The Mighty Pen

On May 9, 1962, sophomore Jim Dinsmore penned a column, “Cluttered Heart Cries for Expression on Issues,” in The Auburn Plainsman. The column wandered over a variety of topics. One paragraph would ignite a firestorm.

That was it. A single paragraph on integration that turned out to be accurate in its forecast.

But meetings and statements and letters later, Dinsmore would step aside from the newspaper staff for a year. He would be disqualified from running for editor, probably because of that column. And The Plainsman would be suspended from summer publication for the only time in its history, perhaps because of that column.

When the article came out, the AP quoted President Ralph Draughon as saying Dinsmore “has no limits on extremism. He doesn’t represent the thinking of the institution.” Dean of Students James Foy described Dinsmore as “highly intellectual, and highly confused.”

The Publications Board (predecessor to today’s Board of Student Communications), met on Friday, May 17, to discuss how to respond to the column. The chair, Foy, was also concerned with the sentence that followed the integration paragraph: “On the state of Alabama: At the present time it can only be characterized as a haven of general ignorance, prejudice, and narrowmindedness.”

Paired with the fear-inducing mention of integration, it had the Publications Board running scared — of the Board of Trustees, and even the Alabama Legislature.

Professor Paul Burnett, who taught journalism classes within the English Department, “reminded the Board that the Trustees considered last spring the discontinuance of the newspaper” (after a pro-integration column by editor Jim Bullington), according to meeting minutes.

Burnett was afraid that the Trustees would suspend Plainsman publication for the next academic year if the Board did not take action.

He was not overstating the hazard. The year before, after Bullington’s pro-integration column, the board had stipulated that before any article “having a bearing on the good name of Auburn University” was published, the editor would advise Dean Foy.

Draughon took the board’s action to mean that Foy could direct The Plainsman editor not to run such an article, and the editor would have to comply. In other words, the board and Draughon said Foy was empowered to censor The Plainsman.

Draughon told Foy to inform Bullington that if he failed to follow this directive, he would be removed from office as editor. (Bullington never submitted an article to Foy for review and would step down as editor shortly before the end of spring quarter 1962 and before the board could remove him.)

In addition, Draughon warned, “If further instances should occur, The Plainsman would have to be discontinued,” Foy wrote to Bullington in a letter that is included in the archives with the Publications Board minutes. So Burnett’s fears were strongly founded.

(In the letter Foy, trying to begin with a conciliatory tone, informed Bullington that his ODK shield signifying his membership in the honorary would be arriving soon. Then he dropped the presidential beatdown.)

The Board voted to reprimand Dinsmore for writing the article and Bullington for allowing its publication. They did not suspend Dinsmore from the newspaper staff, however, because they didn’t have to.

During the debate, incoming Plainsman editor Charles McCay “stated that he hoped he would not have to bring this up, but first of all Jim Dinsmore and he thought that it would be to the best interest of everyone concerned if he would not write for The Plainsman next year,” the minutes noted.

So The Plainsman editor half-suspended Dinsmore, and Dinsmore half-suspended himself. But in fact he did not write for The Plainsman that next academic year.

At its meeting the week before, the day the Dinsmore article came out, the Publications Board had noted that no qualified editor candidates had stepped forward to edit the summer edition. Two candidates had applied, but the board considered them unqualified, whether by lack of experience or lack of coursework.

So the board voted not to publish The Plainsman for summer quarter 1962. No provision was made to wait and seek a more qualified candidate.

Did the Dinsmore column firestorm cause the Board to seek a cooling down, Plainsman-free summer quarter, with the candidate situation providing a convenient excuse? The minutes don’t say; still, this is the only time that happened. The Plainsman has produced a smaller issue, in print or later online, every summer since.

This drama had its epilogue in spring quarter 1963. Dinsmore tried to run for editor, but his application was disqualified because it had arrived a day late.

In a letter to the editor that ran in the March 27, 1963 edition (whether by Foy’s permission or not is uncertain), Dinsmore explained that he had spent spring break at home for minor surgery. His mother had mailed the application before the deadline, but it had arrived after.

Dinsmore acknowledged his procrastination in the letter (an eternal theme with college students). But he noted that late applications had been accepted in the past and he argued that he had “submitted” the application before the deadline, as stated in Publications Board policies.

His mistake, of course, was giving the Publications Board a quick and easy excuse to reject his application without having to address the column of the year before.

Dinsmore would go on to make one more statement about integration. At the beginning of winter quarter 1964, the day Harold Franklin was allowed to register, students were warned to leave him alone as he walked from his dorm room to the library.

But two members of The Auburn Plainsman staff approached him as he left the library and welcomed him to Auburn. They were detained and questioned by police and released. One was Bobby Boettcher, yet another pro-integration columnist.

The other was Jim Dinsmore.

 

Advertisements

Just Say No

I don’t plan to read Fire and Fury by Michael Wolff any time soon. (To confess, Jonathan Eig’s bio of Muhammad Ali is my current sustenance.)

Yes, Wolff’s content, and his uncommitted relationship with accuracy, has caused its own firestorm. For me, however, the lessons to be learned are in public relations, not narrative pseudo-journalism.

Mistake #1: Wolff’s White House access, which created much of the book’s tastiest morsels, seems to be the result of organizational chaos (the Trump White House’s sustenance). With no clear permission or denial, and a vague endorsement from Trump, Wolff was granted access to observe, while Bannon assumed Priebus approved, while Priebus assumed Kushner … , etc.

A clear center of decision-making authority in these access requests, though an impossibility in the Trump White House, is the remedy.

While it’s disturbing to consider that these political professionals were more concerned with their own survival than the President or the country, such is the amoral worst of high-level politics.

It should not be accepted as reasonable, professional behavior, regardless of how close to the apex of political power it occurs.

Mistake #2: A peremptory Internet search would have alerted Trump’s White House staff that Wolff was not a good fly-on-the-wall candidate.  His take-down pieces on everyone from Rupert Murdoch to Christopher Hitchens were there for the Googling.

In 1990, I was director of public information for Azusa Pacific University. A local news radio personality asked if we were interested in hosting a discussion of Malathion, a controversial insecticide being sprayed to control an invasion of Mediterranean fruit flies. Sounded good, so I agreed.

The personality, it turned out, was shock jock Tom Leykis, at his last stop before nationwide syndication. I should have known better, but I didn’t.

Alerted by a frantic APU alum, I turned on Leykis to hear him announce the anti-Malathion rally at Azusa Pacific, timed for an actual spraying. Attendees would stand in the open and dare the helicopters to spray them. Standard academic discourse.

After I canceled the “rally,” Leykis characterized my reversal as a weak-spined concession to alumni pressure. I suppose that was charitable, considering the real reason was my inept unprofessional stupidity.

In the same way, allowing an author like Wolff such access is a doubly-incompetent media relations breakdown by the White House, thus creating an avoidable public image crisis.

My master’s degree from Cal State Fullerton is in public relations, particularly agenda building in the media, and many of my students are public relations majors. I try to pass along advice to them from my experience and studies, while teaching them their required journalism courses.

The best advice I give them overall is, “just say no.” They don’t have to do journalists’ jobs for them (echoing journalists’ complaint that they don’t do law enforcement’s work for them, either). PR folks don’t have to allow journalists access to private property, even if a crime is being investigated. And they certainly don’t have to give a best-selling author access to secure government offices, due diligent Googling or not.

Sure, overall, they will do their organizations wisely by counseling access at appropriate times and not locking down the media 100 percent. It’s a tough balance to work out, but it’s possible.

Their main responsibility is to their organization, however, and an automatic “yes” to media access can cause much more damage than an initial “no”–as the Bannon-Priebus-Kushner brain trust demonstrated in creating this Fire and Fury.

Remembering Jack Simms

img_0061In the summer of 2003, I was on a weekend visit to Auburn, preparing to move down and join the faculty.

Trapped in Comer Hall parking lot by a thunderstorm, I called Jack Simms.  As we talked, I told him, “Jack, my goal in coming to Auburn is to be to my students what you were to us.”

That would be a huge challenge, because of what Jack meant to Auburn journalism and its students over his 18 years as department head and the years that followed.

For those of us privileged to be his students, he was the ideal professor, mentor and friend, and he made sure that the faculty members he brought on used the same approach.

Jack’s first year was my freshman year, so I benefited from his classroom instruction and his mentorship as I worked on The Auburn Plainsman.  But it meant even more, these past 13 years, to be his friend.

As we Auburn journalism majors graduated, and so many of us went on to distinguished careers and syndicated columns and front pages and Pulitzer Prizes, Jack was our most treasured cheerleader.

Yet he never talked about himself much.  We had heard about Iwo Jima, but it wasn’t until he showed me an unpublished manuscript within the past few months that I realized what he had experienced.  The manuscript refers to a point during the battle where Jack and a fellow Marine had gotten separated from their company, the result of poor communication.  Amidst the smoke, grenades, mortars and rifles, they still managed to rejoin their company, and he survived.

In class, he never mentioned how, as an AP reporter in Tampa, he talked himself aboard a rescue ship that was heading toward the site of a private yacht fire in which young people from several prominent New York families died.  Or how he also got aboard the ship that had picked up the survivors and interviewed them.  Or how he tossed his film from the ship to a co-worker standing on the dock after the rescue ship returned, dodging quarantine rules.  This was heroic journalistic stuff.

Having returned to Auburn, I got to spend time with Jack, whether at our Friday morning breakfast group or at various journalism gatherings.  If we had driven together to Birmingham or Atlanta for an alumni meeting, it meant sitting patiently (often with his wife, Jo), waiting while he talked individually to each student.  They meant that much to each other.

His decline was noticeable and worrisome over the past few months, but it had its moments.

The first was his 90th birthday party, moved up to October to take advantage of the bye week.  (That’s where the picture above was taken.)  So many showed up, and Jack’s family did a great job of roasting him but also telling stories like the one above. And again he took the time to greet each guest and friend who approached.

The second was just three days ago, when Jack was brought to the field for the military appreciation halftime show.  He had told me earlier in the week that he didn’t know if he could make it, but he did, and accepted the crowd’s grateful cheers. And he still looked so darn rugged.

Those two, combined, would turn out to be our last chance to say goodbye to Jack.  We suspected as much, but it still made us glad and grateful that we were able to.

And now the torch has completely passed to those of us who learned from Jack.  Each of us fulfills his legacy in our own way — myself as director of the journalism program.

Intimidating?  A little, but not too much.  By his teaching, and by the example of his life, Jack prepared us well.