Today’s story about former Star publisher Brandt Ayers’ alleged assault of reporters working in his newsroom was the most difficult I’ve ever been involved in reporting.
The assaults, on women working at The Anniston Star who say Ayers spanked them against their will, may have happened before I was born, but they happened in what I think of as my home, to people I consider members of an extended journalistic family. It hurt all the more because the accused is the longtime leader of that family.
It’s as a member of this family that I’ve learned the values and principles that we operate by, and that we share with journalists working at other institutions the world over. If only everyone who calls himself a journalist held to those principles, the world would be better informed.
The Society for Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics expresses well many of these values and principles. I consulted the framed copy of that code on my office wall often as we looked into the allegations against Ayers. SPJ’s lengthy set of instructions to journalists includes the following:
— “Abide by the same high standards they expect of others.”
— “Expose unethical conduct in journalism, including within their organizations.”
A former Anniston Star reporter says that H. Brandt Ayers, chairman of the company that publishes the paper, sexually assaulted her in the 1970s in The Star’s newsroom.
Those values drove our reporting on the accusations against the chairman of the company that publishes this newspaper. Staff writer Tim Lockette did exemplary work in tracking down women who say Ayers attacked them, documenting and corroborating their stories. All but one of those women as of Monday, however, were reluctant to be named in a story. We prefer to avoid anonymous sources, and the SPJ’s code cautions journalists on that point, too. “Identify sources clearly,” the code says. “The public is entitled to as much information as possible to judge the reliability and motivations of sources.”
As of Monday morning we felt we needed more before we could publish — more women willing to share their stories and their names with our readers.
Our hand was forced, though, when another outlet published its version of the story first. That account was written by a former Star staff writer, Eddie Burkhalter, who brought the allegations to my attention in November, when Joey Kennedy first mentioned in a column for Alabama Political Reporter what his wife, the former Veronica Pike, says Ayers did to her when she was a young reporter here in the 1970s. Kennedy’s first column didn’t mention Ayers by name, but another column, published on Thursday, did.
Asked to comment for our story, Ayers issued a statement that read, in part “As a very young man with more authority than judgment, I did some things I regret.”
The account Eddie published Monday, in many ways as carefully reported as ours, differed in some respects because it relied on at least one anonymous source. That’s a decision over which honest journalists can reasonably differ, and I don’t question Eddie’s reporting.
What’s harder to brook, though, is a column published in the same outlet, which aims accusations at this newsroom’s leaders about our work on this story. Those allegations are flatly false, and were delivered without any attempt to verify their accuracy or opportunity to respond.
The SPJ’s code has guidance here, too: “Diligently seek subjects of news coverage to allow them to respond to criticism or allegations of wrongdoing.”
What I’d have said, had anyone asked, is this: Eddie left The Star suddenly in November, not long after pointing me to Kennedy’s first column on his wife’s experience. Only Eddie can say why he made that decision, but he did so after defying and then refusing to listen to editors who were trying to direct his reporting. Once he was gone, we handed the story to Tim Lockette.
The airing of these allegations, in our pages and elsewhere, are a difficult time for this extended family. For the women who say Ayers attacked them, though, I hope it leads to peace and to a sense of justice. And I hope they will judge that we have acted according to the principles we share.