— Mayor Larry Langford in an interview with WBHM
Most years, the item passes the Birmingham City Council without fanfare — a resolution to publish legal advertising in The Birmingham News. Even in the newspaper, few people notice those long columns of gray legal gobbledygook buried in the classifieds. However, newspaper publishers love them. Legal advertising is a revenue stream that minds itself, never having to look pretty or please the masses.
The law requires municipal governments to buy these unhandsome ads in local newspapers of general circulation, but last week the City of Birmingham stopped short of reauthorizing its annual contract. At the last minute, Mayor Larry Langford pulled the item from the agenda.
But the mayor wasn’t shopping for a better bargain. Again, he was trying to show the News who’s boss.
As soon as Langford asked the council president to hold the item, his allies on the dais snickered. His supporters in the peanut gallery giggled and a few outright applauded. Their political champion was making those newsboys pay.
That volley was the latest in a one-sided war between a self-righteous Langford and a disoriented and disorganized newspaper.
Last week, after the new mayor spoke to the Birmingham Rotary Club, Langford had a heated discussion with NewsPublisher Victor Hanson III. Hanson won’t discuss the conversation, but if the scuttlebutt from his own newsroom is to be believed, Langford cussed him and accused him of being a racist.
That conversation follows a similar one Langford had with News Editor Tom Scarritt about a week before Langford took office. Like Hanson, Scarritt would not reveal what specifically Langford said to him, except that the conversation was animated and typical of the new mayor.
Again the newsroom scuttlebutt was that Langford had threatened to call the News out for being racist and that he had threatened to get restraining orders against the paper’s reporters. When I asked him about it last month, Scarritt said he could not recall the specifics of the conversation, but that Langford might have said those things.
What is known is that, after that conversation, Scarritt gave an instruction to his staff that they were no longer to contact Langford for comment outside of the mayor’s own news conferences.
During the campaign, Langford’s minions accused the paper of having a racist agenda after cartoonist Scott Stantis drew Langford and then-Mayor Bernard Kincaid taping a sign saying “Honky” to the back of candidate Patrick Cooper. The cartoon ran on the newspaper’s website but was later edited to read “White” and “Republican.”
“Honky” is funny, whereas white Republicans seldom are. George Jefferson was using that word on primetime TV 30 years ago, but we are talking about The Birmingham News, a paper so squeamish that B-U-T-T is still on the banned words list. When the SCLC threatened a boycott, the paper buckled.
Mayoral contempt for the News is nothing new in Birmingham. Kincaid called the paper’s political endorsements the “kiss of death.”
Historically, the perception of the News as a racist paper goes back to Vincent Townsend, the Civil Rights era media boss, who used the paper to protect the white establishment. He was by most accounts a bigot, a segregationist, a Southern apologist and a defender of the status quo.
Following the Townsend era, the News did what most papers in America did throughout the 1980s and 1990s. It chased after affluent suburban readers with expendable incomes, people who lived in Vestavia Hills, Mountain Brook or Hoover, but not the Birmingham Northside or West End.
Today, the News is neither as racist nor as conservative as its detractors claim, but instead it is tepid and uncertain. It is on the defensive against its own history, and under attack by Langford who is using that racist reputation to his benefit.
By attacking the News and refusing to talk to its reporters, Langford has done something politically extraordinary. He has taken the media strategy used by George Wallace, Spiro Agnew and George W. Bush and made it his own. Wallace blasted those outside agitators and pointy-headed intellectuals from the Yankee newspapers. Agnew scoffed at the “nattering nabobs of negativism.” The Bush Republicans still scorn the “liberal media.” Langford has fashioned the News into his paper tiger — the racist naysayers.
But in all of this there is a cost to the public and a risk to the community. Langford has never been one to answer questions he didn’t like. However, the problem now is not a shortage of answers, but rather a shortage of questions. No one is asking them.
The News is silenced and stunned. Meanwhile Langford has turned broadcast news into his personal propaganda machine. He could announce tomorrow that the city will build a domed stadium on the moon, and each of the TV reporters would ask him the same question: “How does that make you feel?”
Pesky issues, such as how we’re going to pay for all of Langford’s proposals, don’t make for good TV. Meanwhile, print reporters aren’t notified of press conferences.
“We’re going to move at a record pace so nobody will have to keep moaning about one single thing,” the mayor said in his speech to the Rotary Club. And that, too, is part of his strategy. As always, he stays one step ahead of the consequences.
So far it seems, no matter the mayor’s move, he can’t lose. There is a big political payoff to attacking the messengers, and so far there’s little cost.
On Monday, I asked Hanson what reason a mayor has to keep the lines of communication open with the major daily newspaper. He couldn’t answer the question.