Thursday, September 17, 2009

Remembering two crusading newspapermen

Two notable newspaper executives who made a big impact on North Carolina have died in the past week. One of them was the visionary Frank Batten of Norfolk, Va., who turned his family's interest in two Norfolk newspapers to fashion the Landmark Communications group, which since the early 1960s has included the Greensboro News & Record and its predecessor papers, the Greensboro Daily News and Greensboro Record. Batten's newspapers fought segregated schools in the 1950s -- and he later staked his company's and his fortunes on what once seemed like a risky venture -- a 24-hour service called the Weather Channel that was sold last year for about $3.5 billion. His obit is here.

Also passing away was the less-well known Horace Carter of Tabor City, whose decision more than half a century ago to take on the local Ku Klux Klan at a time it was raising hell, beating folks and threatening the peace in southeastern North Carolina, later won him a Pulitzer Prize. His obit is here. The courage of a small-town publisher in taking on the Klan must not be underestimated. It's one thing for a news organization with corporate support and a reputation for investigative journalism to mount such a campaign. It's quite another thing for the editor of a small paper to take on some of his mean-spirited neighbors to rid the community of a divisive and lawless force. Everything goes on the line.

I heard Carter speak several times and was always impressed by his plain approach -- and his willingness to share credit with others, including his business partner, Willard Cole, as well as the late N.C. newsman Jay Jenkins, who worked at various times for the News & Observer, the Charlotte Observer and the Winston-Salem Journal before joining then-UNC President Bill Friday as spokesman for the university system. I once heard Carter say that Jenkins -- whose son Jim is a fine editorial writer for the N&O today -- deserved the prize as much as anyone. Here's what Carter said in an oral interview at UNC Chapel Hill when he was asked about his newspaper's campaign against the Klan:

"I believe that if the newspapers hadn't said anything, hadn't even offered any crusade against this activity at all, I doubt seriously that it would ever have been broken. In the first place, I doubt if anybody would have talked; second, I doubt that the FBI would have ever gotten involved with it. I think it's one of the purposes that perhaps we served, to get enough attention focused on it that it did get the FBI interested. And if we hadn't, I don't believe the local law enforcement would have ever broken it.
"I think here might also be a time to say a good word for the Raleigh News and Observer, because I think as long as Willard and I were talking about it down here in the county and nobody else was saying much about it, that perhaps we would have had a hard time…in this campaign against the Ku Klux Klan, because they were a big newspaper with a big circulation. And they sent Jay Jenkins down here, who was working with the state editor at that time, and Jay did a lot of talking to Willard Cole and myself and came to some of the public meetings. And they publicized the Klan activities and the floggings with some big banner headlines on the front page, and I think this helped to get the FBI interested in it. They saw it as more than just any little small town/rural county problem, but that it could grow into a state and national problem."
Not many folks win a Pulitzer Prize. Even fewer small town editors get them. That Horace Carter was willing to share the credit with Jay Jenkins and the N&O tells you a lot about the character, and the values, of this small town editor.


Anonymous said...

It is sad that the Observer has no crusading reporters. Only those that toe the company agenda for fear of losing their jobs.

Anonymous said...

Jack, for the record, Willard Cole was not Carter's business partner but editor of The News Reporter in Whiteville. Both papers won the Pulitzer. Cole, likewise, was humble about the award, using his medallion as a paperweight on his desk. Bringing down the Klan was a team effort of both men.

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