Resign, Mr. Ayers. Right now.
If, as of this writing, H. Brandt Ayers has not voluntarily ended his chairmanship of, and any further affiliation with, the board that owns the venerable Alabama news organization he has long served, he should do so this minute.
If that has not happened, the board that owns the Anniston Star should immediately and unanimously force the ouster of Ayers, who has acknowledged assaulting female reporters in the past — one of them in her home.
In a Wednesday story published, fittingly, in the Star, Ayers acknowledged he had gone in the 1970s to the home of a reporter and spanked her — (get this) on the advice of a doctor who Ayers said advised him to “calm her down.”
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He also conceded, the Star reported, having similarly assaulted another reporter in the newsroom in 1975.
Asked if he planned to step down, Ayers told the Star, “Of course not … I am the third generation of a family that has served honorably, even courageously, in the public interest.”
All of which is true, and every word of which is slimed by the context in which it was uttered. The Anniston Star’s long chronicle of honor, courage and public interest is a matter of record, and of journalistic history. So which virtue did Ayers’ spanking of young women serve — honor, courage or public interest?
These were not, by the accounts of both women and men who worked at the Star, isolated incidents. Former editor Trisha O’Connor, among other past newsroom employees, said the publisher’s conduct toward female staffers was brought to the attention of editors in the 1970s. “Some former reporters said the editors responded by appointing a woman on the reporting staff to warn newly hired women to stay away from Ayers,” the Star reported. O’Connor’s memory was that women “took it on themselves to issue those warnings.”
Ayers’ own explanation for his behavior was that he was a “very young man with more authority than judgment.”
Really? “Very young” is a relative term, especially considering that Brandt Ayers was in his late 30s and early 40s at the time, and the top-ranking executive at the paper; the reporters subjected to his “discipline” were in their 20s.
This behavior doesn’t even need the contemporary cultural framing of #MeToo to be repulsive, nor does the passage of 40-odd years diminish its stunning abusiveness. The lame “can’t judge the past by today’s standards” excuse would be an unforgivable insult added to injury — literally in this case — suffered by women subjected to physical assault under the feeble guise of professional reprimand.
Ayers is fortunate to have dodged legal accountability for so long. (He’s also fortunate some husband, father or brother — or for that matter, a mother or sister — didn’t storm into his office and beat him senseless.)
This is a sordid ending to a distinguished career story, but one Ayers himself started writing decades ago.