Politics » Politics Feature

Rainy Night in Arkansas: Bill Clinton Helps Celebrate the Arkansas Gazette



It was a cold, rainy late-November night — not the kind of evening to tempt you out of doors and certainly not as far away as Little Rock, Arkansas. Not without good reason.

But I had several good reasons to brave the elements and the mileage. The occasion was a banquet celebrating the 200th anniversary of the founding of the Arkansas Gazette, my former newspaper, where I learned all kinds of things about journalism and in whose service I twice served jail time for declining to reveal confidential sources to a grand jury.


It was the newspaper that challenged local tradition and upheld the rule of law when a federal court, in 1957, ordered the desegregation of Little Rock Central High School. Governor Orval Faubus attempted to defy the court by ordering the state's National Guard out to deny admission to the brave young men and women who came to be known as the "Little Rock Nine." President Dwight Eisenhower responded to that by ordering in the 101st Airborne Division to enforce the court order.

This was well before my time with the paper, but the effects of that moment would endure. There had been passion, emotion, and conflict in abundance, as the old, segregated order was rent asunder and a new way of life came tentatively into being. And, from day one, the Gazette did its duty as the state's daily newspaper, the same duty it had been doing since its founding in 1819 as the oldest newspaper west of the Mississippi. It took a principled, unwavering stand for obedience to the law in the face of threats, boycotts, and organized hostility.

The Gazette would receive two Pulitzer Prizes for its efforts — one for public service, another for editorials. That was the high side of the thing. The other, more difficult side was that the newspaper earned the everlasting and unforgiving enmity of part of the population, the part that resented the break with the segregationist past.

In years to come, that fact would wear against the Gazette, especially when, in the late 1980s, the paper got into a fight-to-the-finish newspaper war with the Arkansas Democrat, Little Rock's afternoon daily, which switched roles and became a morning paper in direct competition with the Gazette.

The Democrat won that war. Among other things, it had superior financial resources by virtue of its owners' extensive holdings and was able to offer its classified ads (at the time the chief source of revenue for newspapers) free of charge. The end came in 1991, with the Democrat purchasing the name "Gazette," along with other assets, and publishing from that point on as the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

Fade to 2019, when the D-G's publisher, Walter Hussman, conceived the idea — both self-serving and gallant — of the commemorative banquet in honor of the Gazette's history. I wanted to contribute to and be a part of that alma mater moment. But there was more to it than that. Hussman's project was a two-fer: He was staging this overdue moment of reconciliation, this consolidation of newspaper histories, as a prelude of sorts to his ambitious next project.

Faced with the same flattening of circulation and squeeze on advertising revenues that have afflicted print media everywhere — and shrunk their bottom line — Hussman had resolved on an innovative remedy all his own. Henceforth, only the Sunday edition of the Democrat-Gazette will appear as usual on stands throughout the state and in the homes of subscribers. On the other six days, the paper's contents will be available online — and via the medium of iPads, one of which each subscriber will receive free of charge.

In other words, if you can't beat the social-media model that is triumphant everywhere, absorb it. If you can't beat it, then be it. Hussman's model is designed to let the Democrat-Gazette do that and remain a newspaper, one for the new age. Explaining that wrinkle and imagining out loud the impact of it on the future of newspapering at large was a major aspect of  the evening, and — to get to another important motive for my being there —it was something I wanted my daughter Julia, who accompanied me, to be able to envision as well.

Julia is a journalist, too, having joined me two years back on the staff of Contemporary Media Inc. — which publishes the Flyer, Memphis magazine, and numerous other ventures. We share an office at CMI's digs at the Cotton Exchange Building, and, as I said (without irony) when she assumed the role of staff writer a year or so back, I fully expect her at some point to become my boss.

Beyond that, I wanted Julia to have the opportunity to encounter for herself  the unique personality who would be keynote speaker at Thursday night's banquet. That would be native Arkansan William Jefferson Clinton, the 42nd President of the United States, and a man, I had assured her, whose phenomenal impact on people had to be experienced first-hand to be understood. Clinton's presence for the occasion had been arranged by another pivotal figure for the evening, my old friend Ernie Dumas, the great former Gazette political writer and editorialist who would play a major role at the dais, and had been Hussman's partner in arranging the event and the evening's general synchrony.

Julia, as I had hoped, got to meet and speak with Clinton before we left, and, before that, we had all heard him deal publicly with the moment.

"Old-fashioned newspapers are important," he said. "We are at risk today. Not just of losing our newspapers but of losing what we like to take for granted — or I have most of my life — which is that I might agree or disagree with the newspaper's editorial policy." Clinton spoke of his erstwhile habit, at the beginning of his political career, of sampling six newspapers each morning, each with a different slant on the news.

"It's really important to understand that a movement toward authoritarianism all over the world today is driving us to the point where ordinary people may find it impossible to tell fact from fiction or truth from a bald-faced lie. If that happens,  then it will be impossible to sustain meaningful democratic governments."

Of Hussman's proposed solution, he said, "You can't know if this is going to work, but it's better than doing nothing. We need to be able to have discussions, even arguments with our neighbors based on a received set of facts. And we do know that knowing is better than not knowing."

Well said and well received. Outside the elements were still raging, and each of us headed back to the security of home or mayhap a motel under the spread of new umbrellas given to us by the host, and of new ideas born of the evening and of the same old, same old everlasting hopes.

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