When you are governor of Georgia. you quickly learn an essential lesson: Sometimes it’s necessary to go to war with the Atlanta media. 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. Invariably, 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, launching into 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, Georgia’s segregationist governor during the 1960s, also loved to go on the attack against the Atlanta papers. His favorite term of denunciation was to call them the “Atlanta fish wrappers” because, he contended, that was the only useful purpose they served.
Maddox went so far as to call in state troopers at one point and have them remove Journal-Constitution newspaper boxes that were located in the Capitol complex. If you visit the second floor of the Capitol and look closely at the official portrait of Maddox, you will see in the background a large fish wrapped in an edition of the Atlanta newspapers.
Sonny Perdue criticized all forms of the Atlanta media, newspapers and TV alike, during his terms in office. You could often see Perdue working himself up into a fit of anger during those 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 offense against the media.
Deal’s attack was spurred by the recent publication of a story that was first reported two years ago.
In 2011, the state ethics commission staff was looking into allegations involving Deal’s campaign for governor and prepared subpoenas to obtain 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. Deal eventually ended up paying a $3,350 fine to settle the complaints involving his campaign disclosure reports.
The former ethics commission staffers filed lawsuits challenging their job losses and the Journal-Constitution apparently gained access to some of the depositions taken during that litigation. The newspaper published several articles rehashing the controversy and alleging, once again, that there was interference by the governor’s office in the ethics commission’s operations.
Deal promptly went before the TV cameras to express how “regretful” and “disappointed” he was that the newspaper would print stories about him 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 told a gaggle of reporters. “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.”
And then, the governor delivered the ultimate putdown: “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,” he 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.