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Attacking the Press With the Voice of a Dictator

People in power have never liked the nosy news media.
By Tom Gordon
Birmingham Post-Herald photographer Tommy Langston took this picture of thugs beating Freedom Riders at the downtown Trailways bus station in 1961. Members of the mob then set upon Langston, beating him and damaging his camera, but the film bearing this picture was recovered and the photograph was published in both The Post-Herald and The Birmingham News.

I spent most of my working life in journalism, and so it stings, deeply, to hear the president of the United States repeatedly call the news media the enemy of the people. That is dictator language, a classic response from leaders who want to control pretty much everything, including the information about what they do that reaches those to whom they should be accountable. It is bad enough to see crowds roar their approval of Donald Trump’s press bashing at his campaign rallies. But it becomes frightening when someone apparently took Trump’s enemy of the people message to heart, as a California man did last August when he threatened to kill employees at The Boston Globe, a newspaper that led a national effort on the part of the nation’s newspapers to editorially respond to Trump’s attacks.

But this column is not so much about Trump and his irresponsible, dangerous demagoguery. It is, however, an old reporter’s attempt to say that since the founding of our country and the birth of our state, the news media or its representatives have sustained verbal, physical and other forms of attacks many, many times.

There has always been a basic conflict between those in government and those in the news media who seek to cover their activities. Many elected officials and their staffs would rather settle issues in private, hide public records, keep unsettling or even noncontroversial information under wraps, out of the headlines or off the airwaves. I’ve seen it, time and again. But wariness, a penchant for secrecy and outright hostility are not limited to those in government. Journalists have encountered them on neighborhood streets, among mobs of people, in locker rooms and – hello, Nick Saban! –  coaches’ offices.

But just so you don’t think I am speaking from some pedestal reserved for the all virtuous, I have to admit some red-faced truths. Here’s one: The news media and its practitioners are not always perfect, never have been. Time travel back to our early years as a nation, and you’ll find episodes of sensationalism and openly partisan skewing of the news.

I took up the profession of journalism – first with The Anniston Star and later with The Birmingham News –  much later, during a less strident time, but there are things I did during my career that I wish I could do over. From misspelling of a name (ugh!), to making a poor choice of words, to not double-checking something I thought I understood, by not making the extra phone call that would have given my account more depth and context, or by not stepping away from writing for a few moments to clear my head and think more clearly, I wrote stories that could have and should have been better, should have been more accurate, but were not. Sometimes, in the midst of fast-breaking events and looming deadlines, human mistakes like this are unavoidable. That’s partly why someone called journalism “the first rough draft of history.”

Time and again, those holding the reins of political, economic and other forms of power have cited the news media’s shortcomings or invoked special circumstances to stoke up opposition to it and even repress it. In 1798, when we were nearing a war with France, and the country’s major newspapers were basically mouthpieces for either the Federalist or Republican parties, the Congress, then controlled by the Federalist Party of President John Adams, passed the Sedition Act. According to the Encylopedia Britannica, the act “banned the publishing of false or malicious writings against the government and the inciting of opposition to any act of Congress or the president.” In A Magnificent Catastrophe, his book on the 1800 presidential campaign, historian Edward Larson wrote that following the passage of the Sedition Act,  federal prosecutors “brought at least seventeen indictments against Republican newspapers between 1798 and 1800, with most of these cases intended to shut down presses during the run-up to critical elections.”

Let’s skip through the decades to some 20th examples, large and small, of official hostility to the practice of journalism. For reporters of my generation, the most prominent example is the Watergate era, during which Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein wrote story after story on the misdeeds of the Nixon Administration. What many of us do not remember from that period was the pressure the Nixon regime put on The Post, not only attacking its coverage,  but threatening the licenses of two Post-owned television stations, and pushing the IRS to take a close look at the tax returns of Post publisher Katherine Graham.

And of course, we have the civil rights era, a period in which we in Alabama and in other Southern states showed our dislike not only of outsiders coming in and messing with our race relations, but also of outsiders putting articles in newspapers or reports on the nightly network news. Violence was one way in which that dislike manifested itself, time and again. You can go online and see thugs attacking black newsman L. Alex Wilson during the 1957 integration of Little Rock’s Central High School. You can read about NBC reporter Richard Valeriani, whose New Jersey birthplace and Yale degree certainly made him an outsider, who was savagely beaten while covering a civil rights related disturbance in the Black Belt town of Marion in early 1965.

Even journalists here at home were not immune from violence. On Mother’s Day, May 14, 1961, Birmingham Post-Herald photographer Tommy Langston, a Bibb County native, World War II veteran and University of Alabama degree-holder, shot a photo of a mob beating a Freedom Rider at the downtown Trailways bus station. The riders were integrated groups who rode interstate buses into Southern terminals to challenge segregation, and when the mob attacked them in Birmingham, no officers from City Commissioner Bull Connor’s police department were on hand to protect the riders or to protect Langston when some of the thugs set upon him, damaging his camera and hitting him with pipes and chains. Langston, who died in 2013, recovered from his injuries. His shot of the beating survived the attack and both the Post-Herald and The News put the photo on their front pages the following day.

The 1960s also saw newspapers, after publishing articles or editorials that infuriated segregationists, lose advertising and readership, and their publishers would receive nightly telephone threats. When papers like The New York Times published stories or printed ads describing or decrying the dark side of our way of life, Alabama authorities filed libel suits, hoping those actions  would discourage The Times and other news organizations from coming into the state.

No matter where they are, folks in power don’t like other folks, even when they have credentials and are exercising their lawful rights, coming around and asking questions. During my time at The Anniston Star in the late 1970s, the mayor for much of that period was Norwood Hodges. A former Alabama football player, Hodges owned a car dealership and would show up in the newsroom to complain when the paper published a national story on problems with the brands of cars he sold. Hodges also had a penchant for doing public business in secret, with no reporters present. When a reporter would not leave a city council meeting that Hodges wanted to close, telling the mayor that state law entitled him to be there, Hodges bodily threw him out.  A few years later, in the neighboring county of Cleburne, Probate Judge Horace Merrill threatened to beat up a Star reporter who was simply doing his job – attending county commission meetings, looking at records, asking questions.

About 30 years ago, my News colleague Ron Ingram and I put together a series of stories on the graduation rates among area college basketball programs, with a focus on Alabama, Auburn and UAB. Ron and I did not know what we were going to find, and we did not have a pre-conceived idea of what we were going to write, but just the fact that we were doing such a story alarmed some folks. “This is not going to be anything negative, is it?” someone in UA’s sports information office asked me before we had even started our reporting. UA head basketball coach Wimp Sanderson was hostile from the moment we walked in his office until we left. Later, Ron and I heard he placed an angry call to The News to rail against what we were doing.

Much more recently, when my former News colleague Brett Blackledge was doing a series of Pulitzer Prize-winning stories on widespread corruption in the state’s two-year college system, I had sort of a ringside seat on what he was doing because my desk was in front of his in the newsroom. Brett was the most dogged reporter I have ever known, and I admired his doggedness because not only did he have to contend with officials throwing up barriers between him and information, but also because one day,  someone threatened to whip his ass.

That was 11 years ago, as our political system was already polarizing and social media and openly partisan radio and television shows and channels were already influencing our civic discourse, but we did not have a Tweeting president. Now,  after watching two years or this behavior, the Alabamian in me is asking, “What would George Wallace have done?”

There’s no way to answer that, since the state’s most famous political figure died 20 years ago. But during his heyday, the years that included his first term as governor in the early ‘60s and his first two presidential campaigns in ’64 and ’68, he had campaigned against elites and northerners looking down their noses at the South. In that vein, he loved to spar with the national media and even “the big newspapers” in his home state, whether it was on shows like Meet the Press or on the campaign trail. But both reporters and he knew that his pointing them out at campaign events was just part of a good-natured game in which they both knew the rules.

Along with his good friend and late colleague Jack Germond, Jules Witcover covered Wallace for decades for different newspapers such as The Los Angeles Times and Washington Post.

“Wallace never called us the enemies of the people because he realized we were kind of co-conspirators,” Witcover told me. “In a way, he played off the crowd just as Trump (does), but he didn’t do it in a mean way and he didn’t do it in a personal way. We always got along very well with him.”

For Wallace, pointing out the national media at his rallies would generate some heckles and hard looks toward the reporters, but it also served another purpose: to tell his fellow Alabamians that he – and they – were important. At a gathering years ago in Midfield, Witcover, then with the LA Times,was in a bar with Germond waiting to talk to Wallace after his speech when a voice from a loudspeaker boomed out Witcover’s name and that of his newspaper. The governor, the voice said, wanted to talk with him.

In response, Witcover said he had to make his way through tables of Wallace partisans up to a head table where the governor was seated. Wallace told him hello, and the two men chatted briefly. Then, as Witcover headed back to the bar, he heard Wallace say in a loud voice, “That reporter from Los Angeles came all the way to Midfield, and that’s what happens wherever I go.”

“That’s the way he operated and we were used to it,” Witcover said. “We kinda got a kick out of it, actually. We knew what the game was all about.”

Years later, when Wallace was no longer in power and ailing, he sent Witcover a note. As Witcover, now 91, recalls, Wallace lamented his physical limitations but also said how he missed “the good times we had in the past.”

It’s hard to imagine Donald Trump doing that with any reporter, unless they had been an uncritical lapdog for him.

“Lots of populist kinds of candidates have used the press to attack and elites to attack,” says historian Wayne Flynt. “But I think this is the first time we have had someone (as president) who is at heart a dictator, an autocrat.”

And one thing that dictators and autocrats cannot abide is close scrutiny or questioning, especially from an independent news media.