Mayoral candidate Sid Sullivan did something highly unusual last week. He declined an invitation to an interview with Columbia Daily Tribune Editor and Publisher Hank Waters.
You may have learned about that, as I did, on the Columbia Heart Beat, Mike Martin’s feisty online publication, which he describes as our “alternative news source.” In this case, as in others, the news seems to have struck a nerve with Mike’s progressive/liberal/activist readership.
Sid’s letter of refusal, which Mike reproduced, says that he submitted to interviews in both his previous runs for office. He thought that Hank's evaluations after those conversations were “positively injurious to the electoral process” because they misrepresented his positions and ignored his stands on key issues.
The refusal found a sympathetic audience in Mike himself and in a number of readers, who launched a full-throated attack on the grand old man of Columbia journalism.
One reader wrote, “Someone finally stands up to the bully of our local press during elections in particular…. Sid has my vote!”
Another responded, “Thank you for having the courage to tell the aging ‘emperor’ he has no clothes on.”
Somewhat reluctantly, I rise in Hank’s defense. (I’m on my own here, because Hank declines to engage. I called him, and once he figured out my purpose, he said I should put him down for a “no comment.” He does intend to publish Sid’s letter, he said. And he did confirm that it’s rare for a serious candidate to refuse to meet with him.)
I’ve competed with Hank, much as a flea competes with an elephant, for many of the past 35 years. From time to time, I’ve taken him to task in print. The most recent of those times was last year, after Mike and Traci Wilson-Kleekamp revealed the behind-the-scenes role Hank was playing in what turned out to be an abortive attempt to use the city’s eminent domain powers to locate a new State Historical Society museum downtown.
I thought then, and I think now, that when a publisher acts as a power broker he owes the public more disclosure than Hank deemed necessary.
On other occasions, I’ve even suggested that a pretty useful voting guide is to take Hank’s endorsements and go the other way.
But I would argue that, overall, Hank the editorialist has made a major contribution to Columbia’s public conversation and thus to the public weal. He writes about the most important issues of the day. He usually makes an argument that’s clear enough to be either persuasive or repulsive.
Maybe the most important of Hank’s contributions is his sheer longevity. He was opinionating when I came to town in 1974 and now, pushing 80, he’s still at it. I stand in awe of that body of work. And like the product or not, you have to admit he does work at it. Candidates may not – probably often don’t – agree with his evaluations, but he does meet with them face to face, hears them out and even argues with them.
As a journalist, I find that admirable. As a citizen, I find it valuable. That’s why, some years ago, I nominated Hank for the Journalism School’s Honor Medal. He won it and deserved it.
One of Columbia’s delights is that, loud and persistent as Hank’s voice is, it’s not alone. The Missourian, I modestly assert, offers a broader range of opinion than does the Tribune. The Columbia Business Times has some provocative essayists. And Mike Martin provides both an alternative news source and an alternative ongoing argument.
I have no idea whether Sid Sullivan’s refusal will affect his election prospects. In any case, he has performed a valuable public service by giving us citizens an excuse to debate the role of journalism in our little corner of the democracy.
George Kennedy is a former managing editor at the Missourian and professor emeritus at the Missouri School of Journalism.