The setting “Sun”
Memorializing “The Baltimore Sun,” once one of our greatest newspapers.
“The Baltimore Sun” was at one time the most influential newspaper in the nation. It fell on hard times, not solely because of the internet, but because of the loss of local control. It’s Op-Ed page was the model of opinion journalism and as its hey day waned, I was privileged to be one of its frequent contributors. Distant corporate ownership began to suck profits out of the newspaper and they could no longer hire or keep top talent or invest in depth reporting or support news bureaus or adjust to the new digital world. I want to share with you how I responded to their request for an essay celebrating one of their important anniversaries.❤️
AFTER GRADUATION in 1960. one of my classmates at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism, Borah Burman, packed up his master's degree and headed off to one of the plum jobs in all of print journalism, an editorial position on The Baltimore Sun. In those days every list of "Ten Best Newspapers" always included The Sun. We all were jealous and amazed.
I had turned down offers from The New York Times and TV Guide, and refused an interview with the sports department at Newsweek. Yet if The Sun had called I would have gone off starry-eyed. You can blame it on H.L. Mencken.
Much that will be written about the paper's storied past is pegged to the larger-than-life figure of Mencken, the caustic critic and salty satirist, whose notoriety launched the paper into a national prominence that survived his death in 1956. Borah had that starched personality and erudite attitude that made him worthy of the Mencken legacy, and his hiring signaled The Sun's intention to retain the quirky edginess that made the paper great.
When I arrived in Baltimore in 1983, The Sun had long disappeared from the top-10 list of America's newspapers. Borah was also gone: He had died a young man, barely a year or two after getting that dream job. My alumni class, still a bit thin in the wallet, had talked about memorializing him, but nothing ever came of it.
Like Borah, I was in pursuit of a dream. I had decided that I wanted to make a second career as a professor, and so I spent the first years here learning how to teach. It was on a drive home from Bay Ridge Beach near Annapolis, where the annual post-graduation faculty picnic had been held, that my companion said she wanted to stop at Mencken's house.
He's dead, I said.
But his house is still there, she said.
What are you talking about, I said.
I know the curator, she said.
So it was that after hours on a sun-filled early evening in June I entered the great curmudgeon's house. I rummaged through his rooms and, in an act of irreverent homage, imagined him on his toilet, reading and smoking. Then we all settled around a cast-iron table in his walled garden and there, with a proper libation in one hand and a Haitian blunt in the other, I was doing Mencken's favorite thing to do and in his favorite place to do it.
What's that you're saying, she said.
This one's for Borah, I said.
Was he a friend of Mencken's, she said.
No, but it's Mencken's fault, I said. He died first.
Shortly after that my first op-ed piece appeared in The Sun. Entitled "The Idea of the University" it was a sharp attack, in a voice I didn't recognize as mine, on the devaluing of higher education. I had always been a prisoner of news, never written an opinion column. Now they began to tumble out in profusion: Oppose the intervention in Iraq, expose Americanization of French culture, put a positive spin on anarchy, rail against cats, and on and on.
Maybe the first op-ed piece I ever wrote could be attributed to Mencken's pervasiveness or haunting images of what Borah could have become, but there was more to it than that. It was the op-ed page alive and infectious. Simply put, the page was a unique commentary on our times and culture from Baltimore's Mason-Dixon perspective.
Writing for this page was like being privileged to join Mencken at his regular table at The Pearl. On any given day, one was apt to find Helen Chappell spinning her Eastern Shore yarns . . . or Barbara Mallonee snitching on nature's secrets . . . or Peter A. Jay defending the rural landscape from political bulldozers . . . or Diane Scharper illuminating the newest poet laureate . . . or Stephen Vicchio mixing philosophy and reality . . . or Andrei Codrescu speaking dark Transylvanian truths.
The champion of them all, with more than 100 op-ed pieces to his credit over a 10-year span ending in 1989, is America's most accomplished op-ed essayist, Carl Pohlner, who discontinued his wildly funny writings about raising children in suburbia when his muse left for college with his kids. His essays were collected in hard cover under the title “A Feather Short of Flying.”
The op-ed page was open to all comers. You didn’t have to be rich or famous. You didn’t have to be a professional writer. An original idea of public import expressed well (and here the editors were willing to help) was all it took. Thus the op-ed page was able to give voice to those not heard very often above the din of daily events.
Even the syndicated columnists have to shape up for the Op-Ed Page. A columnist appears only when something interesting is said -- writers like George Will, Ellen Goodman and Carl Rowan. No paper reached into the think-tank and intellectual magazines as frequently as The Sun to reprint important ideas that would otherwise have limited circulation.
It is in this steaming cauldron of ideas and unabashed opinion that the spirit of Mencken lives on in this town. As someone whose academic research has been prying the lid off op-ed journalism, I feel safe in claiming that a more challenging and diverse op-ed page could not be found in American journalism at that time.
The fact that The Sun isn't on the top-10 lists any more says more about a changing nation and media environment than it does about the paper. In its heyday Baltimore was a brawny economic powerhouse; there wasn't a newspaper south of this city worth the price on its front page; there were no national newspapers; there was no TV news; the populous East Coast and its media were the trend setter; the West Coast had not yet been invented.
But the growth of the federal bureaucracy has bloated D.C.'s importance, leaving Baltimore to swirl in the eddies between Philadelphia and the capital. The diminishing importance of the city has resulted in less visibility for the newspaper. The platform would be insufficient even for the likes of Mencken.
As I began to write this piece, I couldn't shake the thought that my classmate Borah's demise was somehow connected to The Sun's fall from national esteem. When Mencken died, he apparently took The Sun with him, leaving little for Borah. Or did Mencken reach out from the grave to trip up the one man who might have made Baltimore forget? So there, Borah Burman, you finally have your memorial. This city will never know what it lost. Hopefully, it will appreciate what remains.