Stu Bykofsky’s Baggage

Is Philly's most-controversial newspaper columnist worthy of the role?

Byko's greatest hits, according to a recent Storify presentation about him.

Byko’s greatest hits, according to a recent Storify presentation about him.

I don’t think Stu Bykofsky is a bigot.

Let me rephrase: I don’t know if Stu Bykofsky is a bigot, because answering that question definitively requires knowing Stu’s heart — and nobody knows Stu’s heart (or, really, if he has one) except Stu.

Helen Gym did a thorough takedown last week of the longtime Daily News columnist’s rhetorical proclivities, but I suspect Bykofsky isn’t a bigot as the term is normally understood. Hating other groups of people requires caring, on some level, that they exist. I’m not so sure that’s the case with Stu.

He’s a provocateur. A troll, in the modern parlance. A naughty child in the body of a cranky old man. A commenter given pro status. Other people don’t seem to be “other people” in Stu’s columns so much as they are targets for his gleeful, unending bomb-throwing. (Full disclosure: He’s aimed those bombs at me on at least one occasion.)

The question, then, is this: Is he a worthy newspaper columnist?

The folks at the Daily News have certainly made up their collective minds: Editors and former colleagues — as well as a few other media-slash-government insiders — lined up on social media last week to defend Stu’s merits, both as a columnist and as a man.

As the conversation ranged across Twitter last week, in fact, one dynamic became clear: Stu’s defenders were largely (but not only) a bunch of white guy media veterans. Stu’s critics were largely (but not only) female and non-white. Make of of that what you will.

Here’s what the defense of Stu amounted to.

A) That he’s a nice guy to his friends, behind the scenes.

B) That a columnist’s job is to sometimes make people angry.

As for A), let’s be clear about one thing: Nobody cares. Stu is probably nice to dogs. It has no bearing on how he contributes to the public discourse in Philadelphia.

And for B), yes, a good columnist should make people angry now and again. But he or she shouldn’t only make people angry — he or she ought to be able to inspire, inform, and explain, too. Too often, from the outside, Stu’s whole shtick is seeing how many variations on Peter Finch in Network he can come up with.

Here’s why that might have some value: At Philly’s two daily newspapers, there isn’t a whole bunch of regular right-of-center commentary. Michael Smerconish doesn’t really count since his turn to radical centrism. That leaves Christine Flowers and Stu — and Stu isn’t so much a conservative, but a populist, as rabble-rousers usually are.

Even if I don’t agree with his positions, it’s probably important that Philadelphians occasionally hear an editorial voice against, say, the city going its own way on immigration policy, or against bicycle lanes, or in favor of the Mummers.

Stu, however, may have too much baggage to deliver those messages credibly. His critics, especially, remember his notorious 2011 column about sex tourism in Thailand. Let’s just say this about that piece: At its best, it was a monument to writerly self-indulgence and passive editing. Somebody should’ve said no. They didn’t. And the decision to publish it influences the public’s interpretation of everything else Byko writes to this day.

So what does that leave us with? Probably this: The Daily News needs somebody like Stu Bykofsky in its pages. The problem? Why does it have to be Stu Bykofsky?

Follow @JoelMMathis on Twitter.