SOLOMON: Newspaper's Conscience Gets Tossed Overboard

You could almost hear the clink of expensive champagne glasses in the nation's capital last Tuesday when the most influential newspaper inside the Beltway published a column under the headline "So Long, With Thanks."Colman McCarthy, a man known as the conscience of The Washington Post, said goodbye to readers with typical grace and optimism. He did so despite the fact that -- after 18 years as a Post columnist -- he'd been dumped overboard by media big shots.A conscience is always in danger of wearing out its welcome. And the 58-year-old McCarthy lacks a record of trimming his sails to suit the prevailing winds.Although more than two dozen newspapers around the country were still printing McCarthy's column, the Washington Post Writers Group syndicate decided to pull the plug -- and the flagship paper opted to do the same. "We agreed that the column had run its course," the Post's managing editor Robert Kaiser told me.It's true that McCarthy is a bit out of fashion. He doesn't search for loopholes in such ancient concepts as "Thou shalt not kill." He writes about non-violence as a spiritual force. He dares to advocate for the hungry and the homeless. He is preoccupied with compassion as an active principle instead of a passive piety.In the city of Washington, teeming with hard-boiled calculators, McCarthy earned little fondness from Republican or Democratic officials. While they jockeyed for partisan advantage, he focused on people excluded from the political race entirely.Six years ago, during the Gulf War, he was virtually alone among the commentators whose newsprint words fell on the doorsteps of armchair warriors. McCarthy has never wavered from the goal of beating swords into plowshares.Now, the politicians and the generals, the arms contractors and the corporate lobbyists won't have to see McCarthy's column in the august Washington Post. No other regular columnist in the newspaper -- which unfolds across the breakfast tables of Washington's high and mighty -- is nearly as willing to disregard the unspoken taboos."What should be the moral purpose of writing," McCarthy asked in his final Post column, "if not to embrace ideals that can help fulfill the one possibility we all yearn for, the peaceable society? Peace is the result of love and if love were easy, we'd all be good at it."He added: "I've sought out the experts at love -- the only expertise that matters. In whichever town or neighborhood I went into, unfailingly I could find someone or some group -- usually unnoticed -- advancing human possibilities. These were citizens of high spiritual voltage, dissenters from safe opinions who tended not to be picked up on the scan of conventional media."McCarthy remained acutely aware that would-be pundits are only worth much if they forget punditry and strive to illuminate the central concerns of humanity. He rushed to write his column where the slick media angels are too fearful, or too jaded, to tread.Meanwhile, for many years, McCarthy has been a volunteer teacher at high schools and colleges. He joins with students to pursue a sacred endeavor -- not how to get ahead but how to find one's heart in a process of creative non-violence. His writings have always reflected that quest.After showing McCarthy the door, Post managers are citing a gradual decline in revenue from syndication of his column. "Maybe I should be amazed that I was being printed for 27 years, so in that sense I'm grateful," says McCarthy, who joined the Post staff in the late 1960s. "But I can't help feeling puzzled by being ousted over an issue of profitability -- especially when profits are high at the paper."It was appropriate that McCarthy's last column included a challenging quote from Martin Luther King Jr.: "Our only hope today lies in our ability to recapture the revolutionary spirit and go out into a sometimes hostile world declaring eternal hostility to poverty, racism and militarism."Such talk makes some people uncomfortable -- especially when it persists. The Washington Post's top editors, evidently, have run out of patience.

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