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A Reporter Is Beaten; Arkansans Can Relate

4 min read

The white faces in the crowd are more slack than angry as a kneeling black man takes a kick to the chest. A man in the background assumes a boxer’s stance, ready to join the fray. In a later photo, he has leapt onto the black man’s back.

Arkansas Democrat photographer Will Counts captured the beating of newspaper reporter L. Alex Wilson outside Central High School in 1957, and his images stunned viewers then and have embarrassed Arkansas for 60 years.

Wilson was a reporter for the Tri-State Defender, a weekly paper serving the black community in Memphis, covering efforts by nine brave students to break Central’s color barrier. He refused to run. “If I were beaten, I’d take it walking if I could,” Wilson wrote. “Any newsman worth his salt is dedicated to the proposition that it is his responsibility to report the news factually under favorable and unfavorable conditions.”

The 1957 picture came to mind recently when a Republican congressional candidate in Montana, Greg Gianforte, attacked a reporter who questioned him about health care. The reporter wound up on the floor with broken glasses; Gianforte wound up with a seat in Congress, winning a special election despite a pending misdemeanor assault charge.

Reporters often face menace. “Plenty of verbal threats, of course,” says Max Brantley, senior editor of Arkansas Times.

But physical attacks on journalists are relatively rare in America, even in President Donald Trump’s anti-media era. In Russia, China, Egypt and Mexico, reporters are tortured and murdered for looking into taboo subjects.

“Anytime I hear of an assault on a journalist it disturbs me deeply,” says Tom Larimer, executive director of the Arkansas Press Association. Risks are obvious in reporting on drug cartels or terrorists, Larimer said, but it’s a different matter when an American political candidate manhandles a reporter for asking a question. “There was a time when that sort of action … would have meant the end of their political aspirations. Now, it seems, we reward” it.

Bob Stover, an Arkansas Gazette reporter who later became executive editor of Gannett’s Florida Today, was beaten by angry young black Arkansans in August 1971 outside Little Rock’s Dunbar Community Center. He was working on a story about police brutality.

But the closest Arkansas parallel to the Gianforte attack is probably a 1950s assault by an alderman on Roy Reed, a Gazette reporter who went on to become a national and foreign correspondent for The New York Times. Joe Donnell, a railroad worker and City Council member in North Little Rock, was angry about a story and invited Reed to his house to discuss it. When Reed arrived, he found Donnell and another alderman in the living room. Reed was told to take a seat.

The other alderman was there as “a witness, as it turned out,” Reed told Arkansas Business in an email. Donnell “came across the room to where I was sitting and started beating me with his fists. I couldn’t get out of the chair.” After calming down, Donnell called the police and claimed Reed had picked a fight with him, and he demanded Reed be searched. A small penknife was found and duly noted in the police report.

“I was pretty scuffed up when I got back to the newsroom,” Reed said. “My editor, Bill Shelton, immediately assigned another reporter to write a story about what had happened. As you might guess, the story made old Joe look pretty bad.”

Years later, when Reed “was covering the White House and other exalted branches of government” and then teaching journalism at the University of Arkansas, he liked to boast that he was the “only newspaperman that had ever been beaten up by an alderman.”

Veteran Gazette reporter Ernest Dumas never had a hand laid on him for reporting, he said, but he recalled an infamous night in the newsroom when the night news editor “knocked out our ace reporter on the race beat, Ray Moseley,” who had to be taken to the hospital. “They fired the night news editor and Ray never set foot in the newsroom again.” He quickly left for Detroit and then foreign news postings. Moseley discussed the attack in an October lecture at the Ron Robinson Theater. But taking a beating at the hands of a colleague is “not the same thing” as taking lumps for doing reporting, Dumas conceded.

A writer for The Nation investigating Whitewater claimed he was beaten unconscious, presumably by Bill Clinton cronies, at a Little Rock hotel in the 1990s. “We looked into it and it became clear that he was on a big drunk and fell,” Dumas said. “Gene Lyons knows the facts on that incident. We did a little follow-up in the next Nation.”

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