Michael John Baxter found his passion in journalism, exposing scandal as a Miami Herald reporter, then rising to deputy managing editor during a time when Miami was undergoing a turbulent metamorphosis from resort town into the multicultural city it is today.
Baxter, 77, died on June 23, leaving behind his wife, Joanne (Jo); sons Bradley, Jeffrey, Michael and Matthew; nine grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.
His family and friends knew him as a dry-humored, intelligent man who helped and cared for others.
Born in Terre Haute, Indiana, Baxter went to high school in Nebraska, where he played football and developed an affinity for writing while becoming one of the fastest typists in his class. Around the end of his high school years, he married Sharon Adams, and they had sons Bradley and Jeffery. The marriage ended in divorce.
Baxter then attended the University of Nebraska, also serving in the Army National Guard. In college, he met his second wife, Joanne, and began his journalism career.
While still at Nebraska, he won multiple William Randolph Hearst Awards for reporting. As his passion for journalism took root, he developed a firm belief in a free press as foundational to democracy.
Baxter started his professional career in Miami as a general assignment reporter. He would rise to deputy managing editor, helping guide the coverage as Miami was roiled by riots spurred by the deaths of young Black men at the hands of police officers, the mass influx of refugees from Cuba’s Mariel Harbor and other transformative events.
As a reporter, Baxter teamed up with Jim Savage to expose a scandal at the Federal Housing Administration involving a program to provide affordable housing for poor people. They tracked hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribery payments from builders seeking contracts. Some of that money ended up in the office safe of Florida U.S. Sen. Edward Gurney.
The reporting resulted in an indictment of Gurney, who was acquitted at trial. He did not seek reelection.
The reporting won a prestigious George Polk Award and was the subject of Stalking a Senator, a chapter in “The New Muckrakers,” a book by longtime Washington Post Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr.
Savage, who became investigations editor at the Herald, credited Baxter’s “dogged pursuit” of crucial public records at a time before such documents could be accessed digitally.
After leaving the Herald, Baxter unwound by traveling around the country with his wife, visiting their large family.
The family plans a celebration of Baxter’s life at a later date.