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'Perhaps' is a four-letter word

While the AJC goes a-malling, democracy goes down the tubes

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"Perhaps. Keep that word in mind for a moment. It was, perhaps, the most important utterance during what passed for the recent exercise in democracy in Atlanta. Or, perhaps, one might call what happened Nov. 6 a fine example of American consumerism -- a product, the mayor's office, was sold at a luxury price ($5 million-plus total spent; $78 anted by winner Shirley Franklin for each of her votes) to the people with the hard currency. Perhaps.

And, perhaps, the real conundrum with the election-cum-auction was the mystery of how the community's watchdog had been transmuted into a lapdog unable to muster even a hearty "yip" over a city in dire distress.

No, it's even worse than that. The aging watchdog has been put down by its corporate master -- an owner fearful that too much aggressive attention to Atlanta (read: poor, black) might, perhaps, turn off affluent (read: white) suburbanites.

My fascination with the word "perhaps" stems from an election day, front page story in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that begins:

"Perhaps the most high-profile race locally is in the city of Atlanta, where a field of candidates ... look to succeed two-term Mayor Bill Campbell."

Perhaps?

The grammatical error aside, how did this obscene word "perhaps" get into the sentence? The descent of the AJC from a great newspaper to a slowly dying irrelevancy is nowhere more evident than in its shameful inability to declare that the mayoral campaign for Atlanta -- the capital and largest city in Georgia, the hub of the South, the keystone municipality in a metro area that ranks among the nation's 10 largest -- is most definitely the biggest goddamn deal of the day.

"Was everyone out to lunch over at the AJC?" said Liz Flowers, spokeswoman for mayoral candidate Robb Pitts. "We didn't know from day to day who was covering the campaign, or if anyone was."

At the Pitts campaign party Nov. 6, held at the Atlanta Hilton, someone had put up little tent signs for the media. Against one wall was a placard for The Atlanta Journal. There were no signs for the Constitution or AJC. Just the poor old Journal, which by election day had been a corpse for 72 hours, its hulk irrevocably fused with its morning sister.

At some point during the night, a wag scribbled "RIP" on the Journal name card. The TV folk who were hanging around got a low-octane chuckle. Party-goers eyed the empty table and the sign with bemusement. One campaign worker came to the table, looked quizzically around, and asked a few of us standing nearby if we know who was there from the AJC. We shrugged.

The ostensible hometown daily newspaper for Atlanta was almost invisible that evening at both the Pitts party and, a block away, at Franklin's. There were sightings of photographers and a junior reporter or two. And, the indefatigable Colin Campbell -- virtually the only intelligent voice about politics on the AJC's news pages -- made the rounds.

The AJC the next day had reports that barely rose to the level of mediocre and routine. Bush league? Yeah, bush league. That, however, was a qualitative improvement over the newspaper's coverage of the race in the preceding months.

Reporters often characterized this year's hustings as a "sleepy campaign" or "low key."

But the media is the message, and it was the AJC that was somnambulant. The campaign season was dull because the newspaper declared by its boring coverage that the election wasn't worth citizens' time. Almost totally absent were articles vigorously presenting issues, ripping the hell out of candidates' hyperbolic claims, challenging conventional wisdom with incisive polling, investigating the ocean-size cesspool of corruption that swamps politics in Atlanta.

Of course, one reason corruption is de rigueur among local pols is because the AJC is largely indifferent. With squadrons of federal agents strafing City Hall, a truly great daily newspaper would have tireless, obscenity-screaming editors goading dozens of reporters to squeeze sources, ferret out secrets, uncover the covered up. The AJC has had a few good stories on the perfidy in Bill Campbell's administration -- but for the most part, the paper's attitude has been as if Alfred E. Neuman was the city editor: Hey, what, me worry?

There are clues to where the AJC was hiding out during the election campaign. Mostly, the newspaper's minions could be found at the opening of two shopping centers, the Mall at Stonecrest in DeKalb County and Discover Mills in Gwinnett County.

It's difficult to compare stories, but throwing out event listings and the like, there were 102 stories about the election in the three months prior to Nov. 6. During the same period, there were 94 stories on the malls.

OK, so democracy had a slight edge numerically over giving lotion jobs to the malls (read: advertisers). But in the gush department, the malls had it all over the election. Many days, the malls anchored down multiple section fronts (three on Nov. 2, including the front page).

We were treated to such pithy groundbreaking journalism as asking the manager at Discover Mills if his customers were happy, to which he replied (can you guess?): "98 percent of them were ecstatic." One article raised the question: "Can a mall thrive ... during a recession?" The AJC responded with a thundering "yes," and although it never exactly explained how the feat would be achieved, having a daily newspaper as your publicist certainly helps.

What is evident in the Malls vs. Our Sacred Duty coverage is the agenda for the AJC. Far from being a monument to the courage of Ralph McGill, the newspaper disgraces that great editor's memory. McGill hammered home principles, and led a great, growing, progressive and profitable newspaper.

His successors maneuver for bloated bottom lines by becoming increasingly inoffensive. They try to be all things to all people (read: those folks with enough net worth to be prized by the only true customers of the newspaper, the advertisers). The AJC bosses never realize that journalism-by-demographics equals tedious blandness.

In the latest step of a decades-long devolution, the final vestiges of two newspapers were erased this month. The Coxopoly wants readers to believe that through some alchemy, the editorial pages can span the spectrum of opinion. In reality, the feisty voice of the Constitution is DOA, despite its editor, Cynthia Tucker, retaining that title over the combined opinion page staff.

What isn't broadcast in the AJC's hearty self-congratulations at the move is that Tucker's Journal counterpart, Jim Wooten, retains his independence, and his version of "conservatism" (read: it's OK for government to help out rich, white guys) already has become the tone of the pages. Indeed, what remains in the much-touted three pages of opinion is a right-centrist to right-over-the-edge echo chamber starring such notables as Fox loudmouth Bill O'Reilly.

Meanwhile, throughout the rest of the paper, investigative journalists, tough cop-shop reporters and savvy political scribes are quickly becoming endangered species, while readers are assaulted with section after section of "soft" (read: not) news. Hell, even developers have their very own section, "Horizon," and no one at the AJC seriously questions whether just over that horizon lies the total collapse of a grossly overbuilt state.

With those priorities all too visible, when the AJC pondered the question of whether democracy was a big deal in Atlanta, the newspaper answered: Perhaps.

Senior Editor John Sugg confesses to being a minor-minor-minor partner in Creative Loafing's parent company. Cox Enterprises is a major-major-major (read: 25 percent) partner. "I guess that makes the Cox sisters and me partners," Sugg effuses. He can be reached at 404-614-1241 or at john.sugg@creativeloafing.com

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