Tuesday, March 4, 2008

President? No, he wants to blog

Peach Pundit is the go-to source for all things political in my native Georgia, and it's from Peach Pundit's Jason Pye that I just learned Bob Barr is now blogging for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. (Stephen Gordon of Third Party watch had this last week, but somehow I missed it.)

This is bad news for the "Draft Barr" movement in the Libertarian Party. I mean, what kind of libertarian would have anything to do with the Atlanta papers? It's like blogging for Pravda.

The AJC (known to locals as the "Atlanta Urinal-Constipation") used to be a great newspaper, before control of the operation fell into the hands of Anne Cox Chambers, a billionaire socialite who apparently hates everything about Georgia, right down to the kudzu and red clay.

That things had gone hopelessly wrong at 72 Marietta Street became obvious in 1994, following the death of Lewis Grizzard. (If you don't know who Lewis Grizzard was, I'll just explain that the most famous son of Moreland, Ga., was a hugely popular columnist and author, as funny as Dave Barry and as Southern as grits.)

At the time of Grizzard's death in March 1994, I was working at the Rome (Ga.) News-Tribune. The speculation was rampant: How will the AJC replace Grizzard? Who will get the call to try to fill the gigantic shoes of the most popular journalist in the South? I figured the odds were they'd at least try to hire Dave Barry away from the Miami Herald. Yeah, Barry's from New York, but he is definitely funny.

My darkhorse pick to fill the Grizzard slot at the AJC was Rick Bragg, who at that point was an Associated Press regional reporter. I'd been slightly acquainted with Rick when we both attended Jacksonville (Ala.) State University. Even then, he had been a working journalist for years, stringing high school sports for the local papers as a teenager before becoming a staffer for the Anniston Star.

Bragg eventually won a Pulitzer Prize (1996) and published a best-selling memoir, All Over But the Shoutin'. I don't know if Bragg had ever done humor, but he shared Grizzard's (generally underrated) genius for narrative writing. Also like Grizzard, Bragg was, and is, a newspaperman to his fingertips. The raw deal he got from the New York Times in 2003 -- over what's called a "toe-touch dateline" -- was a screaming injustice, and Bragg's decision to resign was fully justified.

Anyway, in 1994, after Grizzard's shocking death at age 47, I was kind of hoping maybe the AJC would offer that columnist gig to Rick Bragg. What happened next ... oh. Words can't express my mortification.

Rheta Grimsley Johnson. When that name was announced, my reaction was the same as thousands of other Georgians: "Who the ---- is Rheta Grimsley Johnson?"

Don't get me wrong. I'm sure Ms. Johnson is a nice woman. She's won awards for her writing, and occasionally she'll even write something funny. But no way could she ever be acceptable as a substitute for Grizzard. She's not even close. She's not even in the same journalistic universe.

Except for those rare times when he'd write a tear-jerker, Grizzard reliably supplied at least three laugh-out-loud lines per column. Sometimes, he'd get five good laugh lines into a 700-word column. Anybody who thinks that's easy has never tried to do it. I used to do occasional humor columns for the Rome paper, and getting three good laughs in 700 words is almost a miracle. Grizzard accomplished that feat column after column, three columns a week. He did this for more than 15 years, during which time he also published more than 20 books, did hundreds of speaking engagements, and appeared on numerous TV shows.

To replace someone like Grizzard with someone like Rheta Grimsley Johnson -- it was simply unthinkable, an insult, an expression of the AJC management's profound contempt for its readership.

It was that blunderheaded decision, in 1994, that made me realize that whatever future I had in journalism, it wouldn't be in Georgia. The state's largest and most prestigious paper had just pimp-slapped every literate person in Georgia, effectively announcing that the AJC had ceased to care about providing its readers with a newspaper that respected their interests and values. Yeah, there had been ill omens before then -- i.e., the absurd tenure of the pretentious Bill Kovach -- but the Rheta Grimsley Johnson hire was like a Vegas-style neon sign, 100 feet tall and bright enough to be seen from space.

The subsequent decline of the Atlanta papers was foreshadowed the day they announced that move in 1994. Perhaps other papers in the U.S. have lost more circulation or ad revenue, or laid off more of their staff. But all this has happened at the AJC during two decades when the Atlanta metropolitan area has experienced astronomical growth in population and wealth. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has declined for one reason and one reason only: It's a lousy newspaper that gets worse every day.

Why Bob Barr would associate himself with such a third-rate publication is hard to understand. Maybe he should try to pitch his blog to the Marietta Daily Journal. Yeah, Otis Brumby is a tight-fisted tyrant, but at least he never foisted Rheta Grimsley Johnson on his readers.

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