If you are a reader of the Sarasota Herald Tribune you have no doubt noticed that journalist Tom Lyons’ column is no longer a part of the paper. In August of 2017 Tom resigned. His column performed an important function in the community. In many ways he became the voice for those who were the victims of unfair treatment by government officials, bureaucrats, employers, HOAs, and other authorities. His column was based on a fundamental democratic cultural assumption (perhaps naïve) that if an injustice was made public community opinion would function as a corrective and force authorities to correct the problem. His simple stories illustrated that democracy was not about institutions (e.g. voting) as much as it was about cultural attitudes and beliefs.
Lyons resigned because of personnel changes that he found unacceptable. Management at the paper made Lee Williams (a.k.a. The Gun Writer) the editor of Special Topics, in effect, making him Tom’s boss. Williams and Lyons “did not play well together” and Lyons decided to quit rather than work with him as his “boss.” He put it this way: “I have long had a strong personal antipathy for the man . . . assigned to become my supervising editor. The reasons for my feelings for the man may not matter. . . . Assigning this particular editor to me was a sharp stick in the eye.”
Many local government officials are most certainly breathing a sigh of relief knowing that Tom Lyons is not going to be second-guessing their decisions. Indeed the columnist who has replaced Tom, Carrie Seidman, has indicated that she will not be taking on the kinds of issues Lyons did. “My style is conversational, not confrontational, my focus on unifying rather than taking sides,” she wrote in her maiden column. But more than that, her columns are less about other people and more about her and her experiences. She writes about downtown flooding because she had to drive through a flooded intersection, she writes about the decline of newspapers because friends of hers are losing their jobs at them, she writes about racism after taking a walking tour of Newtown.
The contrast between Lyons and Seidman is stark. Lyons advocated for the person getting screwed and he identified exactly who was screwing him/her and he demanded answers. He used his column to offer a critical take on news stories and address issues behind the scenes that were not otherwise reported. Seidman is self-referential, and even when addressing situations of injustice fails to trace who the responsible authorities are who could solve the problems and instead concludes that somehow the royal “we” need to come up with solutions. It is the difference between exposés and taking a stance about abuses of power versus human interest stories that draw no conclusion.
I don’t know where Tom is today. My guess is he’s playing his guitar and fishing. In any case I miss his columns. He made Sarasota a better place (even though he never followed through on a couple of my “tips”), and given the state of American democracy today, a voice like his is needed more than ever.