If you grew up in Cleveland, and read its newspapers, or watched local TV news, then you probably knew Dick Feagler. He died yesterday, just short of his 80th birthday. While he certainly had his place as a journalist, what he was best known for was his commentary and editorial. In the context of my life, he's the O.G. of television pundits, decades before cable "news" was a thing.
In my teen and college years, I knew Feagler as the grumpy old guy who got the last few minutes of the newscast to tell everyone what was on his mind. He occupied a space that I associated with Dorothy Fuldheim, a feisty woman who also offered commentary at the end of the news when I was very young (she in turn reminded me of a grumpy old version of my great grandmother). Even if you're in your 40's or older, you may not remember that this was a normal part of the local evening news. Newspaper and television journalism in those days was something of a public trust, and it was taken seriously by the people who served in that role. To that end, they'd always put up the commentator's name in the lower-third with "commentary" spelled out below their name. There was no question where the news stopped and the editorial started, and in fact these pieces generally aired after a commercial break and before the g'nights.
Feagler would certainly talk about national issues, but what stood out to me was his engagement in local politics. He knew the various mayors and city council members, along with business and community leaders. He was absolutely disgusted by failures in local government, and Cleveland had plenty of that to go around in the 70's and early 80's. He would also rant about relatively benign social or cultural observations, which is why I apply the "grumpy old guy" title.
In fact, in retrospect, I think he generally could be categorized as politically "conservative," but only as it applied to those earlier decades. Unlike much of his generation, he was not racist, and in the early oughts he was writing essays about the need for equal rights for gay people. He may have longed for the "good old days" before computers and the Internet in his writing, but those days weren't about being toxic toward other humans on the basis of their genetic and ethnic identity. But he was also too smart for his own good, because like a lot of people who exist in a diverse environment, he felt that any forced embrace of diversity was stupid because, in fact, the environment was diverse regardless. He had little use for things like affirmative action or hate crime laws. It wasn't that he didn't have empathy in his writing, it's that he had moved on as if the institutionalized cultural challenges had already been solved. He wasn't wrong, he just wan't right, if that makes sense. Today he'd likely just be another old white guy on TV, but he wouldn't be one painting himself as a victim. At the very least, he understood the advantages of being a white, hetero, Christian male.
I related to Dick Feagler in two ways. First, he graduated from the last Cleveland school I attended, John Adams, where I went for a half-year. (That school was eventually demolished and rebuilt.) Second, he spoke at Ashland University during my freshman year there, and he was particularly gracious with his time, talking with a number of students outside in the parking lot about the TV business we were eager to be a part of. During his talk he demonstrated his ability to tie stories together into a complete narrative, starting and ending with a joke about how to end a newscast (apparently by lowering the anchors into the floor behind the news desk).
What I most respected about Feagler wasn't his position, because despite literally leading a gay pride parade in 2004, he tended to intellectualize issues of race and identity almost to a fault, but it was his authenticity. He didn't pander to an audience, as some of the things he would write about probably pissed off everyone. But there was something he scratched the surface of that made sense, that our desire to recognize the inequality and injustice among subsets of Americans was necessary but would drive us further and further apart before it would bring us together.
Still, in the greater sense, it's important to remember him as a part of a time in journalism and news gathering where commentary was not news. It was a time when we respected the institution of the press, and it respected us. I believe that's still possible, but only if people will be willing to hear what they need instead of what they want.