I hope my book makes us more aware of the serious and unique challenges we face today and points the way to solutions that lead to better-informed voters so our democracy survives. Without the light of truth, democracy descends into a chaotic darkness in which it cannot survive.
As part of my series about “authors who are making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Tom Coat.
Tom Coat is a retired journalist and publisher. As a journalist for several papers, including the San Diego Union-Tribune, he won numerous awards. Highlights include his design of the front page of the Tallahassee Democrat following mass murderers of Florida State University coeds by Ted Bundy, his first-person account about the experience of going through two levels of Scientology, and his series of articles about the relationship of tobacco and sports in the early 1980s. He left the San Diego paper in 1990 to found a small publishing company that created two of the largest websites in the sport of running — the websites for the first Rock ’n’ Roll Marathon and the J.P. Morgan Chase Corporate Challenge, which grew to include large corporate races on six continents. Coat also served as Communications Director for the America’s Cup in San Diego and wrote A Cup of Controversy, a book about the legally strained 1988 regatta involving San Diego and New Zealand.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?
I grew up poor, the son of an often-unemployed coal miner in Southwestern Pennsylvania. But, our family was rich with love. Though he never graduated from high school, my father encouraged me to read. Sometimes we didn’t have enough to eat, but we always had the daily paper delivered. That sparked my love of reading and current events. When I was in 7th grade, I won a competition for knowledge about current events that included all the classes in our school system, up through 12th grade. I should have given that award to my dad. I was so proud of him.
When you were younger, was there a book that you read that inspired you to take action or changed your life? Can you share a story about that?
It wasn’t one book that changed my life but the experience of being the first in my family to graduate from college. I entered Indiana University of Pennsylvania as a math major, but soon realized I loved words more than numbers and switched to a major in English. I became the sports editor of the college newspaper. Later, I got my first real job as the sports editor of a small paper in Prescott, Arizona, by lying about what I could do. I thought I’d have two weeks to learn on the job with the sports editor I was replacing, so it was no big deal. When I walked into the office a couple of hours before a mid-morning deadline on my first day, I was shocked to learn that the publisher had fired the former sports editor and I was on my own. I survived that first day as a professional journalist by being honest with the crew in the back shop, for whom I am still grateful for saving my career.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting mistake that occurred to you in the course of your career? What lesson or take away did you learn from that?
While working as an assistant city editor at the Clearwater (Florida) Sun, I and other residents of the small coastal city were shocked when the “Church” of Scientology bought the landmark building in town and made it the international headquarters of the organization. Residents wanted to know more about this secretive organization that suddenly had a dominating presence in their city. At the Sun, we couldn’t get reliable information about Scientology, so I volunteered to become a member of the organization. I gave my real name, but not my profession. It turns out the Scientologists were so paranoid about publicity that they had planted a spy in our newsroom. After completing two levels of Scientology, I was “exposed” publicly in class in a scene where I feared being physically attacked. Under the threat of a $30 million lawsuit filed by the Scientologist who claimed I violated their freedom of religion, I wrote a series of investigative articles that won statewide awards in Florida. Our paper counter-sued claiming that our freedom of the press was being violated by the filing of a frivolous lawsuit. Before the case came to trial, and after the publication of my articles, the Scientologists dropped their lawsuit. The lesson I learned was that freedom of the press is critically important to democracy because only with it can journalists supply the information needed for citizens to make informed decisions.
Can you describe how you aim to make a significant social impact with your book?
In my book, The Lost Year: Musings from Trumpworld in the time of COVID-19, statements from two former presidents put into context the social impact I hope the book makes. In the book’s preface, Barack Obama illustrates with a simple example how truth and facts have come to be denied in modern America. Later in the book, John F. Kennedy is quoted as saying: “The ignorance of one voter in a democracy impairs the security of all.” We are living in an era when misinformation and the denial of facts has reached a point where it threatens the ability of our democracy to function. I hope my book makes us more aware of the serious and unique challenges we face today and points the way to solutions that lead to better-informed voters so our democracy survives. Without the light of truth, democracy descends into a chaotic darkness in which it cannot survive.
Can you share with us the most interesting story that you shared in your book?
There are many because the book is not a concise history of The Lost Year of 2020, but rather a collection of stories that ties together thoughts -musings — about the fascinating period through which we just lived. The book’s stories focus on the many ways that truth and facts were denied in Trumpworld in the time of COVID-19. One of my favorite stories appears in the first chapter. In seeking to explain how 74 million Americans could have voted for a man who told more than 30,000 verified lies in his four years as president, the unshakeable faith of evangelical Christians, who voted by a 76–24 margin to support Donald Trump over Joe Biden, is examined. The story is about evangelical preacher Kenneth Copeland and a bizarre YouTube video in which the bombastic preacher blows the “Wind of God” on the coronavirus in April of 2020 and “destroys it forever” in America. Of course, this denies the truth that COVID-19, far from being destroyed, never left us in 2020 and accounted for more than 400,000 American deaths by the time Trump left office. But despite his embarrassing spectacle, Copeland, a huge backer of Trump, never lost the support of his faithful followers, who went to the polls likely believing the “Wind of God” had protected America.
What was the “aha moment” or series of events that made you decide to bring your message to the greater world? Can you share a story about that?
Yes. I am a huge fan of editorial cartoons. The fascinatingly maddening period of Trumpworld in the time of COVID-19 led to an explosion of historically great editorial cartoons. The cartoons exposed the gap between truth and the denial of truth so brilliantly that I began collecting them. Two cartoons were so good that they finally convinced me to write down my thoughts about the fascinating era they exposed before I forgot key details. In one, Austrian cartoonist Pascal Kirchmaier shook me with a cartoon that recreated a famous scene from the last days of World War II. Kirchmaier’s cartoon recalled the scene in which Russian troops are advancing on Berlin and a stooped Hitler is shaking hands with young boys whom he is about to send to almost certain death in a last, futile attempt to defend the Nazi capital. In the face of such impending doom, Hitler lies to the boys about the prospects. In Kirchmaier’s cartoon, the SS troopers surrounding Hitler are replaced by MAGA-hat-wearing Qanon members, the young boys are wearing MAGA hats, and Hitler is replaced by Trump, who repeats his big lie: “I won. By a lot!” The other cartoon was from two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Steve Breen of the San Diego Union-Tribune. Breen drew an angel in Heaven with her huge wings enveloping a just-deceased elderly COVID-19 victim with the simple caption “Long-term care.” After seeing elderly patients dying in nursing homes after a cruel and unnatural isolation that they had to endure for months in many cases, the cartoon touched me deeply.
Without sharing specific names, can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?
Not yet. However, proceeds from the book are going to help those impacted by COVID-19. That is one reason why the Union-Tribune’s Breen agreed to be part of this project by allowing the use of his cartoons in the book. His gesture is deeply appreciated. We will announce a specific beneficiary after the publishing process is further along.
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
Yes. It begins with becoming an informed citizen and voter. The book examines the many ways that misinformation has become rampant in America today. As the book says, you can have your own opinion, but it should be based on facts and truth. To me, the effort to be informed begins with support of free and fair media. Every despot in history has always attacked the truth and facts. The chapter in the book about the assault on truth, facts and fact-tellers has Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s aptly named Minister of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda, coming back to life in modern America and reaching a state of delirium over how easy it has become to spread “the Big Lie.” But, as this book examines in detail, and filmmaker Ken Burns and others have noted, America actually faced three crises in The Lost Year of 2020. We need to work together to solve each of them. First, follow science and have a basic regard for the health of fellow citizens so we can put the COVID-19 pandemic behind us. Second, lose the sense of entitlement and lack of empathy so we can make progress on racial injustice that has plagued us since the birth of America and swept over the country yet again last year in the wake of the death of George Floyd. And, finally, help find solutions for controlling misinformation on social media, partisan broadcast media, and in baseless conspiracy theories.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
To me, leadership is the courage to speak truth to power and to be informed so you know what is true. If in power, it is the ability to hear the truth and put what is best for the country ahead of party or personal considerations. That’s when we make real progress. We face great challenges. But, as Ayanna Pressley, the first Black, female U.S. representative from Massachusetts says in the book, we won’t solve our racial challenges until we recognize that the biggest deficit we face today in America is a deficit of empathy. We won’t solve the challenges of misinformation until we find how to preserve freedom of speech and the press without permitting the spread of misinformation. It won’t be easy. But finding solutions to difficult problems is what leadership means to me.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
I’ll sum it up with one thing. Have the confidence in yourself to believe you can achieve your goals. My story is that I began this book never intending it to be something for the public to read. I didn’t have the confidence that I could write a book about a historical period and make it interesting. But writing about this fascinating period of American history turned out to be so much fun, that I kept at it until the book was finished. I think the book poses questions that are important to ask and succeeds in doing something that was at its heart when the project began. I had always wondered what the typical German was thinking when they looked out of their windows and saw their world filling up with bigotry, hatred, lies and death during the rise to power of Adolph Hitler. I wanted to leave a similar record of what a typical American was thinking during The Lost Year. By reaching the end of my book, I reached my goal. You can reach your goals, too.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
I’d love to sit down and discuss theme-based creations of art with filmmaker Ken Burns. I wrote my book in a vacuum of sorts. I looked for inspiration for brilliant editorial cartoons and relied on the internet and media for research. However, the structure of the book and its focus on the three crises of 2020 — the pandemic, social unrest, and the presidential race that would end in a riot on the Capitol — were just my thoughts. It was so encouraging to read a story in April of 2021 — after the book was finished except for edits — that Burns shared almost the same big thoughts about the three crises we experienced in 2020 and the challenges that lie ahead. I’ve always admired his documentaries and would love to exchange thoughts about our current situation.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
This is the key. Writing the book was a blast. Taking the next steps in terms of marketing and publishing are more of a challenge. Please watch for the book — The Lost Year: Musings from Trumpworld in the time of COVID-19 — to be published as an ebook with possible sales on Amazon and Kindle.
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!