The Press as Company Store, Atlanta Style

The Press as Company Store, Atlanta Style

By Eric Guthey

Vol. 10, No. 6, 1988, pp. 8-10

To doubt the current charming presentations of Southern growth and prosperity is to bring anathema on one’s head. What! The South not prosperous. Impossible, they cry, and the individual who questions is an idiot.–Lewis Harvie Blair, The Prosperity of the South Dependent on the Elevation of the Negro (1889)

Although Harvie Blair, native Virginian and former Confederate soldier, wrote his description of such defensive, pro-Southern attitudes a hundred years ago, his words apply just as well to the South today. The survival of this mixture of the New South creed, corporate-expansive boosterism, and belligerent local patriotism is not breaking news. But when Bill Kovach abruptly resigned as editor of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in November, the papers’ corporate managers who accepted his resignation and the community members opposed to it lined up on both sides of the myth and pushed it into the national headlines.

Atlantans who supported Kovach and liked what he had done with the papers during his two-year tenure claimed the corporate elite-who traditionally have promoted New South posturing and urban boosterism to bolster their own power-had forced out the former New York Times Washington bureau chief because of his tough coverage of the Atlanta business community. Publisher Jay Smith and David Easterly, president of the papers’ parent company, Cox Enterprises, denied that business pressure had anything to do with their acceptance of Kovach’s resignation. He had resigned and they had accepted because of a lack of “mutual trust,” they said.

But Smith and Easterly defended their actions against a barrage of national criticism by doing what all good New South boosters do-retreating to a stance of intense regionalism and denying any problem existed. In an article in The Wall Street Journal, Easterly responded to a comment from Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee by telling him to “stuff it.” Meanwhile, good ol’ boys like Journal-Constitution sportswriter Furman Bisher and columnist Lewis Grizzard, both of whom had been at the papers long before Kovach, gloated as the crowd they saw as “Northern invaders” from the New York Times lost the battle for the control of the papers. Said Bisher: “Maybe now we can get back to covering Dixie like the dew.”

To many, though, that meant the papers would return to the previous state of mediocrity which had chased serious Southern journalists away and allowed local talents like Bisher and Grizzard to thrive. “These papers have never attempted to excel,” said Dudley Clendinen, a former Timesman who had joined the papers in 1986 as Kovach’s assistant in charge of local news and who resigned two weeks after Kovach’s departure. “They’ve always been content to have to find their reputation in a single editor of conscience and great writing ability. But those editors always felt threatened: Ralph McGill spent every day afraid that he was going to be fired. Gene Patterson was forced out.”(In 1967, Constitution editor Eugene Patterson lost his job for running a column criticizing Georgia Power’s request for a rate hike).

“The [Cox] family takes the profits,” Clendinen said. “It doesn’t involve itself in the conduct of the paper, to see to it that they produce are cord of quality. That’s always been the case here in Atlanta, and because it has, people don’t know better. They’ve always lived here, always read these papers. If they’ve lived elsewhere they’d know better.” According to a recent ranking in Advertising Age, Cox Enterprises, an empire originally built around newspaper money from Dayton, Ohio, is the thirteenth largest media company in the world, and pulls in the ninth largest revenues from newspaper operations (over $710 million in 1987). According to the Forbes 400 listing, the sisters who control the family business, Anne Cox Chambers and Barbara Cox Anthony, together share the distinction of being the eighth richest people in the United States. Each is worth $2.25 billion.

Kovach joined the Journal-Constitition in 1986, reportedly after being passed over for the position of editor at the New York Times. The local community and the national media heralded his hiring as a signal the Cox sisters had decided to convert the Journal-Constitution from the haven for mediocrity and soft business coverage it had become into an institution that commanded national respect. Kovach himself declared that he intended to turn the Journal-Constitution into a world-class news organization.

As business institutions, large U.S. city newspapers at their best are never more than instruments of liberal reform, criticizing their business communities within certain “acceptable” limits. Bill Kovach tried to expand those limits at the Journal-Constitution, and his improvements were encouraging compared to the papers’ dismal record. Under Kovach, the papers ran lengthy investigative pieces exposing the Atlanta banking community’s discriminatory lending practices in black neighborhoods, the alleged bribing of Russian officials by Coca-Cola representatives, and Georgia Power management’s coercion of employees to make political contributions to the campaign of Public Service Commission candidate Bobby Rowan.

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The papers’ coverage of the Democratic National Convention in Atlanta last summer also drew national attention. In fact, even the papers’ senior management publicly praised Kovach as the man who had turned around the Journal-Constitution and likened him to the Pulitzer Prize-winning former Constitution editor Ralph McGill, under whom the papers were said to have had their best years. At a party in the newsroom on the convention’s last night, Smith stood atop a desk and declared: “These are no longer the newspapers of Ralph McGill. These are the newspapers of Bill Kovach.”

But five months later, Smith was explaining that he and Kovach had never been able to establish a relationship of “mutual trust.” In a November 12 editorial, Smith instated that the company had let Kovach go because he was impossible to work with. This very well may be the immediate reason why the papers’ management got rid of Kovach. Kovach himself conceded that direct pressure from the business community had nothing to do with his leaving. Some of Kovach’s own hirees admitted he had a hot temper, and may have threatened to quit one time too many.

Yet, it doesn’t matter if a corporate conspiracy to Iynch Kovach didn’t exist. New South boosterism does not work that way. Rather, it is a pervasive consciousness, a framework of attitudes within which serious analysis and criticism-especially of the New South’s booming capital-are just not welcome. Complaints from Atlanta business leaders over what they saw as Kovach’s unfair coverage merely reflected and contributed to that ethos. So did Kovach’s protracted arguments with Smith and Easterly, who wanted the papers to look more like USA Today, the shallow but highly successful paper replete with short stories, bright graphics, and a decidedly “up-beat” approach to the news. The Cox chain’s desire to emulate USA Today indicates that it places a higher premium on marketing strategies and revenue than on solid news coverage. All of these factors add up to a situation in which the Cox corporate managers find themselves predisposed to think that someone like Kovach would be difficult to work with.

“I no longer respect or believe in the ownership of the paper, or the corporate managers more particularly,” Clendinen said, adding he lamented Kovach’s departure in part because it signaled the end of an important experiment for the region. “There’s never been a great regional newspaper in the South,” he explained. “Serious editors and reporters have had to go North because there’s been nothing to aspire to. What we had here with Bill Kovach was an effort to create a paper that would report on and examine and reflect the culture of the South.”

Clendinen still bristles over the way he, Kovach and city editor Wendell “Sonny” Rawls, who also joined the papers in 1986, have been portrayed as an intrusive “New York Times Mafia” Kovach and Rawls are both from Tennessee and both worked at the Nashville Tennesseean before going to the Times. Clendinen is from Tampa, Fla., went to Vanderbilt University in Nashville, and his family’s roots are in Georgia, where his great-grandfather was surgeon general during the Civil War. “The foreign implant, if you will, are the five people from Dayton, Ohio, who now run the Cox corporation,” Clendinen said.

“This is representative of a tradition that has existed in the South since the Civil War: that is, much of the choices that have been made in the South have been given over to Northern, Midwestern industrial money,” Clendinen said. “The Dayton ownership, the Cox family ownership, has been happy to play to and to patronize Southern impulses, a set of impulses which has been true also since the War-this defensiveness, resistance to outside influence, ‘We’re just fine, thank you, just as we are.’ You know, the Lewis Grizzard line-if you don’t like it, Delta is ready when you are-that whole business…This was not an affectation, this was part of that dug-in Southernness. And the papers, owned by Ohio money, played on that fact.”

The real issue, though, Clendinen insisted, is the quality of the public record. “These papers, this ownership-we thought-had made that commitment, had joined the circle of the few who re really committed to the quality of the record as opposed to the size of their profits first. In retrospect, it most certainly seems a mistaken impression.”

At a protest rally held outside the papers’ downtown offices on November 12, one week after Kovach resigned, journalist Hodding Carter interpreted the incident in much the same way-as the latest battle in a war for the soul of American journalism. “Is it going to be packaging or the product? Is it going to be reality or is it going to be happy times? Is it going to be speaking truth to power or speaking power’s truth? And each time that question is asked today too often the answer comes back: packaging not product, happy time, not reality, power’s truth, not truth to power.”

Carter also stressed that the issue was important not just for Atlanta, but for the South and for the nation as well. “In a fight like this, in an issue like this, there aren’t really any outsiders at all. Because in the most basic way all of us, whether we’re in journalism or outside it, are being treated as outsiders by the fewer and fewer who own the more and more in this life called journalism.”

Also at the rally, novelist Pat Conroy attacked Lewis Grizzard, whom he saw as the premier representative of the insular Southern attitudes that had contributed to Kovach’s downfall. He read to the crowd of about 250 concerned community members and Journal and Constitution staffers the contents of an ad that Grizzard had considered taking out in the Constitution in which Grizzard said, “In fact, we might even benefit from

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[Kovach’s] departure, with apologies to those who enjoy exhaustive series on what’s doing in Africa.” Grizzard was referring to a series on the devastating famine in the Sudan.

Conroy responded to Grizzard, “Because I too am a redneck, I want to translate for all your readers and for the Cox chain what you meant… You wrote it in code but the translation is this: Atlanta doesn’t care if niggers starve.”

However accurate might be Conroy’s emotional indictment of the racism undergirding Grizzard’s attitude towards investigative journalism, it does not change the fact that the papers’ corporate management-not Grizzard and not its readers or its staff-retain the final say over what news in Atlanta will be like. In which direction they will lead the papers now that Kovach is gone is not clear. But there have been indications in recent weeks that the changes bode ill for the public’s need for more responsible coverage in Atlanta and throughout the region.

“The publisher and the corporate managers will now get the kind of paper that they want” says Dudley Clendinen. “It’s all a question of direction, emphasis, and aspiration. Look at the front page in the last three weeks-Christmas trees, Santa Clauses, warm, optimistic business stories and tender family stories. What you see is a reflection of the wishes of the corporate management. They want a marketing tool, as opposed to a record of quality.”

USA Today has become the symbol of how you compete with people who are drawn to the images of television. You create a package, an information package, which is not so much a newspaper as it is a packaged digest of information bytes, like sound bytes. And that is the paper that Easterly likes to cite-I don’t think anyone would argue that it is a record of quality.”

Perhaps an even stronger indication of the Cox chain’s intentions is its choice of a successor for Kovach. Arnold Rosenfeld has been in the Cox chain since 1969. He will take over the papers for the next six months, search for another editor, and then move further up in the corporation. Rosenfeld most recently has served as the editor of the Cox chain’s Austin American-Statesman in Texas.

“He’s just another guy from Dayton,” says Clendinen. “So he knows what they want, which is not very much.”

Even though Rosenfeld will be directly in charge of the papers for only six months, his hiring sends out a definite signal. In the past few years, community members in Austin have complained about that paper’s blatant boosterism as well. And last spring, Rosenfeld’s Statesman fired reporter Kathleen Sullivan because, according to accounts in Texas Monthly and The Columbia Journalism Review, Sullivan had aggressively pursued stories on worker safety in high-tech industry while the city itself was trying to woo just such companies to the area. In other words, many believed that Sullivan was fired because she was “a skeptic, not a booster.”

The paper also offered Sullivan over $8,000 to sign a severance agreement which would have prevented her from criticizing the paper or running the story anywhere else. She refused.

Committed reporters and editors remain at the Atlanta papers who would refuse to bow to such pressure as well. But many say they no longer have any incentive to initiate potentially controversial articles or major investigative projects. If the papers’ management can get serious and find an editor equally as committed to the quality of the public record as Kovach was, then perhaps those staffers will stay on and continue to improve the papers. Otherwise, Harvie Blair’s characterization of defensive, New South boosterism will still to apply to the Coxes’ Journal-Constitution and to Atlanta another hundred years from now.

Eric Guthey is a student in the Graduate Institute of Liberal Arts at Emory University in Atlanta.