They died the same weekend, one 26, a prodigy of the Internet age who took his own life, the other an 89-year-old whose moral battles were waged on newsprint and whose final assignment was editing the Old Testament.
It is doubtful that many knew both men. And perhaps no one else reading their January obituaries was struck, as I was, by the distant echoes in their stories. But I couldn’t shake the connection nor the important questions their lives posed—about journalistic courage, access to knowledge, and the way in which we nurture a generation’s clarion voices.
Eugene Patterson was one such voice, a white man from rural Georgia who survived poverty and World War II to become among the most influential editors of the civil rights era. His editorials for The Atlanta Constitution won a Pulitzer Prize in 1967, along with the enmity of white demagogues. He received threats and hate mail. His 9-year-old phoned once in a panic because their dog had been shot in the yard.
"I kept telling my daughter, ‘Look, we don’t know who shot her,’?" Patterson told an interviewer. "But my daughter said she knew—that it was ‘somebody who doesn’t like what you’ve been writing in the paper.’ I tried to explain to her. It was tough for a child."
The column for which Patterson is best remembered was written in 1963 on the day four African-American girls were murdered in a dynamite explosion at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. Patterson would say later that he cried as he composed "A Flower for the Graves," his own daughter nearby as he typed:
"A Negro mother wept in the street Sunday morning in front of a Baptist Church in Birmingham. In her hand she held a shoe, one shoe, from the foot of her dead child. We hold that shoe with her. … Only we can trace the truth, Southerner—you and I. We broke those children’s bodies."
Walter Cronkite invited Patterson to read the column on the "CBS Evening News," an extraordinary moment at a time when an editor’s voice rarely reached beyond the routes of his newspaper’s delivery trucks. His courage was found in his silence, too, having resisted FBI pressure to publish details about Martin Luther King, Jr.’s personal life. And in perhaps his most selfless act, he ordered news of his drunk driving arrest onto Page 1 of the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times, where he last worked as editor and chairman.
His influence had limits. He once phoned a Florida governor at 2 a.m. imploring him to commute a death sentence, only to learn hours later of the prisoner’s execution. But the long arc of Patterson’s life was characterized by persistence and no harder-won compliment was ever paid a journalist than this from one of his readers: "I see what you’re trying to do. You’re trying to make us think that we’re better than we are."
Aaron Swartz’s death by hanging in New York came January 11, the day before Patterson died of complications from cancer, and was received with raw, angry grief. A host of newspapers, magazines, blogs and streaming eulogies brought steady accounts of his brief, brilliant and ultimately tragic orbit. The appraisals of his contributions vary, but are united by recognition that Swartz was a precocious programmer (some say genius) who contributed to the creation of RSS, the transformative online syndication tool; Reddit; and the revolutionary Web licensing system, Creative Commons. That Swartz began this work as a 14-year-old high school dropout only burnished his reputation.
What animated Swartz was not mere programming but organizing in support of open access to the Web. He founded Demand Progress, a group that successfully lobbied against the Stop Online Piracy Act—legislation that backers said protected intellectual property but that Swartz argued was online censorship. In 2008, he aimed his prodigious talent at an electronic repository for federal judicial records. Swartz objected to the government charging 8 cents per page to view public information and helped write a computer program unlocking nearly 20 million free pages before the government caught on.
Swartz’s fervor for unfettered information access eventually led him to a utility closet at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). There he allegedly connected his laptop to the school’s network and downloaded archives from JSTOR, a paid subscription service for academic journals. He believed the research—some funded by taxpayers—was knowledge solidly in the public domain. Despite JSTOR’s decision not to press charges, the Department of Justice indicted Swartz for gaining illegal access to the files, a crime carrying the threat of prison and significant fines.
"Stealing is stealing," said U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz, "whether you use a computer command or a crowbar."
Swartz had written about his recurring depression, but the legal case is said to have drained his finances and exhausted him. At the crowded funeral on the North Shore of Chicago where Swartz had grown up, his father Robert said a zealous government had "killed" his son. Swartz’s longtime mentor Lawrence Lessig, director of Harvard’s Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics where Swartz was a fellow at the time of the MIT incident, wrote that if the allegations were true "then what he did was wrong." But he accused the government of "bullying" Swartz—who was "always and only working for … the public good"—into a state of despair.
"Aaron Swartz is now an icon, an ideal," an emotional Lessig said in a television interview. "He is what we will be fighting for, all of us, for the rest of our lives."
In the days after their deaths, I wrestled at the intersection of their lives. Clearly there were personal traits that powered their individual responses to moral crises and adversity. But what else?
Between his posts in Atlanta and St. Petersburg, Patterson served as managing editor of The Washington Post, presiding with executive editor Benjamin Bradlee over the 1971 publication of the Pentagon Papers. Those classified documents, a chronicle of the U.S. history in Vietnam, were famously taken, copied and leaked by military analyst Daniel Ellsberg, first to The New York Times, then to the Post and others. What Swartz did with a laptop, Ellsberg accomplished with a copy machine. Publication of the documents in the face of federal injunctions and claims the newspapers were endangering national security, Ellsberg wrote, "amounted to a unique wave of civil disobedience by major American institutions."
That experience, like others before and since, was formative for journalism. Beleaguered on so many fronts, the industry still shows evidence of an enduring public service mission and an apprentice tradition that lighted the way for editors like Patterson and those who followed. In Atlanta, Ralph McGill, a legendary anti-segregationist editor, tutored a young Patterson, sharpening his focus, prose and resolve. That man in turn grew up to teach and inspire future generations of editors, me included, even as the stories evolved from segregation to death penalty law, gender inequality, immigration and more.
Swartz was not a journalist, but a programmer turned crusader whose work raises large and complex questions about who owns knowledge. And his ideals could be in conflict with the news industry’s business views on copyright and content control. But they are rooted in a historic journalistic debate that Patterson would have recognized, one made ever more urgent by the digital possibilities: Who controls access to information? When to publish and when not? What are the costs—financial, moral and personal?
Delusional, I know: I’ve imagined Patterson and Swartz in conversation about all this. But on that January weekend, they were ghosts speaking across the obituary page.
A week after they died, I saw Nicco Mele, who teaches on politics and the Internet at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. Mele knew Swartz, had read about Patterson, and we talked a bit about them. Some days later, he e-mailed me.
"I was thinking about what you said about Aaron Swartz and Eugene Patterson," he wrote. "What do they have in common?"
Mele observed that Swartz had a "moral suasion" that distinguished him among Internet entrepreneurs and aligned him with Patterson. "That kind of integrity, a deep-seated sense of public service, was simply unusual," Mele wrote. He added that Swartz’s standing was "complicated given many of his actions. But he definitely saw himself as acting in civil disobedience from a place of integrity."
His final point struck a somber note about shifting media tectonics.
"One of the questions raised by the comparison is about the role of editors and journalists in our communities," he wrote. "Eugene Patterson’s life makes it clear that newspapers were a crucial perch for true leadership—a disappearing perch. And I’m not sure we’ve got any institutions poised to fill that void.
"Aaron was, in a sense, the spiritual heir to the crusading editor. How do we encourage more nerds to be like Aaron?"
In one of the last photos of Patterson, he is dressed in blue pajamas, sitting up in bed with his laptop. He is already ill. There is a King James Bible at his side, atop his manuscript for "Chord: The Old Testament Condensed." He wears a sweet, wan smile, the expression of an old man at peace.
There will be no such photos of Aaron.