This excerpt originally appeared in our January 2013 issue.
In the 1960s, as Atlanta and its boosters jostled with other cities for attention, staffs of the rival Journal and Constitution hustled for scoops. A new memoir from veteran newspaperman Jack Nelson recalls the heyday of Atlanta journalism and his experience working for Ralph McGill, the Constitution editor who wrote seven columns a week, many excoriating the South’s institutionalized racism. Nelson, who won the 1960 Pulitzer Prize for his investigation into the state-run mental hospital in Milledgeville, worked at the Constitution for twelve years, specializing in uncovering corruption and abuses of power. He then spent thirty-six years with the Los Angeles Times, first as Atlanta bureau chief covering the civil rights movement and later as Washington bureau head reporting on the Watergate scandal and its aftermath. Nelson, who died of pancreatic cancer at his Bethesda, Maryland, home in 2009, had been working on a memoir. This excerpt is from the book Scoop: The Evolution of a Southern Reporter, which was completed under the direction of his wife, journalist Barbara Matusow, working with the University Press of Mississippi; it will be published this month. In this selection, Nelson recalls learning on the job in the newsroom of the Atlanta Constitution.
For an ambitious reporter like me, going to work for the Constitution seemed like a good fit, but I wanted certain assurances first. I flew to Atlanta to discuss the offer with [managing editor] Bill Fields, and told him I was willing to work long hours, but that I also wanted to go to college. He said he understood but expressed doubts that my going to college would work well for the Constitution.
“We’ll pay you $85 a week if you don’t go to college because you’ll be available to us, if needed, twenty-four hours a day,” he said. “But we’ll pay you $75 if you do go to college because we won’t be able to call on you when you’re in classes.”
In an unheard-of burst of generosity, Fields decided to pay me $85 a week anyway, which, he gave me to understand, was a major concession on the part of the paper. Stories about penny-pinching at the Journal and Constitution in those days were legion, and Fields in particular was known as a tightwad. A wiry, balding ex-Marine who had no use for small talk and seldom smiled, he saw eye to eye with the publisher, Jack Tarver, who was so tightfisted we used to joke that he sat in his office squeezing nickels until they turned into dimes.
In spite of its penurious ways, the Constitution was an invigorating place to work in those days. We competed fiercely for scoops with the Atlanta Journal, the afternoon paper, even though both papers had the same owner: former Ohio governor James M. Cox. My archrival at the Journal was John Pennington, who was one hell of a reporter. I was obsessed with beating him.
The Constitution staff of about thirty reporters and editors was close-knit and populated by an assortment of colorful characters, some of them brilliant. One of my favorites was Celestine Sibley, a big-boned, warm-hearted country girl who wrote like a dream, even though her personal life was full of tragedy. She was the original sob sister. She’d write the kind of stories that would bring tears to your eyes, then turn around and produce a razor-sharp article on the state legislature.
Then there was Eddie Barker, another great storyteller and phrasemaker who liked a nip or two. Once, assigned to cover a Jaycees convention at a hotel in Downtown Atlanta, he availed himself of the open bar, came back, and wrote that the Jaycees were just a “bunch of mice training to be rats.” (If I remember correctly, his story was pulled after the first edition.)
The biggest laugh we ever had made the paper look a little silly. I was still a junior reporter working nights when three guys walked into the newsroom carrying a two-foot hairless creature. They told us they had been driving around rural Cobb County when they saw what looked like a spaceship in the road and three small space aliens walking around. Two of the creatures hopped back on their craft and zoomed away, but the men claimed they accidentally ran over the third.
We thought the tale was pretty far-fetched, but the night editor called in a veterinarian who examined the critter and said, “I don’t know what it is, but it’s not of this earth.” Somebody—I don’t remember who—wrote a tongue-in-cheek story which ran on page one the next day, complete with a staff photo. This was in 1953, when the UFO craze was at its zenith, so the story was picked up all over the world, causing phones in the newsroom to ring nonstop. The Georgia Bureau of Investigation took a more skeptical view and interrogated the men—two barbers and a butcher—at length. They finally broke down and confessed to what ever after would be known as the Great Monkey Hoax. One barber had bet the others he could get his picture in the paper. So they got hold of a monkey which he shaved and chloroformed. The butcher then killed it before lopping off its tail. It made for quite a correction the following day. (I’m told the GBI still has the beast in formaldehyde somewhere.)
Atlanta itself was exciting in those days—a bustling city expanding outwards in all directions, far more cosmopolitan than Georgia as a whole. The city fathers had begun courting Northern investment as early as the twenties, promoting Atlanta as a business-friendly center of manufacturing, transportation, and banking. Although segregation was rigidly enforced until the sixties, the town had a reputation for racial moderation, which helped attract businesses and out-of-town conventions. William Hartsfield, who served six terms as mayor and owed his longevity to the black vote, dubbed Atlanta “the city too busy to hate.”
The rest of Georgia, still heavily agrarian, regarded Atlanta as an outpost of Gomorrah. Jimmy Carter once said that when he was growing up in Plains, making a trip to Atlanta was like going to Moscow or Beijing. But Atlanta was proud of its reputation as the capital of the New South, and boosterism was the order of the day.
The Atlanta papers, members in good standing of the establishment, joined in with editorials extolling the city’s attractions. An exception was Ralph McGill, already a towering figure in American journalism and a man whose moral force was equaled only by the eloquence of his writing. His column, which ran on the front page of the paper seven days a week, frequently on the theme of racial justice, was must-reading, even for those who hated him. A few years later, when Eugene Patterson, another brilliant writer and commanding presence, joined the editorial staff, publisher Jack Tarver likened the duo—accurately, to my way of thinking—to Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig.
The paper, distributed statewide, wielded enormous clout in Georgia, especially in the realm of politics. I used to see politicians of all stripes—the mayor, city aldermen, state legislators—drop by the editorial offices just to chat. The Constitution newsroom was election central. Everyone—radio, TV, the candidates—came to our newsroom because we had the most complete information, including at least one reliable person assigned to almost every county. Their job was to give us the returns before they could be altered and an election stolen—a not uncommon event in Georgia. The returns would be projected on the side of the building, drawing a good-sized crowd.
McGill himself could alter the outcome of an election. He is generally credited with installing Ellis Arnall, a relative moderate, as governor in 1942, ousting the notorious race-baiter Gene Talmadge. (Talmadge, not surprisingly, loathed McGill. One of his flunkies once threatened to kill the editor.)
McGill, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his columns on civil rights in 1959, had a great sense of moral outrage, especially at the injustices inflicted on minorities and other disadvantaged people. I was tremendously proud to be associated with him. Often described as the “conscience of the South,” he was constantly being quoted in Time magazine, the New York Times, and other national publications.