Ralph McGill stirs
An upcoming shakeup of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s editorial board represents the latest and most dramatic shift in the political positioning of the South’s leading newspaper. How monumental a shift it is, and how deeply it might affect the political dynamics of Georgia, is difficult to say right now.
Ralph McGill may not be rolling in his grave, but he surely is a bit uncomfortable.
The changes competed yesterday with the unannounced, but leaked, news that 74 full-time AJC newsroom employees accepted the paper’s latest downsizing buyouts. In the long run, however, the revamping of the op-ed staff — which is only a small portion of the newsroom — may prove as big a loss.
Newspaper editorialists typically bemoan their lack of influence with self-deprecating humor. But passionate, courageous editorial voices can do much to place the forces of ignorance and hatred on the defensive, and to set the tone for debates about a community’s — and in the AJC’s case, a state’s — direction. Their strength lies in their courage to tell the truth as they see it.
For all its tempering over the last few years, the AJC has performed that role admirably under Editorial Page Editor Cynthia Tucker’s leadership. She and her staff consistently produce editorials and columns that spread light rather than fear, that hold public officials accountable, and that challenge Georgians to reject demagoguery and ignorance.
Tucker, in particular, gained a reputation for shining a light on sacred cows — including Mayor Bill Campbell’s corruption and the often scandalous dysfunction within Martin Luther King Jr.’s family. She gave the lie to conservative whining that she’s some sort of knee-jerk partisan.
Primarily, however, Tucker has been a powerful beacon for progress, carrying on the tradition of the old Atlanta Constitution’s Ralph McGill. McGill was vilified in the ’50s and ’60s by the segregationists who controlled Georgia politics, in the same way that Tucker has been vilified by today’s reactionaries. Like McGill, Tucker won a Pulitzer Prize for telling the truth when the truth was unpopular.
The shakeup announced yesterday seems designed to take things in a very different direction. Tucker is moving to the Cox Newspaper’s Washington bureau, where she’ll blog and write two columns a week for the AJC. A fellow named Andre Jackson will take a trimmed-down version of her job as “editorial editor” and columnist. (Current commentary editor Ken Foskett becomes “opinion editor,” meaning that he’ll select “a good balance” of syndicated columns, in addition to the local columns he already edits.)
Jackson is probably a smart guy and a fine journalist. Unlike Tucker (or for that matter Deputy Editorial Page Editor Jay Bookman) however, Jackson’s neither an accomplished opinion writer nor someone with a lot of background in Atlanta and Georgia. He joined the AJC last year as an editorial writer after previously serving as business editor at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Here’s what he said about himself in a May 2008 column by then-Public Editor Angela Tuck shortly after he came to Atlanta:
I consider myself an independent politically, meaning I assess my politics based on past performance and logic, not party lines. That said, I’d classify myself as center-right on fiscal and economic issues and a centrist to slightly center-left on many, but not all, social matters.
In an August staff shakeup, Jackson moved on to become senior editor for business, federal and state news. That so soon after his arrival in Atlanta that it’s difficult to say how his self-described moderation plays out on Georgia’s conservative political spectrum.
It’s safe to say, however, that for the first time in generations, the state’s leading editorial page finally will have abandoned its mission as a progressive voice in favor of a carefully constructed mirage of “balance” — designed not to tell the truth, whether it’s unpopular or not, as much as to mollify conservative readers.
Tucker and Bookman will blog and write two columns each a week from the liberal side of the ledger, AJC Editor Julia Wallace announced. Conservative local columns will be produced once a week by Associate Editorial Page Editor Jim Wooten (even though he’s retiring from the staff) and former right-wing congressman (and libertarian) Bob Barr, and twice a week by Kyle Wingfield, who recently won a contest to be named the paper’s new conservative voice. Jackson, the self-described economic and fiscal conservative, also will write a column.
The more profound shift may appear in editorials, which carry extra weight as the institutional voice of the paper. Previously, Tucker was in charge of the editorial voice overall, while Bookman edited most of the editorials that he didn’t write. They may have been the strongest pair of editorialists at any regional paper in the country: Tucker’s won a bevy of honors in addition to her Pulitzer; Bookman’s won at least 13 major journalism awards for his columns and editorials. (Disclosure: Jay’s a friend of mine, but I haven’t spoken with him on or off the record for this story.)
(UPDATE clarifies that Bookman no longer on AJC editorial board.)
Now, Tucker is leaving the board, as is liberal editorial writer Maureen Downey, who will move to writing about education. A lot of conservatives may say: “Great! It sounds a lot more balanced to have a centrist editorial editor than to have two liberals in charge of the whole thing.” That’s obviously what the Marietta Street brass is wishing for. I doubt it will work, however.
One very basic problem will be the loss of sheer knowledge and understanding about Georgia. Tucker and Bookman each have spent at least 20 years of reporting in Georgia. They know most of the state’s influential players and are well-acquainted the narratives of various policy debates. So they’re equipped to peel away layers of bunk in an effort to get at the truth.
More significantly, imagine Jackson, Bookman and Wingfield — who will now serve together on the editorial board — trying to arrive at a consensus on any contentious issue. They’re likely to spend a lot of their time just arguing with no end in sight, before they decide to avoid some subjects entirely or to produce pro-con style essays that offer readers a patronizing posture of “balance” rather than principled, courageous insight. I’m not saying things will always turn out that way, but on the truly difficult issues, it will be hard for readers to figure out what the paper stands for.
Tucker’s departure culminates years of efforts by the paper to mollify conservative, suburban readers. Those efforts have included throwing more resources into coverign Gwinnett County than it did into Atlanta; undercutting the editorials themselves with often fatuous “Equal Time” columns; and giving desperate play to Wooten’s predictable, angry regurgitations of Rush Limbaugh talking points.
The irony is that the entire enterprise hasn’t worked. In their candid moments, high-ranking AJCers acknowledge that all the money poured into Gwinnett coverage didn’t increase reader penetration there. And just take a look at reader comments on various blogs to see how contemptuous conservative activists and politicians remain of the paper.
That could be because efforts at balance come across as what they are — a bit patronizing. But it’s also because the practice of journalism is an essentially liberal exercise in the classical sense of the word: It places faith in the ability of people to form their opinions based on facts and reasoning rather than on preconceptions and prejudice. Meanwhile, the South’s brand of conservatism — the brand that has taken over much of the Republican Party — is essentially reactionary: Any narrative, no matter how factual, that challenges a set worldview is seen as a threat from outsiders to be battled, no matter how high the cost.
If that’s the case, no amount of “balance” will satisfy those who complain so bitterly that the AJC’s editorial page is too liberal or that Tucker — who has never been anything but civil — is somehow “polarizing.” But Tucker’s departure will make it more difficult for the AJC to hold onto to its seat at the center of the community — at the very time that newspapers are finding it more difficult to remain relevant.
Cynthia Tucker is a star. Her column is likely to become more popular nationally. In Washington, she’ll be sought out as that rare talking head whose words are carefully chosen, insightful and challenging. But Washington’s gain may prove to be our loss — in a state and a region that desperately needs a counterbalance its rightward revolution.
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