The sale of The Washington Post by its longtime owning family, the Grahams, and the death of Eugene Patterson, Pulitzer-winning editor of no less than three of American’s great newspapers, marked an end to an important half century of journalism in the country.
From the early 1950s to just after 2000, the press, first in the states of the former Confederacy and then over the entire nation, became a force for social, political and economic change in a way that had not been seen since the Progression era in the early years of the last century.
When they began, the players were young, just out of college, or in some cases just back from World War II.
In Gene Roberts and Hank Klabinoff’s outstanding history of the journalism of the period, “The Race Beat,” there is a photograph of Patterson, Ralph McGill (the editor of the Atlanta Constitution) and Jack Nelson, their Pulitzer-winning investigative reporter, wearing the $50 Haspel suits and plaid sports coats of the time, grinning at each other as though co-conspirators in a nefarious plot.
The only plot they shared was to show America the brutal face of segregation on the news pages and to ask the unbearable question of whether the reality they described was acceptable on the editorial page.
There were dozens of bright young journalists, white and black, who followed the stories where they led, often at great cost and sometimes in the shadow of danger.
They were supported in this by their newspapers: The Constitution in Atlanta, the Raleigh News and Observer, The Delta Democrat Times in Greenville, Miss., and many others. Family, not chain-owned, they stuck by their editors and reporters, even as advertising fell and the greeting at the country club was less effusive. The support of the local owners, usually politically influential and important members of the business community, made it hard for locals to disparage the stories in the paper.
By the early ’70s, with the long-term course of history becoming clear and the siren song of the big city coming on even louder, many of the editors and reporters who had been involved in the crusade for social change in the South headed north.
They settled in to the large urban, family-owned newspapers of the Northeast. (Boston Globe, New York Times, Washington Post) and the Washington bureaus of papers with similar characteristics (the Los Angeles Times).
By now, well-seasoned and well-awarded, they arrived at the national level of journalism just in time to lead the charge on two stories of remarkable importance.
In the 1970s, the Pentagon Papers story broke. The Times under Claude Sitton, formerly NYT bureau chief in Atlanta, and The Post under Eugene Patterson squared off against the Nixon administration and carried the fight to publish to the Supreme Court, which in a landmark case for freedom of the press, refused to stop publication.
Only a short time later, this same group of investigative journalists formed the core of the move to uncover Richard Nixon’s abuses of power in Washington and related matters.
These were very human people. I remember Jack Nelson standing in the dusty streets of Jessup, Ga., one summer afternoon where he was working on a particularly nasty story of local corruption.
Sweat rolling off his face and down his neck, “This is a mean little town,” he said, “a really mean little town.”
Bright, well-trained young men and women, strong local ownership, and a compelling story made for great journalism and ultimately a better society. We have been the fortunate beneficiaries of an unusual era in America reporting. We must give it thought as it passes.
Spence Perry is a Pennsylvania resident who writes columns for The Herald-Mail.