Back in 1982, when I was an editor at Tropic, the Miami Herald’s Sunday magazine, the publisher asked us to run a story on our cover about the winners of The Silver Knight award, which was given out every year at a gala to the most promising high school seniors in the Miami area. The Silver Knights were a fine and noble enterprise, but the event was run and financed by Knight-Ridder, the corporate owners of The Miami Herald; Herald stories about the Silver Knight awards were inevitably uncritical, nakedly celebratory, and drenched in self-promotion. We at Tropic declined to run the story of the awards on the grounds that we were a small magazine trying to establish a feisty, pugnacious identity, and being a corporate suckup toady lickspittle didn’t fit in with our plans. The publisher glowered, muttered something about insubordination, and steered the story to another, less visible section of the paper. We went unpunished.
Wikipedia tells me that one of the Silver Knight winners that year was little Jeffrey Bezos of Miami Palmetto High School. Haha.
You and I briefly crossed paths as younger men, and I dissed you. I guess it’s clear who won that race.
Here’s the thing: We were right to decline that story, Jeff, but, more to the point, our publisher was wise to LET us decline. In the next 10 years, freed to robustly experiment with an outsize personality, Tropic would develop a fanatic following in Miami, and our writers and photographers would win two Pulitzers and be finalists for two more. That happened because the people above us trusted us, if grudgingly, and -- more important -- had our backs.
I was telling this tale of tolerated impertinence to Howard Simons, the brilliant newspaper editor at the Washington Post, shortly before he died of cancer in 1990. He smiled and said that it embodied his most important principle as a newspaper manager: “Kick up, kiss down.” Aggravate your bosses, but make the people below you love and respect you. Katharine Graham and Don Graham were brilliant at this -- they must have given their board of directors fits, because during the great years they chose aggressive journalism over pennypinching every time -- and we loved them for it. It’s an irreplaceable advantage, loyalty drawn from affection and respect.
My father once told me that he felt grief-stricken at the sudden death of Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1945, but not fear that the country was now in the hands of some obscure haberdasher named Truman. My father knew only one thing about Truman, really -- that in failing health, and in the middle of a world war, F.D.R. had chosen him, and so Truman must be a good man. That was enough for my father.
I think I speak for more than myself when I say that the main reason I have high hopes for your stewardship is that Don Graham said it was the right thing for the paper. He said you are the right guy. That was enough for me.
“Great” is an overused term, and sports has rendered it almost meaningless, so I won’t say you have just bought a “great” newspaper. I’m not even sure you’ve bought a “newspaper” in any understood sense. You have bought a place filled with enormously talented and dedicated journalists who are, at the moment, terrified at the prospect of change we don’t really understand. We’ve already lost some fine people to that terror.
You are obviously a good businessman, and you are said to be a visionary. I hope you have a clear vision of where to take this remarkable enterprise. As you go there, please remember to kick up, and kiss down.
And sorry about the Silver Knight. But we were right.