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Ten years after


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Ten years is a longer time than it used to be. Few schoolchildren in Arkansas would remember the Arkansas Gazette now; few college-age people would remember it as more than an old something that once upon a time died.

That means this upcoming generation is the first one in Arkansas history that has grown up not knowing the Arkansas Gazette.

It's the first generation since the next-to-last generation of American Indians here that didn't grow up knowing the Gazette.

Seventeen decades the Arkansas Gazette monitored the world from the first rock cropping on the Arkansas River, remarking on it, passing tidings along, and then the 18th decade came and went and the old devil, the old lady, the old nag was mute, the oracle gone silent, and people forgot about it.

They forgot about it, which is not to say they forgot it. They remember it still, but only in the same way they remember David O. Dodd or Judge Parker, or the Depression or Reconstruction, or the '27 Flood or picking all that cotton by hand. That is to say, they remember it only formally, sepulchrally, as a piece of the community lore.

They remember it as they remember the Gotham Daily Planet, which it outpublished approximately 40,000 issues to 0.

Sometimes newspapers live on in other newspapers, as people live on in their progeny. There's been some pretense of that in this case, but make no mistake: the old Arkansas Gazette is dead as a hammer. The Arkansas Democrat scalped its logo, and took a few of its relics for souvenirs, including a few of its old hands, but left the corpse on the field, as battle casualties too often are left — symbolized by the empty-looking, haunted-looking, still-outraged-looking, dead-colored Gazette Building, tomblike a decade later there at Third and Louisiana sts.

William Woodruff Jr., son of the founder of the Arkansas Gazette, was one of several owners of the paper for a time late in the 19th century, and he was an editorial presence, though not a very active one. He was hard of hearing from a Civil War injury, and went around stooped, at a slow pace, holding one of those old-timey hearning horns up to his ear and asking those who addressed him to please speak up. His characteristic expression was, "Eh?"

His father, William Woodruff, who founded the Gazette in 1819, was a native Long Islander, was apprenticed out to a printer at age 14, and learned the newspaper trade at the same Brooklyn newspaper where a young editorial writer with his same initials would soon be honing his writing skills. Walt Whitman, of course.

William Woodruff had precious little of Walt Whitman's writing talent, but he was a more Whitmanesque character than Whitman himself was, heading west and then wester to seek his fortune as a young man, finally pushing a pirogue with a heavy printing press on it up the Arkansas River beyond the western frontier, and setting up shop in a deep wilderness outpost with the brash young-country confidence that still stirs the blood to read about it in "Leaves of Grass."

The paper had an effect on the wild, fabulous, sparsely peopled new territory mindful of the transforming influence that the poet Wallace Stevens' mysterious pottery jar had on green Tennessee. It brought a defining order to the place, making Arkansas Arkansas before there was a true Arkansas, the borders then still rubbery enough to loop out over the Oklahoma skillet and to wander southwest almost to the Cross Timbers, taking in miles and miles of future Texas. The paper and the place got their identities intermingled right at the start.

Perspective: The Gazette died the day after Tennessee Ernie Ford did.

Neither William Woodruff nor J.N. Heiskell, the two men who reigned editorially over the Arkansas Gazette for more than half its long life (they lived to age 90 and age 100, respectively), thought of himself as a writing journalist in the modern sense — that is, as the institutional thinker, commentator, public philosopher. They hired subordinate editors to do the paper's formal discourse, by turns flowery, argumentative, inflammatory, just plain tiresome. Especially as they got older, both men confined their editorial exertions to the once common and now mostly lost art of paragraphing.

J.N. Heiskell was particularly known for the pithiness of his editorial paragraphy, if not also for its occasional cryptic quality. It was said that he adopted this distinctive style as a result of the poor and perhaps even derisive reception accorded his valedictory address at the University of Tennessee when he graduated there in the early 1890s.

"His subject was Hannibal," a friend of his later recalled. "It was a very hot night, the hall was crowded, and Ned's address had absolutely none of his latter-day commitment to the compactness of expression. We thought he never  get Hannibal over those Alps."

This article is more or less an example of paragraphers' style. The style also affected the headline-writing in the Gazette's first century or so, the heads usually only a column wide but stepping down by diminishing type size through three or four or five decks. It was rare but it did happen that the headline procession would continue all the way past the jump.

The paragrapher's style usually called for a profusion of centered dingbats. (Not including the paragrapher.)

It was usually thought that J.N. Heiskell's editorial stylistic fussiness — and there was a certain dowdiness about it — was a contributing factor in the Gazette's having been known as "the Old Lady of Arkansas journalism." Harry Ashmore once credited a Mississippi writer named James Street with having thought up the description, based on a study of Heiskell's editorial work, but Street was a 20th century writer and the Gazette's first historian, writing in 1902, the year Heiskell bought the paper with his brothers and assumed editorship of it, said the sobriquet was already a very old one at that time, its origin lost in the mists of time. Ladylike just always seemed an apt description of the Gazette.

William Woodruff father and son were grand marshals of a parade of colorful characters at the Gazette that was 172 years long. And the weeping that occurred in the newsroom on October 18, 1991, was -some of it anyhow- from knowing that the great parade had come to an end. The last Gazeteers would rather have gone on working to put out one last number but that wasn't to be, so they wept, and drank whiskey from paper cups, and told stories about their Gazette parade favorites.

There were Patrick J. Owens stories, his well-oiled midnight phone interviews with McGeorge Bundy, Margaret Mead, and James D. Bales. There were Joe Wirges stories, notably the one with the punchline, "It's all right. It's in a direct quote." There were Spider Rowland stories, the sad fate of a man outwitted and demoralized by his own self-created myth. There were Leland Duvall stories, the general conviction that he was one of the world's great living authorities on nobody knew exactly quite what. There were James O. Powell ivory-tower stories, Bill Lewis freebie-king Old Bean stories, Mike Trimble sermon-title stories (e.g. "My Savior Played No Pocket Pool."), Larry Obsitnik burning his candle at both ends stories, Orville Henry saving-the-paper stories, Jerrol Garrison uncanny accuracy stories, the serial Shelton-Douglas rivalry stories, Buff Blass Valley Girl stories, Margaret Ross stories and scads of Gazette stories that only Margaret Ross knew, Richard Portis trinominal poetesses stories, Lamar James People-I'd-Like-to-Meet-file stories, Carrick Patterson opera-coverage stories, the J.N. Heiskell licking-chocolate story.

There were Jerry Neil stories, his editorials when he was at his peak and with not too many martinis aboard written in such luminously beautiful prose that you didn't even care that it was nigh impossible to tell who or what it was about or why. Dumas stories. Sam Harris stories. Brantley loud stories such as the legislative outraging of the Warren nuns. Stories about stories-the Sam Faubus story, the H.E. Harvey story, the Ora Golden story, the King of the World stories by Charles Portis, the Eddie Lovett Polyhistor story.

All of these and a hundred more worked their way into a composite golden-age Gazette story that the people who had worked there forever or only for a short time could share and enjoy and cry over without the need to tell it, needing only to mention a word or two, or a single first or last name: Valochovic, Reed, Scudder, Foreman, Bailey, Prescott, Griffee, Workman, Epstein, Merriweather, Mitchell, Brummett, Johnson, Fisher, Stroud, Dearmore, Bass, Parker, Smith, Jones, Hamburger, Kazan, Moore, Mathis, or any of about a dozen guys named Jerry.

Some of those Gazette stories are near extinct, and many are on the endangered list, and there's a next and penultimate stage for them:

In the first decade of the 20th century, Fred Allsopp, who had held every position at the paper from country stringer to part owner, tried to get up a similar list of Gazette staffers — each the subject of a entertaining anecdote or experience. But by 1906 most of the stories had faded, or had started to fade, had gone fuzzy and diaphanous, could no longer be reliably attributed. Allsopp was left with just a long list of names, which he published with apologies that it was no longer known quite what to say about most of them.

It might be appropriate here to rerun Allsopp's list of names, for the same reason we have tombstones, except there's something just too melancholy in the reading of it and knowing that your own name will be on just such a list, if it isn't already.

The Gazette provided the first market for Arkansas poetry, and pretty much the only market for it for perhaps 90 per cent of its long life.A study some years ago showed that the Gazette published 65 original poems in its first 25 years. The Gazette's all-time proudest issue was the glossy-covered Centennial Edition published June 15, 1936, much of which consisted of an epic poem about Arkansas, commissioned by J.N. Heiskell and written by John Gould Fletcher of Little Rock, the state's first-big-name poet, protégé of Ezra Pound and Amy Lowell, who would soon after win the Pulitzer Prize for poetry and put Arkansas on the literary map. Fletcher was one of the Fugitive group of unreconstructed Southern writers who produced the "I'll Take My Stand!" manifesto, and the last section of his Gazette poem was yet one more damning blast at the Carpetbaggers. Heiskell decided the section was unsuitably inflammatory — descendants of those Carpetbaggers might find it ill-mannered — so he "edited the guts out of it," Fletcher complained, truncating out of a confident sense of propriety a poem that had taken two years to write and that had cost Heiskell a good deal of money in a time when there was none to spare.

In the late 1950s, just about all the white people in Arkansas loved Orval Faubus and hated the Arkansas Gazette. Faubus in his campaign appearances could whip big crowds into a frenzy by making himself out as the victim of pointy-headed communist integrationist news coverage by the Gazette. But he would sometimes caution his frothy admirers at these rallies not to take out their anger and resentment on the poor slob Gazette reporter in attendance on this particular occasion who was after all only trying to do his job. This patronizing from the podium was understood to be partly sarcastic and partly humorous — and partly a way of affirming the governor's popularity with the crowd and his authority over it — but as a practical matter it might indeed have staved off an occasional murder or tar-and-feathering.

An amazing fact about this political phenomenon is that it was not original with Faubus; it was wholly derivative almost down to the last detail.

Jeff Davis of Russellville, the only three-term governor of Arkansas before Faubus, thought it up it way back in the 19th century. He made Gazette-bashing into a political art, and it bore him to unprecedented popularity with the Arkansas electorate.

Davis tickled his crowds with taunts like this one: "If I had a boy without a whole lot of brains, I might have him study law. But if I had one that was a complete, hopeless, degenerate idiot, I'd send him down to Little Rock to edit the Arkansas Gazette." The rednecks ate this stuff up — to the point that Davis sometimes felt obliged to ask them to haul up and not go horsewhipping any of the present Gazette company.

As Faubus would do later, he differentiated between the reporters just doing their jobs and the editors back in Little Rock who slanted and twisted the copy and inserted all of their lies and libels into it.

The experience of covering these rallies in which they were demonized was even harder on the 19th century reporters than on those who covered Faubus. It was harder because those earlier reporters earned most of their salaries by selling subscriptions to the newspaper at the events they covered as reporters. One of those reporter/solicitors was L.S. "Sharpe" Dunaway, who became one of Davis's close friends, by the way, and he used to tell that one of his happiest and saddest days as a reporter was when he sold a record number of subscriptions at a Davis rally at Mena, then was obliged, after Davis delivered a particularly vehement anti-Gazette tirade, to give all those angry people, who accused him of having hoodwinked them, their money back.


At the height of the newspaper war in the 1980s, John F. Wells, publisher of the Daily Record, and many years earlier a Gazette editor, offered this front-line assessment of the combatants:

"The Gazette has the wrong principles and the Democrat doesn't have any."

Ernie Deane retired in 1970 after a long career as the Arkansas Traveler columnist for the Arkansas Gazette. He traveled the state, writing little human interest feature stories and taking crafts-show and funny-shaped-cucumber snapshots to run along with them. His job had less to do with journalism than with serving as a good-will ambassador from the Arkansas Gazette to the people of Arkansas, and he was such an irresistibly likeable man that it's hard to imagine anybody doing that job any better. (His counterpart at the Arkansas Democrat was a big genial shy man named Maurice Moore, less successful because he was less outgoing, who was so modest that hardly anybody knew he was one of America's great combat heroes of World War II was for many years.)

The most remarkable thing about the Ernie Deane story is that the Arkansas Gazette lasted long enough to field a whole succession of him. There was seldom a time in the 20th century, or in the 19th century, when the Gazette didn't have an Arkansas Traveler out promoting the paper, luring subscribers, and sending along good-natured reports on the rural folks and their ways.

Here's a description of one of earlier ones: "Several special editions of the Gazette were gotten out by Col. M.L. DeMalher, one of the most unique characters and greatest geniuses ever attached to the paper. He was a linguist, a traveler, an artist, a geologist, a soldier, and a writer. He did a world of writing of a very high character for the Gazette, extending over many years. He had actually walked through every county in the state. He was peculiar in appearance and manners, but as he was exceedingly polite, instructive in conversation, extremely deferential to women, and loved children, he was a favorite in many homes. He had written up almost every county...advertised the state by word of mouth and with his pen, and never ceased to sing her praises until death closed his flashing eyes at Harrison, Arkansas, in 1895."

Also, the Gazette had "Pogo," which covered a multitude of sins.

Harry Ashmore once asked J.N. Heiskell, who would've been a spry 90 or so at the time, if the Arkansas Gazette had ever editorially favored any party besides the Democratic. Heiskell allegedly closed the blinds, looked around to make sure there were no eavesdroppers, and whispered: "I don't like to talk about this, but the fact is we went Whig twice."

At nearly any given point in the Gazette's long history, there were superior news writers working elsewhere in Arkansas — at the Washington Telegraph, at the Pine Bluff Commercial, at the Baxter Bulletin at Mountain Home. Even in Little Rock itself, there were periods when such opposition pyrotechnical stylists as Albert Pike of the Arkansas Advocate made the Gazette's stolid prose seem even duller. But these were solitary wilderness voices for the most part, and most of them wound up at the Gazette sooner or later anyhow. Willie Morris notes somewhere that journalism offered practically the only 19th and 20th century escape from the ruinous provincialism of the rural South for the region's bright, ambitious, literary-minded young people-and in Arkansas that door to cosmopolitan opportunity led almost inevitably through the Arkansas Gazette. From its earliest days to its last days, the paper was a magnet for news in this part of the country, not only for the news itself but for the people who could write it and edit it, give it context and perspective.

There were periods at the Gazette-and the managing editorship of the late A.R. Nelson is often cited — when it seemed almost part of the editorial managerial job description was to stifle as much as possible of all this upcoming and potentially moving-through writing and reportorial talent. One particularly heinous form that this stifling process took was exile to the North Little Rock beat. The North Little Rock beat required copious amounts of tedious reportage about desperately uninteresting topics that a good 95 per cent of the readership would never give a second look. And stuck there successively during the Nelson watch were Charles Allbright; Roy Reed, the future star reporter for the New York Times; and William Whitworth, the future editor of the Atlantic Monthly. C. Pat Crow, future novelist and non-fiction editor at the New Yorker magazine, might also briefly have been gulaged to Dogtown during this period.

"What reporters can do when an Old Man turns benevolent and gets off their necks was illustrated in Little Rock in 1957... . John Netherland Heiskell, the proprietor, and his son-in-law, Hugh Patterson, the publisher, allowed Harry Ashmore, the editor, and his staff to fight the good fight. Their performance, before an audience of journalists drawn to the scene from all over the literate world, saved whatever shreds of prestige the United States salvaged. It confirmed the golden legend of a free and fearless press, and so did more for our prestige abroad than all the Eisenhower-Nixon globe-trotting of that unfortunate administration.

"The Gazette held with Law and Order while the Democrat, the other paper, took up for Peace and Harmony, which is not the same thing when the going gets rough. The Gazette lost, and the Democrat gained, in circulation and advertising. The publishers of the Gazette therefore made a sacrifice which, in their case, is comparable to that of a Brahmin who permits himself to be run through a sewing machine in order to achieve virtue." -A.J. Liebling, in his book "The Press."

That Brahmin metaphor is indicative of just how shrewd a press observer A.J. Liebling was. A whole lot of newspaper people who didn't work for the Arkansas Gazette disliked the paper, most acutely in the pre-Gannett period after 1957, because they sensed an arrogance, a smugness or haughtiness, emanating from it that simply gave no respect to any Arkansas journalistic endeavor not its own. It really was like the Brahmin suffering to function among untouchables; the Sartorises finding themselves Snopes-besieged and not even able to acknowledge Snopeses, much less regard them as formidable, as threats.

The attitude seemed to be, there was Gazette journalism and then there was that other stuff. There was the Gazette and then the minor league, the second rate, the bush. Or anyhow that was the perception, and a lot of people perceived it, and some were stung by it. One suspects it stung Walter Hussman to think he had been high-hatted by Hugh Patterson, and it stung J.R. Starr that the Gazette cognoscenti of the post-Ashmore regime thought of him, if at all, as a kind of George Douthit in the making, only without the class.

Ernest Dumas, wise and grizzled latter-day Gazette political sage who wrote for the paper for 31 years, had some elegant thoughts recently, in an interview published in the Arkansas Historical Quarterly, on that topic of Gazette imperiousness. It wasn't something he would deny. He spoke of his sense "that the Gazette was a different newspaper, that it was a separate kind of experience," and he went on to say:

"All journalists, I suppose, think they are on a mission from God, to tell the world the truth ... but writing for the Gazette transcended even that impulse. I think it was a sense that at the Gazette they were part of a stewardship of a peculiar time and place. The Gazette had a distinctive role in the state, a special responsibility that no other newspaper filled... .

"I came to the Gazette in 1960 when its heroic role in the school integration crisis was fresh [and] it may be that the sense of mission arose simply from that, pride that we at the Gazette were part of newspaper that stood its ground against bigotry when its own survival was in peril. But I believe it was more than that. It seems to me that it preceded 1957...that there had been other instances when the paper had positioned itself between tyranny and the community.

"There may be a little arrogance in all this, and it may explain after all why the Gazette didn't survive."


A different variety of arrogance might explain it better, though. When the Gannett Co. took over the Gazette in 1986, its Jabba the Hut chairman, Al Neuharth, arrived for his first day of "work" at the Gazette to proclaim that now, with him at the helm marshaling vast Gannett resources, victory in the newspaper war was assured, the Gazette would squash the Democrat like the miserable little bug it was. Neuharth arrived at the front door of the Gazette Building that afternoon — afternoon — in a stretch limousine, which was left in the street, motor running, blocking the westbound traffic lane on busy Third Street until it was time for Chairman Al to call it a day.

The prevailing question when the Gazette expired 10 years ago was the one the  magazine put on its cover: "Who Killed the Gazette?"

There were, at the time, five prime suspects, and there still are:

Walter E. Hussman Jr., from whose performance in the drama we can conclude that there ought to be a law that you can't destroy a newspaper (not even your own) just because you get the notion and have the money;

Hugh Patterson, either for spurning a supplicant Walter Hussman's offer for a sure monopoly or for selling to Gannett or for, well, just being Hugh.

Gannett Co., which presented the clearest example on record that chain newspapers ought to be outlawed and perhaps even that corporate ownership of newspapers (and baseball teams too) ought to be prohibited.

Hussman, Patterson, and Gannett working in dastardly, pitiable, infuriating, unintended concert.

The rest of us.

This last was the suspect fingered by the  in that cover article written by Richard Martin. "In a sense," the article said, "all of us are to blame [for the paper's demise]: the readers who just had to know what John Robert Starr was ranting about this morning; the advertisers who knew a good deal when they saw it, regardless of the long-term implications for the newspaper rivalry; even the staffers who went several weeks ignoring the stagehands who were dismantling the set around them. There was nothing inevitable about the demise of the Gazette. The Democrat monopoly is ultimately our failing, and now we get to live with it."

Yes, we do. We've lived with it 10 years now, long enough to have lost interest in IDing the "real killer." Anyway, as J.R. Starr used to crow, the winner gets to write the history, which makes it all the more remarkable that the editors of the hybrid publication have not yet tabbed the real killer of the Gazette as having been, who else?, Bill Clinton.

The question of who killed the Gazette interested Arkansas readers for maybe a week. Give or take a few days. After that, a few embittered partisans continued to care, but we had entered a period of news coverage characterized by an ever shortening attention span, and the question was crowded out by fresh developments and soon forgotten. The new hybrid daily, really just the old 'Crat with a few of the Gazette mothballier garments draped about itself, slouched away like Yeats' rough beast to scout for new meat.

As Arkansas attention turned elsewhere, a better question than the one of blame for the Gazette's death never got publicly asked. That question was, just what had the state lost with the death of the Arkansas Gazette, never mind when that death occurred, whether it was when Hussman bought the paper with the understanding it would be shut down, when Gannett bought it and gave it to idiots to monkey with, or way back when it passed from Heiskell to Patterson stewardship, comparable perhaps to Shakespeare being delivered over to the trusteeship of the King and the Duke? Was anything of value really lost, or had the hybrid really and truly combined "the best of both" into a bright new prospect for Arkansas journalism?

It's hard to avoid thinking that at least some few precious things were lost.

One was the long-term health and vigor that spirited journalistic competition brings to communities lucky enough to have such a tonic on tap.

Another loss much more serious than it might at first seem was this: the loss of a "newspaper of record" for the entire Arkansas community. It was that first weekly and then daily record of the public affairs that gave the 25th state a sense of itself, a sense of where and how it fit into the larger national and global schemes. Arkansas had been pieced together from such irregular and ill-fitting pieces that it's hard to imagine it hanging together over time without a central institution giving it continuing if not continuous core definition, and the Gazette provided that from the start, from before the start.

The loss of the newspaper of record might be just an aspect of a larger loss, and that would be the loss of the liberal tradition, which the Gazette didn't establish here and sometimes actually hindered, but which it sometimes voiced and without which the tradition couldn't have existed. It might have been Hodding Carter who defined Mississippi as an Arkansas without the Arkansas Gazette — which definition gets at the gravity of this matter.

This liberal tradition has nothing to do with the contemporary political labeling. It's rather a conscience, a do-the-right-thing thread that goes back through Dale Bumpers and Brooks Hays to George Donaghey and Isaac Murphy, that looks out for the powerless and the hungry and the ignorant and the unwashed and the otherwise despised, and that comes into play whenever a popular passion threatens to get out of hand. It kicks in then, does what needs doing, says what needs saying, sometimes suffers the consequences, but in the long run makes all the difference.

For 50 years or more, chief custodians of that tradition in Arkansas were a small group of Arkansas Gazette editors and reporters — mostly the editors — who decided what was newsworthy in Arkansas and what wasn't. They didn't need polls or focus groups or outside evaluators to tell them what to put in the paper. Their task was to monitor the exercise of parochial power, and one way they did that was by maintaining the thoroughness, independence and integrity of that daily record. These were talented, disinterested people, who were good to remember to avoid entanglements with those who did have the power, to remember to stay in power's hair and out of its pocket.

It's moot whether the Gazette editorial staff in the final years of the paper still kept that sentinel function, that intercessory role; with the Gazette dead, it is painfully plain that the tradition itself has languished. 


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