When you are the governor of Georgia, you quickly learn an essential lesson: sometimes it is necessary to go to war with the Atlanta newspapers. It’s a long-established tradition in state politics.
This was certainly true back in the 1930s and 1940s when Gene Talmadge was running regularly for governor (and most of the time winning). When Talmadge would travel to some small town to make a campaign appearance, he made sure to plant some of his supporters in the crowd so that they could call out reminders to him at key points during his speech. At some point a Talmadge man would yell, “Tell ‘em about those lyin’ Atlanta newspapers, Gene.”
“I was just comin’ to that,” Talmadge would thunder as he launched a tirade against columnist Ralph McGill, whom he would ridicule as “Rastus McGill.”
Talmadge knew better than anyone that a politician seldom lost any votes by attacking the Atlanta media—and usually fired up more people to vote for him when he did.
Lester Maddox loved to go on the attack against the Atlanta papers when he was governor. His favorite term was to call them the “Atlanta fish wrappers” because, he said, that was the only useful purpose they served.
Sonny Perdue denounced all forms of the Atlanta media, newspapers and TV alike, during his terms in office. You could see Perdue working himself up into a fit of anger during these outbursts, with his face glowing a deep shade of red as his voice rose.
Current Gov. Nathan Deal understands political history as well, and he is taking his turn to go on the offensive against the media.
Deal’s attack was spurred by the recent publication of a story first reported two years ago. In 2011, the state ethics commission staff was looking into complaints involving Deal’s campaign for governor and prepared subpoenas for campaign records. The commission members, however, would not approve the subpoenas, eliminated the job of the staff investigator and prompted the executive secretary to resign after drastically cutting her salary. There was ample media coverage of the controversy at the time, and Deal eventually ended up paying a $3,350 fine to settle the complaints.
The former ethics commission staffers filed lawsuits challenging their job losses, and the Journal-Constitution gained access to some of the depositions in that litigation. The newspaper published several articles last week rehashing the controversy and alleging interference by the governor’s office in the ethics commission’s operations.
Deal went before the TV cameras to express how “regretful” and “disappointed” he was that the newspaper would print articles about him that were based on the statements of a “disgruntled former employee.”
“I am so regretful of the decline I have seen in the reporting of the AJC,” he said. “They fail to realize that all of these allegations, which are totally unsubstantiated and primarily false, that staff are not the ones to make the decisions. Those decisions are made by private citizens, not staff.
“If they continue that downward spiral as it relates to every issue of major importance, they pretty well are going to descend to the level where they can’t even claim to be a fish wrapper,” Deal said.
Deal seemed to be enjoying himself immensely during this performance. You could see a faint grin playing at the corners of his mouth as he unloaded his verbal broadside.
He had good reason to be upbeat. Just 24 hours after Deal denounced the newspaper coverage, the Journal-Constitution was reporting that a statewide poll it commissioned showed Deal had healthy job approval numbers as he prepared to run for another term in office. I suspect those numbers will only get better as he continues to attack the media.