Silencing the voice of an institution

Allow me to be parochial here, at the risk of getting overly sentimental. I’m coming late to this topic because I’ve been out of town on business the last few days.

One of the giants of the sportswriting tribe has retired. A lot of them have been doing that in recent years with newspaper buyouts and layoffs, with some of them leaving before they were ready.

But this individual has done so at the age of 90! Furman Bisher, who was a sports editor and columnist at my former newspaper, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, for 59 years, penned his final piece that ran in Sunday’s paper. Bisher was always kind and generous and genial to me, and I was truly honored to have been able to know someone I have read and admired most of my life.

Another former colleague offered his own remembrance, with the following observation terribly ironic for reasons I’ll explain below:

“Furman still has opinions. Strong opinions. It’s what made him a great columnist. He wrote with a voice.”

Bisher’s retirement coincided (coincidentally, alas) with the AJC’s decision to no longer endorse political candidates on its opinion pages. That’s an action that’s been decried by Alan Mutter, among others, but it’s not surprising. Not long ago the AJC gutted its editorial board, replacing lightning-rod opiners with the publisher, editor and managing editor.

There’s an ongoing debate about whether political endorsements are relevant any more. I tend to think they’re not, but the issue here runs deeper than a paper telling readers whom to vote for, or against.

This is silencing the voice of an institution.

The AJC will remain neutral on political candidates, even though this one could be polarizing on name alone. (Photo by Wendy Parker)
The AJC will remain neutral on political candidates, even though this one could be polarizing on name alone. (Photo by Wendy Parker)

An institution that gained its stature by resisting the tide of public opinion like former Constitution editor Ralph McGill did in the 1950s and 1960s, as the Deep South convulsed from the tremors of the civil rights movement. McGill even won a Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. For using his voice.

Ironically, Bisher wrote his first column in Atlanta in 1950 in Ralph McGill’s office, using the famed editor’s typewriter. McGill later gave the typewriter to Bisher, who kept it for the rest of his career and continued the tradition of having a bold, unforgettable, legendary voice.

An institution that helped shape my passion for newspapers and journalism at a very young age — I can’t pinpoint it but my mother says I started reading Bisher and the AJC sports pages around the age of eight  — is now taking journalistic neutrality to a highly sanitized level.

A paper that still prints many words has consciously and deliberately chosen to discard a once-great, vital and unmistakable voice.

Which leaves me at a loss for any more words here.

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3 thoughts on “Silencing the voice of an institution

  1. Good piece, Wendy. But I’d like to point out, toward a bit of historic accuracy, that Bisher in his great days was the voice of The Atlanta Journal, before its merger into the “AJC.” The separate identity, and voices, of that paper should be remembered. Also, I don’t think Furman’s accomplishments as a newspaperman have been sufficiently remembered. Not only was he a writer, but a hard-driving sports editor who built a great sports section with an array of strong writers. Also, he brought the Falcons to Atlanta, as well as the Braves. I’ll miss Furman’s work, but perhaps he can write from time to time, as Dave Anderson does with The Times.
    As for the lack of endorsements, this is not the first time this has happened. Cynthia Tucker also backed away from endorsing candidates in one election when she was running the page. No matter what, you are right about the muting of the instutional voice at the paper. It doesn’t want to make waves.
    Again, good piece. Louis

    Like

  2. Very good of you to clarify, Louis. I was a post-merger AJCer and got out of college right when this happened. I wonder what it was like to have a real newspaper war in town.

    Thanks for the recollections.

    Like

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