A journalism lion roars no more 

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(Note: Bill Rose worked for Hodding Carters Delta Democrat-Times from 1969-1975. He covered the South for The Miami Herald and ran the newspapers Pulitzer Prize-winning Sunday magazine. He later became managing editor at The Palm Beach Post. He then taught journalism at Ole Miss, where he was an Overby Fellow.)

In the spring of 1967, Dr. Sam Talbert, chairman of the Department of Journalism at Ole Miss, pretty much ordered me to find a summer newspaper job.

I failed, miserably.

Thankfully, Dr. Sam didn’t stop trying. Calling his contacts, he discovered Hodding Carter needed a summer reporter to cover Bolivar County for the Delta Democrat-Times in Greenville.

I lived in Shelby, in Bolivar County. Terrified someone might beat me to the job, I drove to Greenville very early on a Saturday morning, arriving around 8:30.

I found the newspaper office Where Main Street Meets the Levee (the title of a book by Hodding’s father) and tried the front door. Locked.

Then I noticed the sign. Office hours Monday through Friday. The paper didn’t even publish on Saturdays. I felt like an idiot.

Through the picture windows, I could see the newsroom was deserted. Except for a glass-walled office in the very back where a light was on. There sat a man with a large head — Hodding Carter.

I pounded on the door. Hodding never looked up from his typing. I pounded louder and shouted. No response. That was some thick glass.

Determined, I walked around the building into the alley behind it. There was a loading dock whose doors were locked. But there was another door to the left of the dock. It turned out to be unlocked.

The room was very dark and appeared to be empty. I could find no light switch. But in the light filtering from the alley, I spotted another door on the far side. I closed the door behind me and inched nervously through the darkness until I felt the comforting metal of a door handle.

It led to a storeroom of sorts with boxes and old furniture and machines draped in cobwebs. At the far side, another door. It led to the pressroom, which was pitch black. As I felt my way around the machinery, I imagined a silent alarm going off at the police department, whose officers would arrest me for burglary, guaranteeing my crime would appear in the DD-T, as locals called it. Stubbornly, and perhaps a little scared I might not find my way back, I kept on through the maze and emerged in a dimly lit hallway where I found another door. And suddenly, I was in the newsroom.

I walked to Hodding’s open door and knocked on the glass.

He looked up, startled.

“Who are you and how the hell did you get in here?”

I stammered that Sam Talbert had sent me, and I was interested in the Bolivar County job since I lived there. Then I recounted my burglary in great detail, and Hodding squealed with delight.

“My friend, you tell a hell of a story. You’re hired. Just be sure to write like you talk.”

I was thrilled.

That was 56 years ago, most of that time spent happily working for big city newspapers.

Flash forward to June 10 of this year.

Back to Greenville for a graveside service for Hodding, one of Mississippi’s most famous journalists and for a while in the 1960s and 1970s one of its best-known citizens on the national stage as well.

A couple dozen of us gathered at a modest family plot in the Greenville Cemetery to watch family members and an Episcopal priest sift Hodding’s ashes into the Delta soil from which he sprang.

The whole thing took less than 20 minutes. We sang a song and prayed and the priest said a few words and handled things quite elegantly.

As folks trudged to their cars, I wanted to cry, “Not enough. Not nearly enough.”

I realize that the actual funeral service had been held a week before in Chapel Hill, where Hodding taught at the University of North Carolina. This event in Greenville was merely a committal ceremony.

But I couldn’t help thinking that the man deserved more. Only four reporters who had worked for him showed up, three of them from out of state. How was that possible?

I wanted something that would afford me an excuse to shed big old Southern tears. I wanted to see the old stars of bygone Mississippi newspaper wars pay their respects. I wanted to hear soaring eloquence in praise of a man who meant the world to me.

He and his managing editor, the late Pic Firmin, snatched me up as a know-nothing 20-year-old and taught me everything I needed to be a successful journalist. But Hodding didn’t stop there. He stayed in touch the rest of his life, nudging, cajoling, advising, holding my hand through good times and bad. He always had my back. That’s something you can’t say about many editors in the journalism landscape of 2023.

Yes, he was a crusading editor whose sharp-tongued editorials rattled the cages of politicians and segregationists. And yes, when the cops tipped him to threats from the Ku Klux Klan or the Citizens’ Council, whom he regularly vilified, Hodding was known to conceal himself in the shrubbery outside his house, armed with a shotgun. Believe me, he was prepared to use it.

When one of his reporters was roughed up by segregationists in Indianola, Hodding told us we were allowed and even encouraged to defend ourselves with our fists. How the man relished a good fight.

People don’t realize how good the DD-T was under his tutelage. We covered every aspect of life in Greenville, from civic clubs to country clubs, from the port commission to the levee board, from civil rights to politics. We didn’t miss much.

As Pic used to say, people were so familiar with Hodding’s national profile that they missed how good a community newspaper he ran. Holding told us that pound for pound, we were the best newspaper in the state. We believed him. Certainly no other paper matched us in investigative reporting or coverage of civil rights and the black community. And no other Mississippi daily had a weekly book page.

It always amazed me that Hodding let us tackle just about any story we wanted to tackle. His ideas, however, were always the best.

He once got a tip that the police chief, a leading candidate for mayor, had been secretly firebombing rural juke joints in hopes of chasing away what he considered a criminal blight on the county.

“The best thing you can do in this life,” Hodding said. “is take what you have learned and pass it to others to make this world better.”

Hodding Carter

He passed the tip to me and said, “This is golden. Run hard with it. Get people on the record.”

We wound up with a gutsy page one story just a few days before the election that included quotes from a cop who claimed to have seen the chief speeding away from the crime scene. The chief, it must be said, was so popular he won anyway.

Hodding could edit with the best of them and he knew just what to say to pump us up to dig harder and write better. He also could find just the right words to replace an awkward phrase in a story. He knew how to resort to dramatics to teach us a lesson, too.

Once I was assigned to write a front-page brief about an upcoming ceremony honoring the 21 people killed by a 1971 tornado that destroyed much of Inverness. I had written the same story for three years running and I was determined to say something different, something … creative.

I briefly lost my mind.

How else to explain a “creative” story that opened with this:

“Twenty-one people won’t attend Saturday’s fourth annual commemoration of the Inverness tornado disaster. They’re dead.”

Hodding read my story, suddenly hollered, “Whaaaat?” He ran to my desk, climbed on top of it and threw the balled up story at my face, landing it right between the eyes.  It was a plastic-like paper designed to be read by a computer and when it landed, it hurt. For a long time, I carried a tiny scar from it.

“NEVER, NEVER, NEVER make fun of dead people!” Hodding screamed.

After that, I never did.

Hodding required all reporters to belong to and report on a local civic club. I resented being forced to join the Lions Club. UntiI, I realized I was getting all kinds of good stories from people I met there.

White folks in Greenville may not have liked Hodding’s liberal editorials, but they depended on and respected their newspaper. They saw he cared about the place. They saw he was involved in almost every aspect of Greenville’s social and civic scene. And they would privately admit that the paper and its national reputation  gave the town a certain literary cache. It made Greenville’s citizens think better of themselves. And that, in turn, helped make the town better.

Clarke Reed, the conservative Greenville businessman who essentially fathered Mississippi’s Republican Party and the man the Reagan White House would call before filling political jobs in the South, bragged to his buddies in Washington that Greenville had “an excellent newspaper” that was fair to the GOP.

Clarke and Hodding, stars of the right and the left, draw the nation’s political and literary glitterati to Greenville for speeches and parties.

Once, I was startled to see Caroline Kennedy walk into the newsroom, clad in a tee shirt and grubby shorts. With a friend, she was traveling down the Mississippi River on a raft and had promised her famous family that she would drop in on Hodding enroute to New Orleans. That evening, my wife and I shared dessert with her at a local ice cream store.

Yet it was a small enough place that you found yourself reporting on your neighbors, which of course was an extra incentive to get it right. I lived around the corner from the D.A. and the circuit clerk, an occasional golf partner. My backyard backed up to the police chief’s.  If I wrote something he didn’t like, he would bang on my back door to give me an earful.

That was the exception. I wrote an expose on a veteran supervisor trying to use county money to build a road through his rural property. When he retired and his son was elected to succeed him, the son sought me out and said, “My daddy says you’ve always been fair to him. So I’ll always talk to you no matter what you write.”

That’s the kind of influence Hodding’s paper had.

He was cocky, arrogant, talented, sometimes outrageous. But armed with a magnolia drawl that thickened over the decades, he could charm angry readers and lovely women in mere seconds of conversation. A raconteur and story-teller, diplomatic, soothing, furious, occasionally bawdy, often profane, he was a party animal, especially in his younger years. Some of those party hijinks are legendary in certain circles but you won’t get the details from me.

Larger than life? That old cliché doesn’t even begin to do him justice.

Princeton graduate. Two years in the Marine Corps. (He occasionally and proudly waved his old Corps baton in the newsroom). Author of two books, including The South Strikes Back, which sounded the alarm about the white Citizens’ Councils and their quest to safeguard segregation.  

He spent 17 years at the DD-T, 16 more than his friends ever thought he would. Greenville was too small a stage to contain him forever.

Not content just to opine, he plunged into politics, helping organize the thoroughly integrated Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party and masterminding a campaign that ended Mississippi’s long-held policy of sending all-white delegations to the Democratic National Convention.

At one Democratic convention, there was a short-lived move to nominate him for president. Hodding took it with self-deprecating humor, calling it his “five seconds of fame.”

He left the DD-T to help Jimmy Carter (no relation) engineer a narrow victory in Mississippi in the 1976 presidential election and was rewarded with a position as Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs.

He handled the notoriously rowdy Washington press corps with ease, candor, and when appropriate, an acerbic wit. A quick thinking, glib and commanding speaker and debater, it was a job he could do in his sleep.

When Iranian militants overran the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and took 52 Americans hostage for 444 days, President Carter and Secretary of State Cyrus Vance turned to Hodding to handle the continuing U.S. response.

For a year and a half, the face of Hodding Carter was on the nation’s TV screens more often than the president’s, a development that irked more than a few people in the White House.

At one press conference, Hodding threw a rubber chicken at a reporter, drawing a laugh from the media gang.

I knew the inside story. Not long before I left Greenville for a job in Miami, I got called out in the middle of the night to cover a flash flood in the South Delta, way back in the boonies at the end of a series of bumpy two-lane blacktops.

On the way back, I saw what looked like a snowbank in the road. Except it was moving. THWACK! THWACK! THWACK!

Chickens.

Lots of them.

I got out to find chicken feathers and guts everywhere, including a beak in the radiator and a somehow live chicken struggling to escape from my right front wheel well.

Across a field, I heard the loud bang of a screen door closing and saw a man yelling something at me. His chickens, I presumed.

I fled in a cloud of chicken feathers and the car coughed its way back to Greenville. It cost me $350 for repairs, money I didn’t have.

I asked Hodding to pay. He said he would, then got vetoed by the penny-pinching business manager.

Fuming, I went to Hodding’s office and protested to no avail. Hodding was liberal with everything but money.

Weeks later, after I had been hired by The Miami Herald, he threw me a goodbye party. At the end of the night, he walked me to my car, put his arm around me, and said, “Hey ace, I know we can’t pay you what The Herald pays, but if there’s ever anything I can do for you, just let me know.”

I ran to the trunk of car, pulled out a battered Coca Cola drink box and poured out the sad, stinking remains of one of those chickens. “You could have paid for the blankety-blank chicken damage,” I roared.

As I drove off, my last image of HCIII (as he signed memos) was of a stunned man with mouth wide open in wonderment.

So when I saw the story of Hodding and the rubber chicken, I knew full well the rest of the joke. In my heart, I figured friends in Greenville had sent him what I would always remember as the Bill Rose Memorial Rubber Chicken.

Don’t get the idea that we were ever estranged. Far from it.

Not long before the great chicken massacre, Hodding had taken me aside and told me he would be glad to have me stay forever but for my own growth I needed to work at a bigger paper.

“I know you love this place like I do, but we both need to tackle challenges in a bigger pond,” he said, tipping me to his future exit and offering to write me a recommendation to any newspaper in the land.

He was telling me in the kindest language possible that I needed ambition. I needed to work on bigger stories in bigger places. There was a whole world of opportunity out there and, if I waited much longer, I might never leave and might regret it until the day I died.

That conversation changed my life.

A month after I mailed my resume and clips to newspapers all over the South, The Miami Herald invited me down.

After two days of interviews during which I increasingly saw myself as a country bumpkin long shot, I was ushered into the office of Executive Editor Larry Jinks.

Larry turned out to be from Lake Village, Ark., just across the Mississippi River bridge from Greenville. He began to tell me how much he admired Hodding and the DD-T. How as a young whippersnapper he had tried to convince Hodding to let him create a one-man news bureau in Lake Village. Alas, the DD-T decided to buy a new offset printing press instead.

Jinks had a wistful look in his eye as we spoke of home, and I could sense the same magnetic tug that had kept me so close to home for so long.

We talked of Hodding and home and nothing else. I left feeling a lot better about my chances.

Sure enough, a week later, I got the call. Soon I began a wonderful career that would see me covering the South and interviewing presidents, senators, and various rogues ensnared in all sorts of southern foolishness. Eventually, I wound up traveling all over America plus London, Haiti, Mexico, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates – all on The Heralds dime.

Those were the glory days of newspapers, when they were thick, chock full of good stories, landing on the front steps each morning with a loud, satisfying THUNK! Today they land with the weight of a feather.

The biggest surprise to me in Miami was that Hodding and Pic had endowed me with a lot more talent and tools than I had realized. I was able to hit the ground running.

A lot of people miss how tender-hearted Hodding was. You could leave the DD-T, but you never left him. He continued to mentor his reporters long after they had left the nest. I never made a career move without consulting him. The man had a big intellect, but an even bigger heart. Just ask his children, whom he adored. On a visit to Ole Miss, Hodding told me he was invited to speak to the chancellor. “What do you want,” he whispered conspiratorially. “I’ll take it up with the chancellor!”

While Hodding was at the State Department, our investigative team was pursuing a damning series of stories about arms dealers in the U.S. Our reporters had demanded State Department records of licensed arms dealers and had been given the runaround for months.

The reporters asked me if I had any friends in the State Department. I called Hodding, and two days later we had the records.

After leaving the State Department, Hodding quickly turned up as the anchor of Inside Story, an Emmy-winning PBS program that critiqued the performance of the press.

I was covering the South for The Herald by then, based in Atlanta, and Hodding surprised me by showing up to grill me about the fevered local coverage of a sensational series of murders of poor black children. As TV reporters horrified mourners by climbing over church pews at funerals, Hodding raised all sorts of ethical and taste questions, including just how much and what type of coverage was appropriate.

It thrilled me to see my boss doing good, deep reporting and before he left town he imparted some more career advice.

I’d built up a ton of good will in Miami, he said, and it was time to think about becoming an editor. “You need to show other people how to do what you’re doing.” If I stuck with it, he said, one day I might be shaping the newspaper’s daily coverage, greatly increasing my influence. “Be a force for good,” he said.

I was not at all sure I could do that, but I took his advice. A year later, I was breaking in as the Herald’s Day City Editor. Before too long I was running newsrooms.

Meanwhile, Hodding had moved on, reinventing himself yet again. He popped up frequently in the New York Times and Wall Street Journal. He became a prominent political commentator and anchor on television, appearing on ABC, BBC, NBC, CNN and PBS. He joined the steering committee for the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

When Ronald Reagan became president in 1980, the conservative Wall Street Journal hired him to write liberal columns on its op-ed page. He regularly skewered the Reagan administration, becoming one of its most articulate critics. Sometimes, he aimed his pen at the Washington press corps as well, damning them for their stories quoting anonymous sources. He published a collection of the columns in a book, The Reagan Years, in 1988.

Meanwhile, Hodding created his own TV production company, MainStreet. It produced documentaries and public affairs programs that won four more Emmy Awards and the Edward R. Murrow Award for documentaries.

The man was so versatile.

I thought he was slowing down when he became the John S. Knight Professor of Public Affairs Journalism at the University of Maryland, where he was a popular lecturer.

There were rumors that he was a leading candidate for top editor jobs in big city newsrooms, including The Washington Post and the Boston Globe. But it never happened.

A pity. I would have loved to have seen what his courage and great sense for puncturing the pompous images of politicians and poohbahs might have done in a big city newsroom.

When I won a year-long journalism fellowship at the University of Michigan, I asked Hodding to come and speak to the fellows. He flew in, wowing them with witty repartee and intellectual insight into the news business.

Then in 1998, he veered into a completely unexpected position.

He became president of the Knight Foundation, a Miami-based nonprofit that supports excellence in journalism.

In his eight years in Miami, Hodding drew rave reviews for programs that not only supported newspapers but improved struggling local communities that newspapers served.

Suddenly Hodding and I were together again. My wife Susan and I had dinner on the Miami River with Hodding and his wife, Patricia Derian, a former assistant secretary of state for human rights.

We laughed all night, sharing stories about the Delta and journalism in Miami.

How, I wondered, did someone like me develop such a strong rapport with someone so sophisticated?

Whenever I had a few minutes to spare, I would stop by his office and we would have lunch and talk about Mississippi, its stubborn refusal to change,  the distressing decline of its newspapers.

In one particularly poignant conversation, he walked to the window and said, “Look out there. It’s Mississippi all over again. All those poor people without a chance in hell. All they need is for someone to give them a little help.”

He’d been trying to do just that for his entire life. And now he was doing it with the Knight Foundation’s money.

“I’m having the time of my life,” he said. “But I envy you. You’ve got so much more time to play with. Don’t waste it. Grab it by the neck and hold on for dear life.”

The words pinged uncomfortably through my brain at that all too brief graveside service.

But that night the old DD-T crew, what little was left of it, gathered to eat steaks the size of cows in the venerable Doe’s restaurant, an oasis of warmth and stunningly good food in a beaten-up old house in a poor, crime-ridden neighborhood. It was symbolic of the curious Delta lifestyle – those with money stuffing themselves so close to those who struggled to keep food on the table.

As is the habit after southern funeral rites, the old Democrat bunch relived old times with Hodding, when we were young and full of spit and vinegar and brimmed with confidence and unbridled optimism.

Once, we could have filled a whole room. Now Hodding’s old Greenville warriors filled two tables.

Somehow, it was enough.

As we told war stories from the glory days, I recalled my basic training at Fort Lee, Va., not far from Washington. I spent a good chunk of every day reading The Washington Posts coverage of the Watergate hearings, the biggest story on the planet.

I was smitten by the power of the story and the clear and insightful way it was covered by The Post.

Late in the meal, Ed Kohn, a crack investigative reporter at the DDT shared something with us that Hodding had shared with him not long before Holding’s health had turned for the worse.  It was the night’s epitaph.

“The best thing you can do in this life,” Hodding said. “is take what you have learned and pass it to others to make this world better.”