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War of words

Perdue takes time out of busy schedule to bash AJC

Although the 2006 governor's race is still weeks away from heating up to a full boil, Gov. Sonny Perdue recently escalated his attack campaign against a chief political enemy.

No, not Lt. Gov. Mark Taylor, at least not yet. Secretary of State Cathy Cox will have to wait her turn, as well. The Perdue enemy we're talking about is the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

A year filled with minor spats and policy disagreements between the newspaper and the governor's office was capped in mid-November by the equivalent of an informal declaration of war when Perdue Press Secretary Heather Hedrick appeared on Fox News' "The O'Reilly Factor" to tear the AJC a new one.

"Essentially," Hedrick told an eager Bill O'Reilly, "the problem is that the AJC's writing is so far left, it has just lost track of its readership."

Then she stuck in the boot. "We think that is really the reason that it has dropped 8 percent of its subscribers," she said, referring to the AJC's slide in paid circulation last year, the second-worst among major dailies. Ouch!

Political observers say Perdue's anti-AJC rhetoric goes well beyond the usual give-and-take that arises out of squabbles over policy. Instead, they say, recent salvoes by the governor's office signal a larger campaign strategy aimed at undermining the AJC's credibility and turning public opinion against the Atlanta newspaper.

"It's a gamble to go up against a major media company, but the governor obviously feels he has no choice because the newspaper is going to chomp at him, anyway," says Chuck Clay, an ex-lawmaker and former head of the state Republican Party.

The Cox family, which owns the AJC, has long been known for its generous support of Democratic candidates. Anne Cox Chambers, for instance, recently hosted a fundraiser for gubernatorial candidate Cathy Cox (no relation).

Of course, this is the same newspaper that invites its critics to write "Equal Time" op-eds and keeps GOP editorial shill Jim Wooten on the payroll.

Bill Shipp, the dean of Georgia political reporters (and a former AJC staffer), agrees that Perdue has evidently — if unofficially — declared war on the daily paper as a way to diminish the impact of any positive coverage of his Democratic rivals, Taylor and Cox.

"If it follows precedent, the governor will paint his opponents as pawns of the liberal Atlanta newspapers," Shipp explains.

It certainly wouldn't be the first time.

During his quest for a second term in the early 1940s, arch-segregationist Gov. Eugene Talmadge campaigned against — in addition to his actual opponents — "them lyin' Atlanta newspapers." The Atlanta Constitution, then headed by Editor Ralph McGill, an outspoken critic of Jim Crow, was often referenced in Talmadge speeches alongside the N-word to drive the point home with Talmadge's racist supporters. In 1948, his son, Herman Talmadge, won election as governor by using some of the same anti-newspaper rhetoric.

But savaging big-city media hasn't solely been the tactic of bigots such as the Talmadges and Lester Maddox.

In his 1970 campaign for governor, former peanut farmer Jimmy Carter attacked both Atlanta daily newspapers, the morning Constitution and afternoon Journal, "because polling showed that was the way to go," Shipp recalls. "It was a craven political move."

In other efforts to woo downstate votes, Carter also famously dubbed his urbane opponent, Gov. Carl Sanders, "Cufflinks Carl" and flirted with segregationist views on the campaign trail, only to strongly denounce racial discrimination in his inauguration speech. (Perdue's own about-face on the state flag, after promising to restore the Rebel battle emblem, suggests he's an attentive student of Carterian strategy.)

While the AJC editorial board has never embraced Perdue in quite the same way as it has, say, Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin, there still was a honeymoon of sorts following his surprise defeat of Gov. Roy Barnes in 2002. Editorial page editor Cynthia Tucker even pulled a Mike Luckovich cartoon slamming the new governor from the paper minutes before deadline in April 2003.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist appeared on CNN to defend his work, which criticized Perdue's waffling over the state flag. Under the caption "A flag Georgians of all races could unite around," he'd drawn a banner with a hand pointing toward Perdue with the slogan, "I'm with stupid." Tucker later explained that she deemed the cartoon "unfairly harsh and unduly disrespectful."

But relations between Perdue and the AJC hit a major iceberg a few days before Christmas 2004 when the paper ran a long story on the front of its Metro section detailing an embarrassing affair in which one of Perdue's daughters had dumped her schoolteacher husband and married a state trooper she'd met while he served as the governor's bodyguard.

"When the AJC ran that story about Perdue's daughter and made it sound like some kind of scandal, I thought that was way out of bounds," says Clay, who contends many fellow Republicans felt the newspaper was out to get the governor. (For the record, CL was pursuing the same story, but AJC reporters got it first.)

The AJC further riled Perdue last spring, when he'd been a vocal backer of the so-called "secrecy bill" to allow local governments to recruit industry while keeping the public in the dark, as well as a Senate bill to allow governments to use eminent domain for private development projects. Both measures were buried under an avalanche of negative publicity.

By most accounts, any remaining civility began to unravel this summer, when the AJC sued the state to uncover the incentive package offered to lure the proposed NASCAR Hall of Fame to Atlanta. Dan McLagan, Perdue's communications director, responded by blasting the AJC for hypocrisy; the AJC's parent company, Cox Enterprises, had quietly received about $6.7 million in corporate welfare from Fulton County in 1999, CL reported.

McLagan soon would get another opportunity to denounce the AJC after Tucker cut a reference to the Cox incentives from an op-ed piece he'd written for the paper. "Hypocrisy alert! AJC censors opinion piece, hides truth," read a press release in which McLagan called the AJC "a liberal, blue-state paper in the middle of an increasingly conservative red state."

Hedrick followed up with her Fox News appearance, which gave O'Reilly an opening to single Tucker out for abuse. "I think Ms. Tucker is dangerous," he said.

Tucker declined to discuss the apparent rift with the governor's office with CL, while Hedrick denies that recent actions are part of Perdue's campaign strategy.

"We're happy to work with reporters, as long they're fair," says Hedrick, who repeated her perception that some AJC "reporters have such a left slant that they've lost touch with readers."

While Clay concedes that he hasn't talked to Perdue's team about its anti-AJC stance, he says the guv's moves are a clear indication of a methodical attack strategy that likely will become more obvious as election time draw nearer.

"The only way Perdue has of insulating himself [from criticism by the AJC] is to go after them aggressively," Clay explains. "I suspect you won't see Sonny back down."

If history is any guide, however, such feuds don't last forever. After Carter became president, he appointed Anne Cox Chambers ambassador to Belgium.