Column: World deserves more Pattersons


After breaking into the business at a suburban New York newspaper, I applied for a reporting position at Time magazine.

Forty years later, I recall the interview with a Time assistant managing editor.

He said he would likely give me a job, but he advised me to reject it and take the other option.

Though bewildering at the time, it was the best and most fortuitous advice I ever received.

The other option was to work as a reporter at The St. Petersburg Times in Florida under the leadership of editor Eugene Patterson, who died two weeks ago at the age of 89.

Patterson was a giant in my world and that of his friend, Robert W. Chandler, the deceased editor and owner of The Bulletin.

More importantly, his influence and standards were extraordinary and, in many ways, still offer a refreshing counterpoint to the shallowness and excesses of some of today's media.

A privately owned newspaper, the Times was, and still is, a powerhouse, with extraordinary reporters and editors.

I worked there for 20 years, leaving as the deputy managing editor, nearly all that time with Patterson as the editor.

I can't improve on what my fellow senior editors have said of Patterson.

One reflected that if ever the word “revere” was applicable to a human, it was to him. Another said that he wondered, when confronted with tough questions, “what would Gene do?”

Patterson, who grew up on a farm in Adel, Ga., studied journalism at the University of Georgia, then served in Europe as a tank platoon leader under George Patton in World II.

He was awarded the Silver Star and the Bronze Star.

By the age of 32 he had become the executive editor of The Atlanta Journal and Constitution, working for the legendary civil rights editor Ralph McGill.

There he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his editorial writing.

“I just went out into the center of the ring beside him and we swung away until we felt the mountain begin to move,” he told The Times. “To feel the homeland I love beginning to think again and start to shed its shackle of racial wrongs set the benchmark of my working life.”

He went on to The Washington Post as Ben Bradlee's managing editor, helping to guide that newspaper through publication of the Pentagon Papers and the subsequent legal battles with the Nixon administration.

As important as his extraordinary touch with words, Patterson was an inspirational leader at the Times with ethical standards that, in many ways, contradicted the fashionable journalistic approaches of the day.

In the period of Deep Throat he rejected journalism based on anonymous sources. He encouraged explanatory journalism, and wanted nothing to do with reporters concealing their identity to get a story.

Not that we told him, but some of us lucky enough to be asked to work on his dreams, called his newsroom addresses the “manifest destiny” speeches.

And there wasn't one of us who wouldn't run through a wall for him.

He could call the White House and get the president on the phone, and at the same time travel to New York for the funeral of his WW II tanker buddy who died a New York cop.

In a company of nearly 2,000 employees, he sought out and asked a copy editor if he got the dictionary he requested in his annual evaluation.

He served as president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors and vice chairman of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, yet took the time to write a touching note to a young editor, whose child was just born: “the world needs more Costas.”

And I will forever wish I had written back, “thanks Gene, and the world deserves more Pattersons.”

- John Costa is editor-in-chief of The Bulletin. Contact: 541-383-0337, jcosta@bendbulletin.com