When I stepped into the offices of The Democrat-Reporter in Linden, Ala., I was stepping into enemy territory. I was the newly appointed editor and publisher of The Demopolis Times, a larger newspaper about 15 miles north of Linden.
Goodloe Sutton was the owner and publisher of The Democrat-Reporter, which was my only local competition, so I wanted to meet him and establish a friendly relationship. My paper was far more successful than his, enough that his paper wasn’t really competition for the readers and advertisers we targeted.
I asked for Sutton and explained who I was. The person at the front to whom I introduced myself looked startled and went to another office.
“I don’t want to talk to anybody from the Demopolis Times,” I heard a belligerent voice bellow from the back a few moments later. As the woman walked back toward me, he called after her, “And tell him not to come back.”
That was my one and only interaction with the strange man who has lately achieved national notoriety for his bizarre editorials calling for the Ku Klux Klan to “clean out” politicians in Washington, D.C.
I had been warned about Sutton when I moved to Demopolis. I had been told that he was a strange man who could be a gadfly but didn’t really compete with us. His family had owned the paper since the early 20th century and Sutton had run it since sometime in the ’60s.
I was told that he was a racist and had the sort of prickly personality that made him impossible for most people to like. He ran his newspaper more like a personal bulletin board for his strange thoughts.
When I saw articles in a couple of Alabama newspapers last month saying that Sutton had published a crazy editorial headined “Time for the Ku Klux Klan to night ride again,” I didn’t think much of it. Nutcase Goodloe was just being himself. Nobody has taken him seriously for a long time, as far as I can tell.
But even though Sutton is a nobody with a shrinking newspaper in a tiny, forgotten backwater town, the national media jumped on this story and made it a big deal. Why? I can only guess, but I assume that someone in Alabama talking favorably about the KKK was too good for them to resist — because it fit all of their preconceptions about white folks in the South.
But what was the significance of an 80-year-old nut rambling to himself on the pages of a tiny newspaper that he owns? Did it say anything about the attitudes of white people in the South? Exactly what point is being made by turning this into a national story?
If the owner of a sizable newspaper were making such inflammatory comments — and the readers were supporting him — that might be an interesting story that reflected something interesting about social or political trends. But that wasn’t the case.
Sutton claims the Democrat-Reporter still has about 3,000 subscribers, which is less than half of its claimed subscriber base not long ago. There are many bloggers whose work is read by far more than 3,000 people, but their crazy rantings aren’t treated as national news.
One of the biggest problems with the news you receive today is that there’s no longer any judgment exercised by media people about what matters and what doesn’t. The only thing that matters is whether something can be made inflammatory or sensational in order to attract clicks or views.
A rational editor or producer for a national news outlet would realize that a story about an absolute nobody ranting in a newspaper he owns — to a readership smaller than some high schools — isn’t news outside of his own state.
In the days of better news judgment, the story of Goodloe Sutton and his nutty editorials would never have made it out of Alabama — because it’s not news of any relevance to anyone else.
Note: The latest reports say Sutton is selling his newspaper and retiring immediately, which tells you all you need to know about how his latest rants have affected his ability to keep advertisers and readers.