One writer’s roots

Keith Burris.
Keith Burris.

The Blade and its sister paper, The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, under the direction of Publisher and editor-in-chief John Robinson Block, are about to engage in an effort that, to my knowledge, has never before been tried in American journalism. We are, with the help of John Allison, Dan Simpson, and Joe Smydo in Pittsburgh, and my colleagues Wynne Everett, Tom Troy, and Will Tomer here in Toledo, going to merge two editorial boards, and to the fullest extent possible, two editorial pages.

For all of us, this is going to be fun.

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The trick will be to make our pages fun for our readers, with meaningful and compelling commentary on local, state, national, international, and cultural topics. Our range is wide. Our subject matter is inexhaustible.

And our mission is a simple, though not an easy one: insight.

Those of us who labor on the opinion side of journalism go to our reading, our discussions with fellow journalists, and ultimately our keyboards in search of insight. It’s not good enough to rehash and deplore. We have to give readers some nugget of thought to take away from every piece we generate.

I have been writing commentary and opinion since 1980 (one of the first pieces I wrote was on the death of John Lennon for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette) and professionally since the mid 1980s when the late, and great, John Craig, editor of the Post-Gazette, plucked me out of the academy.

Mr. Craig had me try out as a sort of glorified intern and when I’d more or less passed the test he called me into his office and said “I think you could do this work.” But why would I want to? I loved teaching. Well, said Mr. Craig, you will have a very large classroom and you will have a more varied life.

Soon I was on my way to my first professional job as an editorial writer — in Winston-Salem, N.C. And two years later, Mr. Craig persuaded William Block, Sr., that great gentleman, to bring me to The Blade.

At about that time, John Craig took part in a panel discussion, at a national journalists’ convention, on the elements of good editorial writing. As usual, he eschewed piety for provocation. Most editorial pages are dull, repetitive, and sanctimonious, he said. Our first rule should be: Don’t be boring.

Our search is a search for insight, which means that one has to be willing to risk giving offense.

It also means a resistance to orthodoxies, ideologies, and -isms.

I never heard Mr. Craig articulate a second rule, but he epitomized the independent journalist. Writers and journalists must have no side. In this age of team journalism, and almost total predictability in opinion writing, the opinion writer must have roots, but no permanent alliances.

My own roots are in Ohio and the values I learned from my father, mother, and grandfather there — service, compassion, and work — and in Pittsburgh, where I learned to write and to think.

My Dad was a person who walked the walk. He ran the local Cancer Crusade in our hometown, for example, year after year. No one else wanted to do it. He went tirelessly from house party to house party showing a slideshow about the evils of tobacco. He put in hundreds of hours each year.

When my father and my mother discovered there was no physical education program at my grade school, they started one, learned to teach it themselves, and bought the basketball hoops and volleyball nets with their own money.

They also helped start an “interracial council” to get black and white people together to talk about race. In a rural town of 13,000 in the mid and late 1960s, that was brave.

My mother was a bleeding heart curmudgeon. She had an amazing capacity to find Appalachian families in the hills and hollers of Ohio who needed food or clothing, which she found and delivered to them. She had an equally amazing ability to attract stay dogs and cats, wounded birds, and all manner of injured and abandoned animals. These she found homes for or, failing that, took in to her own home.

I got two graduate degrees at the University of Pittsburgh and found three academic and life mentors there — Richard Cottam, who shaped my ideas about nationalism and American foreign policy; William Keefe, who cemented my interest in American government, especially the Congress and political parties; and John W. Chapman who did not so much teach me political philosophy as teach me how to read and absorb it.

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Dr. Chapman’s graduate seminar was held at his home in Squirrel Hill, just above Carnegie Mellon University and behind the Pittsburgh Golf Club. We walked there, rain or shine, through the two campuses and up the long hill. The seminar was two to three hours long, once a week, and we broke half way through for sherry. Everyone wrote a paper, every week, and presented it. Dr. Chapman said: “You don’t know what you think until you write.”

John Chapman was a magnificent man — insatiably curious, eccentric, rigorous, uncompromising, ever amazed and amused. When he became aware, on one occasion, that I had a difficulty in my life, his solution was to take me target shooting. He was a classic liberal who was one of the first neo-conservatives. He wrote his dissertation on Rousseau and was a colonel in military intelligence in the Air Force reserve. He let me write my dissertation on Hannah Arendt, though he considered all forms of existentialism to be “madness.” To the extent that I am an honest arbiter of ideas, it is due to him.

It is thanks to him that I discovered and absorbed the writers who formed my mind — Arendt, Reinhold Niebuhr, C.S. Lewis, Michael Oakeshott, Russell Kirk, Isaiah Berlin, and Walker Percy.

Arendt used to say, “We need to think what we are doing,” and she called her book Between Past and Future, a series of “thought exercises.” This is what opinion writing should be — not ideological thinking, which is not thinking at all, and not knee-jerk reaction, or cheering or jeering one tribe, but an exercise in thought.

Keith C. Burris is editor and vice president of The Blade, and editorial director for Block Newspapers. Contact him at or 419-724-6266.