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Mr. Butterworth earns his salt without crying over spilled milk.

Florida Attorney General Bob Butterworth spoke to members of NCEW and the Florida Conference of Editorial Writers in Miami on April 16. Here's what he had to say.

LET ME SAY how pleased I am to be here and how much I appreciate your kind invitation. I feel like a fourth grader who has just been given 20 minutes to talk back to Sister Mary Josephine.

Before I go any further, I would like to set the record straight. I don't have a beef with any of you. You have been very kind to me. When we have done well, you have told us. When have taken a misstep, we have gotten one of your darts.

In fact, I would characterize our experience with editorial writers and editorial boards as ... well, as something mystical.

Take our milk case, for example.

Some years ago, we completed a very complex and intensive antitrust investigation. This case was so complex that we needed the very latest in computers and software to bring it home.

And we did.

The result was an unprecedented antitrust action against some of the nation's largest milk producers. We charged them with fixing prices in the sale of milk to public schools.

Ultimately, these firms agreed to pay, as a group, some $32 million. This set a national record for a single-state antitrust action.

Furthermore, antitrust experts told us they had never before seen a settlement in which the defendants agreed to pay treble damages plus legal fees -- the maximum they would have had to pay had they gone to trial and lost.

We felt pretty good about ourselves. Then we read an editorial in the Key West Citizen.

The headline read: "Is Butterworth worth his salt?"

It went on to say: "It's a lot easier to make rules about milk than to produce milk.... How much longer are dairy farmers going to get up at dawn and sterilize milking machines to earn 17[cents] a cup, only to be sued by politicians who apparently have nothing better to do?

"When was the last time Bob Butterworth milked a cow?"

I sent that one to my mother.

After our milk case, we met with the U.S. Justice Department and turned over every scrap of evidence we had. We sent attorneys to several other states to brief investigators there on what we had found.

As a result of our groundwork, federal and state antitrust investigations were opened in dozens of states. In the years since, hardly a month goes by the another indictment is announced in one state or another. And AP does a story.

One day, our phone rang. It was an editorial writer. She had been watching the wires for a couple of years, she said, and all these states were busy doing something about milk companies that had fixed prices. She hadn't seen a word about Florida.

Then she asked: What's the matter with Butterworth?

I sent her a copy of the Key West Citizen.

Mid-summer's nightmare

As I said, our relationship with editorial writers has been somewhat mystical. I even dream about them.

One night, I saw an older man with long, white hair tied into a pony tail. He had funny shoes, too.

"General Butterworth," he said, "I need your help in crafting some legislation."

"Fine," I said. "We'd be glad to help."

He handed me a piece of paper containing a summary of what he had in mind. This is what it said:

"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press."

I took his notes back to the office and gave them to the best legal brains on my staff. After several days, we decided there was not much we could do to improve upon what this man had written. I contacted him and told him that -- and suggested that he simply proceed with his proposal as written.

He did. Then came the editorials.

Said the Orlando Sentinel: "A simplistic, quick-fix approach that dodges the real issue of raising taxes on tea."

And the Tampa Tribune: A Band-Aid approach to a very serious problem at a time when the public deserves more than political posturing."

And the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel said, "Well-meaning, perhaps, but far short of the cure-all the sponsor would have you believe it to be."

And finally, the Palm Beach Post: "What we really need is a long-term plan."

I read those editorials -- and then I thought about a simple proposal I recently made myself ... for a local-option, statewide juvenile curfew. Most of you in this room who are from Florida have commented on this issue one way or another.

Let me amend that: Most of you in this room have commented on this issue one way ... Forget the other.

Booted out

Actually, I suspected up front what you would probably have to say. And I'm not here to discuss the merits or shortfalls of statewide guidelines for juvenile curfews. Of more importance to me personally was a second proposal that we had.

We called it Project Bootstrap. It was a very straightforward idea. Obtain the use of a closed military base; enlist the support of Florida's business community; utilize the young college students participating in President Clinton's AmeriCorps; and provide intensive job-training, education, support, and temporary incomes to the young graduates of so-called "boot camps."

To the best of my knowledge, this was the first proposal from any state to embody a specific plan for utilizing AmeriCorps national service volunteers. And I sincerely thought it could help a significant number of young people who had made a mistake.

With a single exception, none of Florida's news media published a single editorial comment on this plan. Why?

I'm not blaming you. You didn't know about it. You didn't know about it because your capital reporters didn't write about it.

I'm not blaming them, either. It is the process that is to blame.

After many years of public life, I have learned that any proposed program involving more than one or two elements requires the careful building of a consensus. Your reporters could hardly have traveled with me when I met with Attorney General Janet Reno about funding for this proposal. Or when I went to the headquarters of the Department of Housing and Urban Development about potential help from that agency. Or when I met with the leadership of the Florida Council of 100, Associated Industries, and other business groups.

But we did make documents about the proposal public. In fact, conceptual outlines were distributed at the very task force meeting where the curfew was due to be discussed.

Maybe the media silence was our fault -- we didn't hold a news conference or issue a press release. But this was our dilemma: Had we called a news conference or issued a press release, the Bootstrap proposal would have become politicized -- and partisan.

If so, it would have had no chance of ever reaching fruition. And we were expecting a difficult time, anyway.

The point I am trying to make is this: The notion of a statewide curfew made headlines -- and attracted your editorial comment -- because it could be encapsulated in a single word. It lended itself to a tag. And this enabled it to rise above all the other legislative noise.

But at no time was this curfew proposal ever intended to be more than a tiny pebble in a very large stone wall then being constructed as this state's attempt to address a frightening juvenile crime problem. At no time did anybody -- including me -- ever represent that a curfew would solve the juvenile crime program.

Yet those were the two most frequent criticisms: that it was a simplistic election-year slogan, and that it would fall far short of being a cure-all for the crime problem.

Think twice

It seems to me that when editorial writing falls short and potentially misleads readers, it is usually because it fails to recognize that democracy, by its very nature, leads to a cumbersome legislative process.

This legislative process is at all times extremely fluid. It also, at all times, is the sum of many, many small parts. Stones in the wall, if you will. A misleading editorial will elevate that stone and treat it as self-contained. But that is rarely, if ever, the case.

Therefore, if I were an editorial writer in 1994, I would definitely think twice before typing the word "simplistic" when assessing a public policy proposal. Likewise, I would think twice before stating that whatever an idea is, it won't serve as a "cure-all" or "quick fix" for the problem it is intended to address.

That is not to say that a bad idea should not be called a bad idea. If it's bad, or unworkable, or poorly drafted, or morally deficient, then say so. But explain why.

Believe me, a well-researched, accurate editorial devoid of cliche logic will have impact -- both on those of us in government and the people who put us there.

I may be wrong, but I believe a trend is developing where we have lapsed into one-dimensional commentary that dismisses ideas with a lazy wave of the hand. This appears to be especially so when it comes to criminal justice issues. As evidence of this apparent trend, at this time I would like to unveil a survey.

Quick-fix gimmick a simplistic Band-Aid

This is the first annual survey of wave-of-the-hand editorial rejections of criminal justice proposals, many of which are worthy and truly in the public interest despite what they say.

For fourth place, we have a tie: "simplistic," and a new one that is a fast-comer, "no brainer." Each had two appearances in our sample.

In third place is "Band-Aid." It had three appearances in our limited survey.

In second place, we have a tie -- with "knee jerk" and "gimmick" each having four appearances.

And in first place -- by a very large margin -- is "quick fix." "Quick fix" had a remarkable eight appearances in the sample.

The survey also produced a special award category: That goes to the piece of writing that not only managed to work "quick fix" and "gimmick" into the same sentence, but also into the same phrase.

After seeing the results of the survey, I briefly considered proposing a bill that would ban "quick fix," "Band-Aid," and the rest from any column of type set in Florida. But I knew that would probably be the biggest "no brainer" of them all and "laughable" were it not so serious.

I don't mean to be unduly harsh. My intent is merely to sound a friendly alert. The last thing this country needs, especially at this point in time, is one-dimensional commentary. I wonder what Nelson Poynter, John Knight, or Ralph McGill would have to say.

Certainly, we in government -- and especially in the criminal justice system have our own cliches. When we fall into one, however, we have the likes of the St. Petersburg Times, the Lakeland Ledger, and The Miami Herald to straighten us out.

You don't have the luxury of such a backstop, other than your readers. And they're more likely to tune you out than sound a friendly alarm.

Stay on the road

I have one final concern that I wish to touch upon briefly, if I could.

In the past few years, my office has conducted a number of extensive investigations into the telephone and cable industries. As a result, we have been forced to become familiar to a degree with the enormous changes underway in communications technology and the so-called "information superhighway."

We have watched your newspapers struggle to meet the challenges of these changes, occasionally by establishing alliances with former enemies.

Some of what I have seen frightens me. But I have one hope. That hope is this:

When the day comes that I get my newspaper's foreign news and sports and movie reviews and recipes through my television set, I hope that I can also get my editorials and commentaries.

If I can't then the democracy we've talked about here today will surely suffer.
COPYRIGHT 1994 National Conference of Editorial Writers
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1994, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:Florida Attorney General Bob Butterworth speech
Publication:The Masthead
Article Type:Transcript
Date:Jun 22, 1994
Words:2027
Previous Article:Strong opinions plus high-tech equipment equals sheer panic.
Next Article:Dogma if you do, damned if you don't.
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