Phyllis Brandon, Fred Graham Made Marks on Journalism


Phyllis Brandon, Fred Graham Made Marks on Journalism
Phyllis Brandon

Nearly nine decades ago, two journalists were born five years apart in Little Rock: Fred P. Graham in 1931 and Phyllis Brandon in 1936. They departed this world just weeks apart, on either side of the new year.

Both preceded me at stops in my career.

Graham, a lawyer, New York Times reporter and founding anchor of Court TV, died at 88 on Dec. 28 in Washington; Brandon, who edited the popular and enduring High Profile section of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette for 23 years, died at 84 in Little Rock on Jan. 11.

Brandon was already a fixture at the Arkansas Democrat when I took an editing job there in the late 1980s, and we were work acquaintances for eight years, through the end of the newspaper war and the emergence of the hybrid Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

Graham had left The Times decades before I joined that newsroom, but several colleagues remembered him well, including Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Robert D. McFadden, who wrote Graham’s obit for the Gray Lady.

It was the kind of obit that could have been written only by someone who knew the subject. “The son of a Tennessee preacher, Mr. Graham, a lawyer with a soft drawl, a habitual cheroot and the steady gaze of a Mississippi riverboat gambler, was a Yale, Vanderbilt and Oxford University scholar who went to Washington in 1963 as chief counsel to Sen. Estes Kefauver’s subcommittee on constitutional amendments, then served two years as special assistant to Labor Secretary W. Willard Wirtz.”

OK, that was a mouthful, but you get the kind of impression Graham made.

At 34, he became the first lawyer to serve as The Times’ Supreme Court correspondent, covering issues like murders in the civil rights movement, prayer in public schools and even his own paper’s legal victory in winning the right to publish the Pentagon Papers.

Graham moved to TV, joining CBS as law correspondent in 1972, covering the Watergate scandal, President Richard Nixon’s subsequent resignation and the abortion rights debate. But he never lost his drawl, first developed in early schooling in Texarkana and firmly established by his high school days in Nashville, Tennessee.

Amy Oliver Barnes, the longtime reporter and anchor and now a public relations professor at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, said she never met Graham but once got a backhanded compliment in comparison to him. “My first news director at [KATV] Channel 7 actually called me a female version of Graham since neither of us were able to lose that nasal Southern drawl. I took it as a compliment — made us standouts in the homogenized broadcast world of the super-coiffed, smooth-as-silk baritones.”

In 1991, as TV cameras invaded U.S. courtrooms, Graham and Cynthia McFadden, now of NBC News, became the first anchors of Court TV. Stories like the acquittal of Los Angeles police officers who beat black driver Rodney King, igniting deadly riots, quickly followed. Then came the murder trial of O.J. Simpson.

Brandon, more a hometown heroine, was a divorced mother who “worked her butt off” to see sons Phil and Alex through school, all the while profiling and rubbing elbows with the biggest names in Arkansas politics, business and society.

She was also a newspaper warrior.

“For the paper, which was in a battle with Gannett, the chain that owned the Gazette, one thing the Democrat had that the competition didn’t was High Profile, and the section had a great influence on the Democrat’s ability to win the quote-unquote newspaper war,” Phil Brandon told Arkansas Business.

Her interview subjects ranged from Bill and Hillary Clinton to Gen. Wesley Clark, the Little Rock product who became a top NATO commander and presidential candidate, to Helen Gurley Brown, the revered editor of Cosmopolitan who had bitter memories of her childhood in Arkansas.

“Phyllis had a gift for telling stories and celebrating Arkansans,” Bill Clinton said in a statement last week. “Her profiles gave us honest portraits and offered rare insights to the people who were making a difference. She was a trailblazer in the newsroom who served as a mentor to dozens of reporters who came along after her.”

Her detailed profiles attracted readers, Publisher Walter Hussman Jr. said. “She not only created a section highly popular with readers, but she was an outstanding goodwill ambassador for the newspaper.”