist and editor who was murdered with four co-workers when an angry gunman charged into the Annapolis Capital Gazette newsroom on June 28, 2018. Rob’s family and mine will be forever grateful to the hundreds of you who reached out to us after that heart-crushing day.
Most opinion columnists start out as street reporters, an experience vital to understanding how things really work as opposed to how they should. My own approach to the column — drawn from the incomparable Pete Hamill, Mike Royko and others — was simple: If what I wrote wasn’t pissing off somebody, I probably wasn’t doing my job.
Take a sharp-edged stand on any issue, and the other side seethes. Show me a columnist who doesn’t get hate mail, and I’ll show you someone who’s writing about the pesky worms on his tomato plants. The detestable first-person pronoun will likely appear in this column more times than in the archive of my last three decades combined.
Nobody becomes a journalist because they yearn for mass adoration. Donald Trump didn’t turn the public against the mainstream media; the news business has never been popular. We’re tasked with delivering information that some readers don’t want to hear, and will claim not to believe.
Lyndon Johnson blamed the press for turning Americans against the Vietnam War. Richard Nixon blamed the press for overblowing Watergate. Trump blamed the press for everything except his bronzer.
The internet has made it easier to wage war on the truth. Yet, as shown by the Capitol uprising of selfie-snapping Trump rioters, social media also serves to lure the dumb, deluded and dangerous into the open. Seeing them all offers important, if unsettling, clarity.
I’ve done this column since 1985. No idea how many. No particular favorites, no regrets. Slash-and-burn was the only way I knew to do it.
Even the satirical pieces could be scalding, but that’s what those who betray the public trust deserve. When somebody got caught selling their commission vote under the table, or stealing outright, I felt morally obliged to write something that would make them choke on their corn flakes the next morning.
Once I called Miami City Hall a “bribe factory,” and another time described Tallahassee as a “festival of whores.” Too subtle? Possibly.
One time, the Legislature authorized random drug tests for state employees. Lawmakers mysteriously exempted themselves, so I offered to personally pay a big lab so that every one of them, including the governor, could pee in a cup.
No volunteers. Wonder why.
Another time the then-publisher of the Herald, a very decent guy named Dave Lawrence, said he might run for governor. I wrote a piece suggesting he’d “lost his marbles,” and nicknamed him Publisher Loco.
I didn’t get fired, and Dave let the column run exactly as written. A different publisher once did try to kill one of my columns, failed, and soon departed for a new career in a new line of work.
That wouldn’t happen at most papers, which is one reason I never wanted to go anywhere else. Another reason: It’s hard to put your heart in this job if you don’t have lifetime roots. My friend Hamill never gave up on New York, and that’s how I feel about Florida.
Progress, if it happens, is slow. When I was a kid, hardly anyone running for office talked about the Everglades. Meanwhile, the part that wasn’t disappearing under pavement was being used as a free latrine by corporate agriculture and subdivisions.
These days, billions are being spent trying to save the besieged River of Grass, and every ambitious candidate — Democrat or Republican — waxes rapturously about it. A few of them might actually be sincere, but all of them know how to read the polls.
It would be lovely to report that other things have also changed for the better, but Florida’s wild places and clearest waters are still under assault from overdevelopment, opioids are killing more people than coke or street heroin ever did, racism thrives likes a fungal rash and corruption is more rampant than ever.
Millions of worried seniors are still awaiting COVID inoculations because they don’t live in gated communities full of rich Republicans writing checks to the governor’s re-election committee. Then again, who’s really surprised that a resort like Ocean Reef gets special vaccine shipments while regular folks in nearby Florida City get to sit in their cars for hours, praying the supply doesn’t run out?
As you read these words, some scrofulous tunnel rat in public office is busy selling your best interests down the road. It might be happening at your town council, zoning board, water district, or county commission — but it is happening.
Certainly there are those with guts and unshakeable integrity in both political parties, but theirs is an uphill slog — and often they don’t last long.
Retail corruption is now a breeze, since newspapers and other media can no longer afford enough reporters to cover all the key government meetings. You wake up one day, and they’re bulldozing 20 acres of pines at the end of your block to put up a Costco. Your kids ask what’s going on, and you can’t tell them because you don’t have a clue.
That’s what happens when hometown journalism fades — neighborhood stories don’t get reported until it’s too late, after the deal’s gone down. Most local papers are gasping for life, and if they die it will be their readers who lose the most.
The decision to leave now is mine. It’ll be strange not having my Thursday deadline, but I’ll never stop writing about this bent, beautiful, infuriating state. Fortunately, all the scammers and greedheads remain vastly outnumbered by caring, thoughtful people who fiercely love what’s left of this place.
Thanks to all of you who buy enough of my gonzo novels that I don’t have to depend on a pauperizing newspaper pension. Thanks also for the heaps of mail, including the letters with prison postmarks.
I owe a special debt to Bob Radziewicz, who retired from the newsroom years ago but has continued editing my column out of friendship and perhaps sentimental curiosity. Same goes for my op-ed page editor, Nancy Ancrum, who’s always been there to gently remind me this is a family newspaper — please calm down and keep it clean.
Finally and most important, I’ve got to thank the Herald and its streaming cast of talented, tenacious editors and reporters. Their superb, solid work always made my job easier.
Now someone else can come along and do it better.