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William Safire's Passing and the Decline of American Journalism

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Today's Google News has the wedding of reality TV star Khloe Kardashian and Los Angeles Lakers' forward Lamar Odom getting more hits than the passing of New York Times columnist, William Safire. Now granted, Khloe and Lamar have more blogger followers, including Perez Hilton's "wedding deets" to share with those not privy to be in Los Angeles.

This suggests, albeit unscientifically, that the death of an esteemed giant in American journalism is less newsworthy than a second-tier celebrity wedding. The media weren't reporting the wedding of Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt, but two people who have been dating for a month and decided to get hitched before basketball season begins.

We're so awash in infotainment sludge that we can't distinguish the truly irrelevant from the significant.

Safire, 79, was a conservative columnist for the New York Times. He was a fish out of water, to say the least, and many of the Times reporters were not happy with his swimming around for thirty years at the liberal newspaper of record. The Sulzberger family knew better.

Part of journalistic appeal, especially in opinion writing, is to provoke reader interest through saying something that jolts a reader's perspective out of somnolence. Safire did just that with his political columns that undoubtedly raised the blood pressure of some liberal readers, and with his "On Language" columns, which soothed the souls of etymologists and grammarians.

I recall a most memorable political column he published in the Times shortly before he retired. It was called "You Are a Suspect".

It was against type for this former Nixon speechwriter. The date was November 14, 2002, a year after 9/11, and before the invasion of Iraq. The USA PATRIOT Act had already passed with barely any debate. I immediately shared Safire's column with my journalism students at Cal State Fullerton. I told them, "This matters to you."

Here is what Bill Safire wrote in part:

If the Homeland Security Act is not amended before passage, here is what will happen to you:

Every purchase you make with a credit card, every magazine subscription you buy and medical prescription you fill, every Web site you visit and e-mail you send or receive, every academic grade you receive, every bank deposit you make, every trip you book and every event you attend -- all these transactions and communications will go into what the Defense Department describes as "a virtual, centralized grand database."

This is not some far-out Orwellian scenario. It is what will happen to your personal freedom in the next few weeks if John Poindexter gets the unprecedented power he seeks.

Remember Poindexter? Brilliant man, first in his class at the Naval Academy, later earned a doctorate in physics, rose to national security adviser under President Ronald Reagan. He had this brilliant idea of secretly selling missiles to Iran to pay ransom for hostages, and with the illicit proceeds to illegally support contras in Nicaragua.

A jury convicted Poindexter in 1990 on five felony counts of misleading Congress and making false statements, but an appeals court overturned the verdict because Congress had given him immunity for his testimony. He famously asserted, "The buck stops here," arguing that the White House staff, and not the president, was responsible for fateful decisions that might prove embarrassing.

That Safire column sparked Congressional action that stopped Poindexter's push for a big net approach to data collection.

Safire didn't always get his facts right. He was pilloried for his many columns that linked al Qaeda's Osama bin Laden to Saddam Hussein as a rationale for the invasion of Iraq. (See David Corn's "The Propaganda of William Safire")

Safire attended Syracuse University and gave its commencement speeches in 1978 and 1990. I now teach public diplomacy and global communications at the Newhouse School here at SU.

Safire's relationship with Richard Nixon began at a public diplomacy venue. In 1959 Safire was a publicist and his client Herbert Sadkin, president of All-State Properties, built the famous modern American home featured at the American National Exhibition in Sokolniki Park, Moscow. Safire coaxed Vice President Richard Nixon into attending the exhibit opening on July 24, 1959, also attended by Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev.

The two men got into some back-and-forth conversations about the merits of Soviet communism versus American capitalism that came to be known as the "The Kitchen Debate." Nixon's proud defense of American know-how raised his public profile both at home and abroad. He later asked Safire to join his inner circle, and Safire served the president in the White House, along with Patrick Buchanan, Diane Sawyer and David Gergen. In 1973 Safire began writing for the New York Times, where he remained a columnist until 2003.

If you want some advice for what to pay attention to in the news, read more about the "life deets" of self-proclaimed libertarian conservative Bill Safire and not about the wedding of Khloe and Lamar. Relevant knowledge is good and powerful.

Dr. Nancy Snow is the author of six books, including Information War and Propaganda, Inc. She teaches in the S.I. Newhouse School at Syracuse University, New York. Reach her at www.nancysnow.com.

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The New York Times > Opinion > Columnist Biography: William Safire