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Ed Williams, Longtime Observer Editorial Page Editor, Receives WFAE's First Amendment Award

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On Thursday night, WFAE honored a legendary Charlotte journalist. Ed Williams, a longtime editorial page editor for the Charlotte Observer, received WFAE’s inaugural First Amendment Award. 

Williams spent 25 years at the Observer before retiring in 2008. He’s also served as chairman of WFAE’s Board of Directors. WFAE’s Lisa Worf spoke to him about his career, including his days as a student journalist at the University of Mississippi.

Lisa Worf: Let's go to the beginning of your career with newspapers to a position you didn't get. Well, not at first. And this was in the early 1960s when James Meredith, the first black student, enrolled amidst riots on the campus at University of Mississippi. You were trying to become editor-in-chief at the school's paper and you were asked a question about integration. What happened?

Ed Williams: Well, the passions were very high. And the editor of the student daily newspaper was elected in a campus-wide election. I was one of two candidates. The other was a native Mississippian. I wasn't. And we were at a campaign rally one night, and a student asked me if I thought James Meredith should have been admitted. And I did what all good politicians do -- I tried to dodge the question by saying, "I didn't quite understand your question. Could you maybe rephrase it?" Turned out he could and I couldn't dodge it anymore. So after gulping and watching my political career go up in flames, I said, "He's a native of Mississippi. He's a graduate of a Mississippi high school. He's an honorably discharged veteran of the U.S. Air Force. It seems to me he has every legal and moral right to be here."

That turned out not to be the popular answer, and I lost by the largest margin in the history of campus politics. Now, in fairness, I would probably would have lost anyway because the guy who was running against me with a really good guy and a great candidate. His campaign manager was Trent Lott, who went on to a successful political career as a U.S. Senator.

Worf: But a couple of years later, you ran for editor-in-chief after the woman elected to the position became sick and had to take a break from school. And you got it?

Williams: I got it. I was elected unopposed. It was a great year. I enjoyed writing editorials. I enjoyed riling people up by saying what I thought. Looking back, it was where I first got the bug to be an editorial writer.

Worf: So riling people up ... What other thing grabs you about editorial writing?

Williams: Well, I think there are two duties of an editorial page editor, which I later became. One is to say as clearly and forcefully and effectively as you can what you think about the facts at hand. The other is to provide an opportunity for people who disagree with you to have that same privilege of speaking to your readers.

Editorial writers don't tell people what to do. We tell you what we'd do and you can look at our reasoning and decide whether that makes any sense to you. Often it doesn't. I mean, if you simply disagree with the editorial page on priorities for the community, you're probably going to disagree with the editorials. But it's useful, I think, to have ideas forcefully and effectively presented by people who believe that that's the best path for the community.

Worf: When asked many years ago about the Observer's editorial policy, you wrote, "We believe that talk's cheap. There's no free lunch. A stitch in time saves nine. The unexpected usually happens. The unexamined life is not worth living. And everybody is ignorant, only on different subjects."

Williams: I think that was well stated.

Worf: What are the editorials that make you most proud?

Williams: For me, the fundamental, enduring problem of our region and of our nation has been racial justice. I think it's been important in my life to recognize that and call it what it is. I had the luck for most of the time that I was at the Observer to have publishers who were smart people who had backbone. I think particularly of Rolfe Neill, my first publisher, and Ann Caulkins, my last.

I remember one editorial I wrote when Rolfe was publisher about country clubs. It said essentially, "If you're a member of a country club that has a policy of discriminating on race, you're part of that policy. And you can't get off the hook just by saying, 'Well, I'm in there for business purposes' or, 'Well, somebody else makes those policies.'"

Worf: And what year was this? In the '80s?

Williams: It would've been '70s or '80s. Yeah. You know, Rolfe at that time was a member of a country club, as were some others at the Observer. But not a one of them raised any objection to that. In fact, Bill Lee, who at the time was CEO of what was at the time Duke Power Company, their offices were right across the street from ours. He walked across the street and said, "You're right." He said, "If we're not doing something to change that policy, then we're complicit in it." And he began working to change it.

You know, there are injustices in society that have existed so long that people sort of accept them as the way things are and are reluctant to protest against them. One thing a newspaper can do is point out those things.

Worf: There's some mystery about how newspapers come up with their unsigned editorials. Have you ever had to write editorials you didn't believe in?

Williams: Oh, no. I've written some that I didn't wholly agree with, particularly in political endorsements. You have a group of people, including the publisher, making up your mind about which candidates to support. And often it's a narrow choice. And sometimes my choice didn't win, or not many times. I didn't mind writing the editorial, expressing the opinion of the group.

But there was one case where the publisher and I just simply disagreed about a U.S. Senate endorsement. I said, "I'll resign. I'm not going to write that." I kind of agreed to pause for a minute. Jennie Buckner, who was the editor, got involved and finally they decided, "Well, maybe the thing to do, since we disagree, is simply not endorse in that race." But I would quit over that. I'd already gone home and told my family, "We probably are gonna be looking for something else for me to do."

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Ed Williams received the inaugural First Amendment Award from WFAE.

Worf: What race was this?

Williams: It was Lauch Faircloth. He was a Republican and John Edwards was running for his first campaign for the Senate. The editorial board, everybody, all of us thought we should endorse John Edwards.

Worf: At the same time that Charlotte is growing, it has so many fewer journalists than it did just 10 years ago. What do you think that means for the future of journalism in this city and for informing people of what's going on?

Williams: Well, I think it's a disaster waiting to happen. I've spent half a century observing and writing about people with power. And one thing I know about people with power is they'd just as soon work in secret. You know, given the opportunity.

It's said that conscience is that little voice that whispers in your ear, "Somebody may be watching." Well, journalists are watching. And the fewer journalists we have, the fewer eyes we have on what powerful people are doing.

I mean, what's happening to the Observer and to other legacy publications and organizations is not that people don't want what they do, it's that they may not want it in the form it's presented to them or they may not want to pay for it. What happened to the Observer was not a collapse of journalism, but a collapse of a business model.

But the whole institutional organization of journalism is coming apart, and we have to figure out some way to organize in ways that create reliable and skillful reporting of news that's important to people.

Worf: Ed Williams, thank you.

Williams: Well, my pleasure. Thank you.