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The Times doesn't require conformity


© St. Petersburg Times, published May 14, 2001

A major formative moment in my 34 years in journalism came in 1985 during a conversation with Bob Pittman, who was then Times editor of editorials.

A major formative moment in my 34 years in journalism came in 1985 during a conversation with Bob Pittman, who was then Times editor of editorials.

Florida had experimented, unhappily, with lowering the drinking age from 21 to 18, based primarily on the argument that people old enough to die in wars were old enough to drink.

Unfortunately, a system where 19-year-olds were managing to pass for 21 became one where 16-year-olds were passing for 18, and then were dying in auto accidents.

I was going to write a column about it and was curious about where the Times stood, so I could make note if I was going against the flow. Other newspapers (both conservative) where I had worked wouldn't have allowed it.

"I'm not sure," Pittman said when I put the question to him whether the paper thought the drinking age should go back to 21. "I know we wrote about it awhile back but I'm not sure what we said. Let me look."

A few seconds later, he returned to the telephone and said, "We're against it."

I told him I had seen some unchallenged statistics provided by Mothers Against Drunk Drivers and was writing in favor of going back to the 21-year-old limit.

"Good," Pittman said. "Give us hell."

I decided I was working at a pretty special place.

And so I feel compelled to respond to a letter to the editor that we ran the other day by a reader addressing some things he thought you had to be to work for the Times.

A card-carrying liberal.

I've been trying to find out where to get one of those cards for years. They don't make them. The phrase, of course, originated with Sen. Joseph "Tailgunner Joe" McCarthy going noisily insane with the House Unamerican Activities Committee and accusing everyone and his mother of being a "card-carrying Communist."

But they don't make liberal cards. Some would say an ACLU card would qualify, but a lot of liberals don't like the American Civil Liberties Union because it has represented Nazis and Ku Klux Klansmen -- proving that some of my liberal brethren think constitutional rights are only for them. I think the liberal card is like the "gay agenda" that I keep babbling about and which none of my gay friends has ever seen.

Against the death penalty.

I am, reluctantly, in favor of the death penalty because I believe there has to be an ultimate punishment for ultimate evil. I have said so many times in print, including now.

Politically correct.

Just ask anyone who knows me, especially the people who keep making me go to diversity training.

A lover of higher taxes.

I am not a lover of higher taxes. I do believe in people paying for the infrastructure that serves them, whether they already did it somewhere else or not.

For affirmative action.

I am on the fence about that one. I believe reasons for its inception are valid. I don't think it always works to the advantage of the persons it was designed to serve, but I am always wary of the motivations of those who rabidly want to do away with it.

Soft on crime.

Not me. I am a firm believer in serious punishments for real crimes. I think some laws, drug laws specifically, create artificial crimes that gum up the system that is supposed to be protecting us.

Against gun ownership.

Got me on that one, but you should know that the reporter who works 5 feet away from me is a conservative Republican, owns a shotgun, went to a military college and thinks Rush Limbaugh just may be the nation's savior.

I also realize that my gun views are extreme, but in a nation where some people think you should be able to have armor-piercing ammunition and that everyone should have a gun, you need someone to pull on the other extreme to keep the cart in the middle of the road.

The Times tells you who to vote for.

Nope. It just makes recommendations I and other readers take or leave as they will, otherwise Al Gore would be president.

I announced publicly that I was voting for Ralph Nader. Nobody at the Times mentioned it to me. But a lot of my liberal friends did.

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