South Florida Sun-Sentinel (Sunday)
What my darkened office revealed, eight months into COVID-19
I had to go to the office this week becausemy computer was dying. I had put it off as long as possible, dreading the demands of its replacement to remember passwords and favoredlinks. But with the screen’s blurred-out bottom rolling higher and higher every morning, something had to be done.
I hadn’t been in the Sun Sentinel’s Deerfield Beach office since earlyMarch, shortly after Iwas diagnosed with pneumonia. I had gotten sick five days after attending a going-away party for colleagues who’d accepted a buy-out offer. At least 17 other party-goers got sick, too, though our symptoms didn’t all match up. It took a month formeto get the then-exclusive test for the then-novel coronavirus. The results came back negative, as did two subsequent antibody tests. I remain unconvinced. And I fear a second bout.
I considered leavingmy old computer at the front desk, where our ever-cheerful security chief, Cliff Bland, nowsits behind bulletproof glass, one of themany changes I noticed that day. The barrier became necessary after a guy with a grudge shot and killed five journalists at our sister paper in Annapolis, Maryland. The shooting happened not long after President Trump began calling the media the“enemy of the people.”
Instead, I headed tomy secondfloor office at the newsroom’s far end. I recalled an email about not leaving food in your desk, and remembered that I’d gathered up some crackers and salad dressing packets the daymy colleague, Rod Hagwood, shared his overflow collection fromWawa.
I found the newsroomdark and stuffy, silent and empty— an eerie look for an organization so full of life. Sun Sentinel journalists have beenworking remotely for months now, so the electricity and cable has been turned off to save money. Cliff offered to restore the lights inmy corner, but the windowprovided natural light and I didn’t expect to stay long.
Then I sawthe pile of mail on my desk and sat down for what became a long look.
Everything inmy office looked so familiar, yet felt so strange.
Therewasmy to-do list, frozen in time, remindingmeto check on an EarthDay video with Broward public school students, on slides for a climate change talk in Miami and onmy plan to create a community panel to help interview municipal candidates for election endorsements. It also made mention of performance reviews and expense reports, and remindedme to delete emails. I receive about 500 emails a day and remain notorious for having one of the paper’s biggest backlogs.
The phone showed I’d missed 169 calls. (If yourswas one, know that emails alertmeto messages left.)
Onthe file cabinet, my photo withMargaret Thatcher had fallen askewin its frame, coincidentally capturingmy feelings about her sincewatching the latest season of TheCrown.
Onthe conference table, sat a small pile of the February 14 opinion page, which featured the remembrances of some family members two years after the Parkland shooting. Our production chief, DennisWallace, had printed high-gloss copies for meto give GenaHoyer, whose beautiful sonLukewas killed that day. Butmy lunch withGena got perpetually postponed when the pandemic knocked theworld off its axis. Soon, it will be three years since the shooting.
But itwas the mail that most capturedmy attention.
Iwas drawn to a box sent by a candidate for Congresswhom we’d endorsed in the Republican primary. He’d sent a thank you note, along with four red campaignT-shirts.
Sorting through the legalsized envelopes, I found a firstplace certificate for the Green EyeshadeAward, named for the visor that copy editors oncewore to prevent eyestrain. During the glory days of newspapers, this awardwould have been presented at a dinner inAtlanta. Nowit arrives in the mail.
I also found a certificate of appreciation fromLeadership Broward. This year’s class visited the Sun Sentinel virtually on Zoom. I’d sharedwhywemake election endorsements. In short, it’s becausewhenmaking up their minds, peoplewant to knowwhat other informed people think. But I suspect the class members most enjoyed the exercise where they got to decide which stories would go on the front page. I’m only sorry they didn’t get to experience the feel ofwatching the presses run.
But itwas the hundreds and hundreds of letters to the editor that setmeback. We publish a daily note in the paper that says we areworking remotely, so send your letters via email. As I flipped through the letters— most of themhand-written, most by senior citizens— Iwas struck by our nation’s digital divide. It’s not just poor peoplewho aren’t online. Agood number of older folks aren’t, either. (But if you are, please be sure to check out the attached photo gallery ofmy office.)
It didn’t surprisemeto see letters sent fromtheBroward County Jail. We often hear from inmateswhowant to complain about conditions, claim their innocence orweigh in on the day’s events. Years ago, before crossing the firewall between the newsroomand the editorial board, I sometimes fielded three-minute calls frompeople on the jail’s pay phone. Therewas little I could do to help, but Iwas unnerved, nevertheless.
Most letter writers are annoyed or angry, a good number at us. Some people express their passion by writing in all capital letters. Others write around the margins of a political cartoon, an editorial, a story or you name it.
Most, though, have a beef with a government, business, homeowners association or other institution, and theywant to be heard. Experience tells us that movers, shakers and policymakersmonitor our letters forum and — at least at the local level— often respond to issues they see raised.
In the mix, I found a lovely letter fromstate Sen. Lauren Book, recognizingmy inclusion in a list of theTop 100Most Influential People in Florida Politics. More thanme, the Sun Sentinel’s powerful platform deserves the recognition. Still, whoamong us doesn’t like to receive a letter of thanks or congratulations? As I read what shewrote, I got a little puffed up in the chest.
Lauren’s letter broughtme back to the Peanuts cartoon taped tomy computer monitor. It shows Lucy looking over Linus’ shoulder as he writes a letter to the editor.
“Dear editor of letters to the editor,” he begins. “Howhave you been?”
“Howhave you been?” she asks. “What sort of letter is that to write to an editor?”
“I just thought he might appreciate having someone inquire about the state of his health,” Linus replies.
“Editors are sort of human, too, you know!”
But Peanuts is not what Iwant to leave you with today.
Iwant to leaveyouwith another clipping I’d taped tomy computermonitor, one given meby former PlantationMayor DianeVeltri Bendekovic as she was about to retire.
It features quotes fromsome of our nation’s founders and presidents on the importance of free speech and a free press. Theirwords areworth remembering today, aswe prepare to inaugurate anewpresident amid a public health crisis unlike anythingwe’ve ever seen.
Benjamin Franklin: “Whoever would overthrowthe liberty of a nation must begin by subduing the freeness of speech.”
SamuelAdams: “There is nothing so fretting and vexatious, nothing so justly terrible to tyrants, and their tools and abettors, as a free press.”
GeorgeWashington: “The freedomof speechmay be taken away — and, dumband silentwemay be led, like sheep, to the slaughter.”
JamesMadison: “Apopular government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy; or, perhaps both.”
John F. Kennedy: “There is a terrific disadvantage not having the abrasive quality of the press applied to you daily, to an administration, even thoughwe never like it, and even thoughwe wish they didn’t write it, and even thoughwe disapprove.”
RonaldReagan: “There is no more essential ingredient than a free, strong and independent press to our continued success in what the founding fathers called our noble experiment in self-government.”
GeorgeW. Bush: “Power can be very addictive, and it can be corrosive. And it’s important for the media to call to account peoplewhoabuse their power, whether it be here or elsewhere.”
As I left the building with mynewcomputer, I took one last look around the lobby and remembered the day I first arrived. Iwas struck then, and remain inspired still, by the statement of purpose carved above the doorway. Itwas written by Col. RobertMcCormick, the late publisher and owner of the ChicagoTribune. Its namesake company, Tribune Publishing, owns the Sun Sentinel.
“The newspaper is an institution developed by modern civilization to present the news of the day to foster commerce and industry
to inform and lead public opinion, and
to furnish that check upon government
which no constitution has ever been able to provide.”
Thework environment of Sun Sentinel journalists has changed dramatically this year, but our work remains rooted in that mission statement. Thank you for supporting us in making happen whatwe call “the daily miracle.”