By: M.L.Stein Southern California newspaper puts column 'on sabbatical' after readers protest and threaten to stop subscriptions sp.
MATT COKER WAS a columnist for the Daily Pilot in Southern California until April 26, when the paper published his column virulently attacking Richard Nixon the day before his funeral. Hundreds of protesting phone calls, letters and hotline messages rained down on the newspaper, including death threats and demands for Coker's firing. The Pilot, a Times Mirror-owned paper, serves affluent Newport Beach and Costa Mesa, the most conservative area of Orange County, which is arguably the most conservative county in the state. Nixon was born and buried in Orange County. At this writing, Coker still had a job but not his column. "We've put his column on sabbatical," said editor William Lobdell. Coker, 33, the arts and entertainment editor who wrote a once-a-week "Editor's Notebook" column, led off his last column: "A moment of silence, please to mourn the passing of our 37th president. "Now that that's out of the way: DING DONG DICK IS DEAD!" He then wrote that he drank a toast upon learning about "the pathetic lot's passing." Coker went on to call the ex-president "a paranoid liar who did irreparable harm to these United States of America . . . . The most surprising thing to happen over the last few days is the media orgy over Nixon. The same media declared persona non grata in the Nixon White House, the same media that helped facilitate his downfall, are now giving teary-eyed eulogies to this wretched, wretched man, with only an occasional mention of the fact that he was the only president in history to resign in disgrace." Later, Coker declared that Nixon should have been imprisoned for Watergate crimes but, "Fortunately for Nixon, he placed a dim light bulb who can't hit a golf ball straight in office to render a pardon on cue." He ended his column with "Goodbye and good riddance." Coker, in an interview, said, "I stand by what I wrote." Lobdell said he, publisher Tom Johnson and managing editor Steve Marble had pre-approved the column "although we knew it would cause a stir. And even before the calls came in we knew it had been a mistake. It cut deep into this community." Lobdell blamed himself for the column's appearance and reaction, saying, "I should have spiked it originally. As a small newspaper, we sometimes enjoy being controversial but this was too caustic." He said the column brought over 100 phone calls and faxes to editors and Coker. In addition, the paper's hotline tape was spent taking messages, and scores of letters poured in, several from readers cancelling their subscriptions. There were four anonymous death threats, reported to police, against Coker and editors, and one caller "threatened to break my nose," Lobdell recalled. The newspaper hired a security firm amid the outpouring of wrath. Some outraged readers contacted Times Mirror headquarters in Los Angeles, which referred them back to the Daily Pilot. Kathy Hunter, general manager of California Community News, which operates Times Mirror's suburban papers in California, said in an interview that pulling Coker's column "was strictly the editor's decision." According to Lobdell, many of the calls were from die-hard, pro-Nixon conservatives, but he said he was more impressed by the complaints of moderates "who were appalled by the tone and bitterness of the columns." In an April 28 column, Marble said there was "genuine hurt" among the protesters. "One man told me," he continued, 'I was never a big Nixon lover but this is cruel and cold. A man is dead. A human being, for God's sake. Why would someone write this?' " A letter writer lamented: "What a shame and how disappointing a man as young as Matt Coker has the capacity to hate so much . . . . Rather than argue with or dispute Mr. Coker, we all need to extend to him a hand of friendship and kindness. His feelings of hatred, anger and genuine meanness are more than pathetic. They are tragic and warrant our pity." But another writer extended a different kind of hand to Coker, calling his column "despicable" and "atrocious." "I'll give you one choice," the reader continued. "Either you cancel the editorial on Tuesday or I will cancel the newspaper." Another wrote: "I wish I could say goodbye and good riddance to Matt Coker. Matt, get a job in a college newspaper, preferably out of state and see if they put up with your editorials. Whether you liked Nixon is irrelevant today. Don't pick the day they are bringing him home to rest to air your left-wing radical views in a newspaper that I pay for." The April 28 letters column also contained one by Lobdell to readers in which he said in part: "We usually love a healthy debate over a column, but this time we're troubled at the deep hurt felt by some members of the community, our extended family. And for that, we apologize." Marble, in his column, defended Coker's right to his opinion of Nixon but said he would have observed his passing "in a much different stride than Matt did . . . . He left office in disgrace . . . . But he also was a human being, a man of distinction . . . . He was not some casual character to be dismissed as little more than a wanton criminal whose death is something to be cheered and celebrated." Not all the letters and calls were against the column. Coker said 75% of his callers agreed with him, "although some were violently opposed." Coker related that he was told by Lobdell and Marble that they "felt it in the best interest of the newspaper and the community not to run my column any longer." "Of course, I'm disappointed but I've had the feeling for some time that my column doesn't fit into this community. This is not the first time there have been complaints, but nothing like this." His final column, in a way, spilled over into the advertising side. A restaurant display ad for a Mother's Day brunch contained a "To Our Patrons" box, which read: "We . . . wish to express our outrage concerning Matt Coker's editorial on former President Nixon . . . . We feel Mr. Coker's editorial was distasteful and are appalled that the Daily Pilot decided to print it. Our advertising in this paper is in no way supportive of Mr. Coker's opinion." "I'm sorry that the ad is the last word on this matter," Coker said. ?( Complaints and threats by supporters of the late President Richard Nixon led to the canceling of Matt Coker's column in the Daily Pilot.) [Photo & Caption]