H. Brandt Ayers: The news stops here
Sep 25, 2011 | 2382 views |  0 comments | 14 14 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Now that you ask, yes, this has been an interesting few days.

For instance, Monday night I’ll be at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio, to do a lecture named for a fascinating early editor of The New York Times. The lecture makes the point that all news is local.

But before getting into that, let me tell you about dinner with friends in Atlanta last Sunday night, which has a bearing on the theory that all news is local.

We all stayed at a new hotel, one of those fine smaller hotels with a tiny lobby whose staff is overflowing with courtesies. The ambience does not welcome a college fraternity convention.

That quiet atmosphere appeals to the four of us. Perhaps a sign of age.

Anyway, the news shared between Josephine and her college classmate was intensely local, personal and often hilarious, to the bemusement of the two husbands who opened their own parallel conversation.

As an aside that occurred to me at one point in the conversation, both couples were founders of the annual Renaissance Weekends, invitation-only gatherings of accomplished people, which President Clinton made famous.

Now a 25-year-old institution, Renaissance began as a New Year’s social weekend for a gaggle of Southerners from governors to journalists at Sea Pines hosted by Phillip and Linda Lader, when Phil was CEO there.

Hillary and Bill Clinton’s presence during the early years and Phillip’s appointment as ambassador to Great Britain raised Renaissance to a crowded, sought-after celebrity invitation.

Neither of us has attended Renaissance in years. The last time Josephine and I attended, I described its scale as being like a 7-foot-tall showgirl, appealing from a distance but, up close, a little more than I can handle.

Incidentally, neither couple’s role in the founding of Renaissance is mentioned in its website. In keeping with the theme of my Ohio U. lecture, the news of our exclusion as founders means the obituary of each will be shorter.

My conviction that all news is local in its impact on real individuals was borrowed from former House Speaker Tip O’Neill, who said, “All politics is local.”

Tip had a way of squeezing down a great national institution to the scale of a single individual. He did that when he spoke at the 350th anniversary of Harvard, located in his hometown of Cambridge, Mass.

He walked to the microphone overlooking a distinguished crowd under the ancient trees in the yard of that great university and held out both arms in a gesture of embrace as he intoned in his Massachusetts accent, “Ohhh Haavad Yaaad! Haavad Yaaad! How I remember Haavad Yaaad ... I used to mow it.”

In just that way, I will tell the audience in Ohio that seemingly unrelated events wind up on someone’s doorstep.

For instance, in 1993 when President Clinton launched Tomahawk missiles against the Iraqi intelligence headquarters in retaliation for its attempt to assassinate former president George H.W. Bush, the White House staff was frantic to find out if the strike actually hit the target before the president announced it on national TV. Our satellites weren’t properly positioned and we had no eyes on the ground, but Clinton went ahead with the speech anyway. His worried staff asked excitedly, “How did you know we hit the target?”

Clinton responded coolly, “I called CNN.”

As it turned out, CNN didn’t have anyone in Baghdad, either, but a cameraman said he had a cousin who lived near the intended target. He called the cousin who told him, “Yeah, the Intelligence headquarters just blew up.”

So the whole tense and complicated national security drama boiled down to a man who had a cousin. To that Iraqi cousin, it was a big local story.

China and Korea couldn’t be more distant from Anniston, Alabama, but events there had a direct effect on our town. The so-called Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989 dried up foreign currency in China, which shut down a shift at the local Monsanto branch, because Beijing couldn’t pay for a headache powder the local plant manufactured.

A local microwave oven manufacturer closed because South Korea dominated the market. A woman at a Korean plant had no idea what she was making until she saw a microwave oven in an American film.

Local stories weren’t high on my mind when I was a Washington correspondent in the glamorous Kennedy years. One task I hated was the digging out of water and sewage projects from the federal budget to write short stories for papers my news bureau represented.

That was boring, or so I thought, until I came home and learned about a woman out in the county. She was so thrilled that water and sewage lines would be extended to her area that she got carpenters and plumbers to build her a bathroom. Every day she’d open the door and look in, anticipating the day she’d be hooked up. When Congress cancelled the appropriation, it was a crushing disappointment for that lady.

She taught me something about the ultimate meaning of what they do up in Washington. Tip was right, all politics — and all news — is local.

H. Brandt Ayers is the publisher of The Star and chairman of Consolidated Publishing Co.
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