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Meet the new guy

An Atlanta Zelig arrives at Creative Loafing


On my first day as assistant business editor of The Atlanta Journal, Dick Williams took me aside and told me it was a firing offense to break into the rival Constitution's computer files to see what they were working on.

Then he laughed and said, "Here, let me show you how to do it."

Williams used to be the Journal city editor and later was the paper's most popular right-wing columnist. He now owns a suburban weekly and hosts "The Georgia Gang" on FOX 5.

Things were simpler then, in the early '80s. The city's two dailies were largely identified by the politics on their editorial pages. Readers could take the Constitution, with its liberal editorials, in the morning, or the Journal, with its right-wingers like Williams, in the afternoon. When I joined the paper, the news staffs were separate. Even though Cox owned both papers, the worker bees were fiercely competitive.

But afternoon papers were dying. Cox began merging the news staffs in 1982, beginning in the suburbs. I became a suburban editor. Some people were bitter about the changes. One morning, a Journal editor, an ex-priest named Mike Duffy, accused me of favoring the Constitution and threw a trashcan at my head. He missed.

Eventually, a combined news staff wrote for both papers. Only the editorials and some columnists remained separate, so each paper could keep its political identity. Cox finally killed the Journal in 2001 and merged the editorial pages. Now there's one paper, and the editorial pages are a crazy quilt. Whenever they run a liberal opinion, they offset it with a conservative opinion. They stand for nothing. Meanwhile, Cox's WSB-AM has become the South's leading purveyor of right- wing propaganda.

I am delighted to be joining Creative Loafing, one of the few papers left in the South where you can still raise hell. Actually, it's encouraged here.

I call my column Humbug Square in honor of 19th-century Atlanta's trashy version of London's Hyde Park. It was a gathering place, on Alabama Street in the area that is now Underground Atlanta, for soapbox orators, snake-oil salesmen and dancing bears.

The column arises out of my strange, Zelig-like relationship with Atlanta. I was at First Presbyterian Church in 1962 when the preacher announced that the plane carrying Atlanta art patrons went down at Orly Field in Paris. My family and I drove by the Temple the morning in 1958 after it was bombed. During the 1996 Olympics, I went over to Centennial Olympic Park right after that bomb went off.

My family goes back five generations in the city. My great-grandmother was Nancy Belle Isle Bettis, whose brothers were Atlanta's first auto mechanics, the Belle Isle Boys. One of them, Alvin, became the city's first cab driver. I guess that stuff runs in the family. I ended up writing the AJC's first traffic column for five years.

I started my news career with the old UPI. We competed against the monolithic Associated Press, a giant news cooperative comprising most newspapers and broadcast stations. AP was like the post office. UPI was like a rodeo.

I was based first in Charlotte and drove up to Asheville one day to cover a speech by Alabama Gov. George Wallace, who was running for president. The reporters were up front, so he could make fun of us. I recall that about halfway through Wallace's rant, this longhaired guy about my age rambled in, poked me in the shoulder and asked if I had a spare pencil. I handed him one and thought, "What kind of asshole shows up late for an assignment without a pencil?"

After the speech, he introduced himself: He was Carl Bernstein of the Washington Post. He later scrounged up enough pencils to expose Watergate.

I wrote a country music column out of Nashville and covered the Grand Ole Opry's last night at the Ryman Auditorium. I once ran into Bill Monroe, the father of bluegrass music, in the alley between the Ryman and Tootsie's Orchid Lounge. He was sweet-talking a snuff queen.

Sadly, UPI eventually collapsed. I joined the Atlanta newspapers for three years and then left to sober up. I wrote speeches for IBM and edited the annual report at BellSouth. I went back to the paper for 10 years. I complained to an editor, Jim Walls, that my career seemed downwardly mobile.

"You don't have a career," Walls said. "You have a job."

I was at the paper during its dumb-down decade. That was when Cox brought in "Wal-Mart," otherwise known as Managing Editor John Walter and Editor Ron Martin, who cut back on government news coverage in favor of perky "how-to" articles. They left a couple of years ago and were replaced by strangers. Walter recently got fired from his new job in Martha's Vineyard, and I exchanged high-fives with an old AJC friend at Manuel's Tavern.

For the past four years, I was a freelance writer. I incorporated, made money, paid off my debts and set up my own retirement investments. But I also ran into the biggest stumbling block to having an "ownership society" in America: My medical insurance was cancelled twice. The last time, I got my cancellation in the mail shortly after my hand went numb from carpal tunnel syndrome. You can't live like that.

Mostly, I missed being a newspaperman, despite all the changes in the industry. During the past 30 years, newspapers have been taken over by corporate weasels who have drained the soul out of the business. One result was American journalism's abject failure to ask hard questions about the march toward the war in Iraq. Most papers were jingoistic, as if we were merrily going off to fight the Spanish-American war again. It wasn't just the AJC; it was The New York Times, for God's sake.

In Alabama recently, Carl Bernstein voiced the despair of a lot of Americans when he said, "I do not remember a time I felt as unhopeful about politics and journalism as I do now."

The simple fact is that most newspapers are now run by large corporations. And large corporations are pernicious. As the writer Earl Shorris pointed out years ago, middle managers in large corporations exhibit the same psychological pathology as people who live in totalitarian countries.

Like many other corporate news outlets, the Journal-Constitution bends over backward to placate conservative readers. The editorial pages endorsed Republican Johnny Isakson for Senate, but even the AJC's news pages are tilting to the right. As we reported last week, in a recent 30-day period, the paper ran more than twice as many presidential election stories about Vietnam as about Iraq. President Bush's hatchet man Karl Rove would be proud. Yet, the paper still can't please the right-wingers, who were incensed about the picture of first lady Laura Bush that the AJC ran after the Republican convention. The wingers inundated the paper with complaints because they felt the picture was unflattering. Personally, I liked it. I thought it made her look sensual, with pouty lips.

But I don't intend to write about the AJC much. Or, God forbid, traffic. You would think, after 1,000 traffic columns, I could find something else to write about. I intend to in Humbug Square.

Senior Editor Doug Monroe joined Creative Loafing on Sept. 20. Humbug Square will share this space with Regional Senior Editor John Suggs' Fishwrapper. You can reach Doug at

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