October 26, 2014

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Icon: Eugene Patterson

Former editor of the Atlanta-Journal Constitution and St. Petersburg Times, author, age 85.

Art Levy | 10/1/2008
Eugene Patterson
[Photo: Jeffrey Camp]

» When I was a boy, I learned the value of land. My father was a small-town bank cashier, and of course with the Depression, the bank closed its doors. My mother had a small farm that she bought with money her father had left her, and that became our life raft. When you have a piece of land, you can eat.

» I worry about the economy. I worry that our industrial base, especially in automobiles, has been hopelessly out-managed, out-thought and out-innovated by global competition.

» Over the door of the infantry school at Fort Benning is the infantry motto, and it’s very simple: “Follow me.” Well, that’s the way you run a company.

» The extremely low wages of Americans and the extremely high tax benefits for the rich were two of the factors that led to the Great Depression. Maybe we’re not anywhere close to that now, but it’s something you have to watch.

» Newspapers are having a difficult time because the electronic media have taken away their advertising, particularly classified advertising, and that’s 40% of the revenue of a lot of newspapers. And when you lose 40% of your revenue, what do you do?

» Newspapers have something none of the other media have. We have the ability to report and gather news. The written word and carefully reported news must exist or democracy cannot exist.

» After fighting through the Battle of the Bulge, and all the way to the Alps, suddenly I was loaded onto a troop ship in Marseille and, with a lot of tank and infantry officers, we were sent out to take charge of a new outfit that would hit the beaches of the main, southern-most island of Japan. I knew as we sailed, I wasn’t going to live through two wars in a row. On the way, the ship’s captain came on with one of those wonderful naval announcements: ‘Now hear this! Now hear this!’ And he announced first that a bomb had been dropped on Hiroshima and a bomb had been dropped on Nagasaki and these were really big bombs he said. Then he said: ‘Now hear this! Now hear this! The empire of Japan has surrendered, and the destination of this ship is now Hampton Roads, Virginia.’ Man, that was a happy group of people.

» I was the editor of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution during the 1960s, and I wrote a column, with my name on it and my picture on it, seven days a week.

» You had to address the issue of race relations because the civil rights marchers were in the streets, the sit-ins were going on, the riots, the fire hoses, the police dogs, the killings. This had to be addressed and not simply by reporting it, but by editors who would stand up and say what we had been doing was wrong and we had to change.

» The mayor of Atlanta in the 1950s, a wonderful old man named Bill Hartsfield, called me when I first became editor of the Constitution. He asked if I was getting any anonymous phone calls. I said, ‘Yes, a whole lot.’ He said he spent years getting anonymous phone calls, and he told me to ignore them. He said anybody who won’t tell you his name is a coward, and he’s not going to do anything to hurt you. He said the only fellow you have to worry about is the one who never calls.

» When my daughter was 9, somebody shot her dog down behind our house. I don’t know who it was. She called me at the office. She said come home. She was crying. I came home, and the dog was bleeding. I kept telling my daughter, ‘Look, we don’t know who shot her,’ but my daughter said she knew, that it was ‘somebody who doesn’t like what you’ve been writing in the paper.’ That little girl was taking a beating in school. People would learn her father was the editor of the Constitution and she was constantly coming home with: ‘They’re saying you’re a nigger lover’ or ‘They’re saying you’re a communist,’ and I tried to explain to her. It was tough for a child. The meanness of those people was beyond belief.

» I never kept a gun in my office at the Constitution, but I had some visitors who became so threatening at times that I worried whether one of them might have one. So I put a ball-peen hammer in the right lower drawer of my desk. I cracked that drawer open a couple of times but never had to get it out.

» Martin Luther King lived in Atlanta when I was there. I got to know him well enough that we would exchange notes. I disagreed with him when he started committing his SCLC against the war in Vietnam. Regardless of whether the war was right or wrong, a good idea of a bad idea, it seemed to me to entangle the American civil rights struggle with a foreign policy disagreement was costly to the civil rights movement — and I said
so editorially.

» It’s hard to believe we came from such times, but it was hard for me to believe that my great-grandfather marched off with the Confederate army and he and four of his brothers came home in coffins. In my time, the 1960s, I was not in a Confederate uniform. As a matter of fact, I was regarded as a Southern turncoat by many of my critics. But I didn’t think I was. I thought I was leading us in the direction the South had to go, which was toward justice.

»
America is a wonderful country because it will fool you. One of its major parties has nominated a minority candidate. I didn’t think I’d live to see that day.

» I took a sabbatical and taught at Duke University for a year and thoroughly enjoyed it. I was what they called a professor of the practice of political science. Translated, it meant I have no advanced degree.

» It was a couple of million dollars as I remember to buy Florida Trend, but we had the money. Here’s a state, the fourth biggest state in the country, and it’s totally fragmented from an information point of view. The newspapers in this state, which have traditionally been excellent, got that way by serving their local communities, but they cover just pieces of Florida. It occurred to me in acquiring Florida Trend that this is a medium that can cover Florida as a whole.

» The gap between the haves and have-nots has widened to a point that you worry about a repeat of the time Henry Ford could not sell his automobiles because the worker who made them had no money to buy them.

»
It’s getting tougher for newspaper staffs to do more with less. I would expect that we are missing some stories that need attention along about now and this is something that editors need to keep a careful eye on.





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