Biggest story since Sherman came through, The

biggest story since Sherman came through, The

Houston, Frank

With so many proclaiming all systems go, it’s hard not to come to the conclusion that Atlanta is, in fact, not ready

The banner headline on the April 22 Atlanta Constitution’s front page SIZZLE OR FIZZLE? did not have anything to do with the event that was weighing heavily on the city’s psyche this spring: the coming of the 1996

Summer Olympics, which one editor calls “the biggest story here since Sherman burned Atlanta.” It referred instead to the mass highway bivouacking known as “Freaknik,” an annual spring break pilgrimage that draws black college students from around the country to the city. But the anxiety created by Freaknik was naturally projected onto the Summer Games, since the event was something of a dry run for Atlanta hospitality. At under 100,000, attendance at Freaknik ’96 was lower than previous years’ numbers; the SIZZLE OR FIZZLE? headline called into question not only the low turnout, but also the city’s overly aggressive response to the crowds, which many visitors found dismaying: metro-area shopping malls closed early and police choked off traffic by preventing cars from exiting the freeway into already congested streets. Freaknik had everybody thinking about the Olympics, then eighty-eight days away. Beginning in July, more than twenty times as many out-of-towners were expected to descend on the city. Traffic – a major headache in suburb-ringed Atlanta for years now, especially in the epicenter, where many Olympic venues were being built – was only going to get worse. As the Freaknikers cleared out, the collective sigh of relief over their departure was just a little too loud, betraying some skittish nerves beneath the city’s famously upbeat, self-congratulatory facade. There was a palpable fear that the city’s response to the Olympic onslaught could make for a fizzle, too, and on an entirely different scale.

Fear not, Atlanta, was the message delivered the Sunday of Freaknik by the city’s own official Olympic station, WXIA-TV. The NBC affiliate, which reportedly paid $6 million (on top of NBC’s own $456 million) for the designation, had launched a weekly Sunday morning news show, II News Team ’96, devoted to the evolving Olympic story, and on Freaknik Sunday the show opened with a question from anchor Angela Robinson: “What lesson can Atlanta learn from Freaknik ’96?” According to the report that followed, Department of Transportation officials were ready for increased Olympic traffic with a new high-tech traffic monitoring system and 30,000 reflective hats made by 3M for safe night-walking. The next story, about a recent fire at a restaurant next door to downtown’s Fox Theatre, found local fire department officials ready. Next came a piece on “Operation Olympic Charlie,” a mock hostage situation on a Delta jet, demonstrating that, sure enough, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation was ready for Olympic terrorism. Finally, workers were shown completing the Tennessee venue that would host the whitewater rafting trials, just weeks away. “U.S. Forestry officials say they will be ready. They will be ready!” the reporter shouted.

With so many so vociferously proclaiming all systems go, it was hard not to come to the conclusion that Atlanta was, in fact, not ready. The city’s tendency to boast has always barely masked a deeper insecurity; Atlanta has been compared to an uncomfortable teenager straining – too hard and too fast – to move beyond an awkward adolescence. “There’s an inferiority complex in the South,” says the Atlanta Journal and Constitution’s Thomas Oliver, assistant managing editor for Olympic news. (The morning Constitution and the afternoon Journal share a common staff.) “One way to deal with that is to strut around. Atlanta has always overclaimed what it is.” The September 18, 1990, afternoon Journal’s front page announcing the International Olympic Committee’s choice of Atlanta as host for the ’96 Games declared: IT’S ATLANTA! Below the fold, under a photo of an exuberant downtown crowd, followed the plaintive WE FINALLY WON SOMETHING!’

Much of the media is just as guarded as the populace. (Before consenting to an interview, one journalist sought to ensure that I was not out to demonstrate that “these squirrelly southerners can’t pull this thing off.”) Covering the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games (ACOG), with its ambitious corporate fundraising and construction projects, might have been a tough task for media sometimes accused of being boostery and corporate-cozy (see “Georgia Power – and the Politics of Race,” CJR, March/April 1988). For the most part, though, the media were succeeding. One measure of this achievement was the fact that ACOG’s feathers were frequently ruffled. When a local radio station played an April Fools’ prank by reporting, in its morning news show, that France, Britain, and Israel had decided to boycott the Games because of security fears, ACOG called the prank “a bit irresponsible and not in good taste.” The station suspended the disc jockeys and ran a recorded apology the rest of the day, but the impression of a peevish, humorless ACOG remained.

Crawling through downtown traffic, Rick Bragg is trying to find Thelma’s Kitchen. Bragg, who is based in The New York Times’s Atlanta bureau, grew up just a couple of hours away, over the Alabama border, and is working on a story lamenting the disappearance of true southern fare from Atlanta. The relocation of Thelma’s – an old-fashioned “meat and three” buffetstyle restaurant – to the outskirts of downtown Atlanta is too good a metaphor for the recent Pulitzer Prizewinner to pass up. “This is what it takes to get to Thelma’s now,” he groans. “Fifteen minutes, and we’ve gone two blocks. Up ahead here,” he says, motioning to a construction snarl, “you have the official Olympic pick-up truck blocking the official Olympic traffic.” Bragg isn’t an Olympics enthusiast. “The closest people are going to come to the Olympics is the traffic jams and their television sets,” he says in his engaging drawl.

Billboards along the Interstates hawk one Official Olympic product after another; the ubiquitous hometown soft drink, Coca-Cola, threatens to douse rather than “refresh” the “Olympic spirit,” and Atlantans have plenty of time to contemplate the meaning of the giant (and official) Swatch draped along the side of a downtown building while sitting in the traffic induced by highway construction that changes location almost daily. Bragg gleefully relates the story of the official “Olympic Weenie,” announced with the unveiling of a 1,996-foot-long hot dog that wrapped around the interior of the Georgia Dome almost twice. The hot dog, it turned out, hadn’t been refrigerated. “They could not eat it. They could only gaze upon it,” Bragg says. Turning to the bureau’s office manager, Susan Taylor, he asks, “Susan, what did they ever do with that thing? ‘Cause environmentally, that’s a threat.”

Over collard greens, Taylor, a native Atlantan, says of her hometown, “They bulldoze first, ask questions later. Atlanta’s tradition is change. There’s a real aversion to the old dusty and musty.” For a city that was originally called Terminus, there seems to be no end in sight. Atlanta devours the new.

On a bus tour of new Olympic venues for the media this spring, an ACOG spokesperson told a camera-ready press corps they wouldn’t be going inside the new Georgia Tech Aquatic Center, where a roof beam had fallen only weeks before. “There’s nothing for you to shoot when you get in there except tarp,” she said. The blue curtain of tarp was precisely the image ACOG did not want going out over the nation’s wires and airwaves so late in the game. Giant construction cranes and scaffolding dotted the downtown landscape, where the new Centennial Olympic Park, across the street from CNN Center, was routinely being referred to as a “mud pit” with more upturned Georgia clay than grass. After a construction-related death at the Olympic Stadium a year earlier and news reports that new dorms built to house athletes had sunk several inches into the ground, tardy construction schedules were fraying nerves.

ACOG has worked harder than anyone to put the city’s best face forward. The chairman, Billy Payne, brought little media experience to the job, and it showed. “Billy Payne had no concept of the old saw, `Don’t pick a fight with people who buy ink by the truckload,'” says the Journal and Constitution’s Oliver. “You don’t get public support by saying `no comment’ to everything.” Carey Gillam, who covers the business and financial side of the Games for the weekly Atlanta Business Chronicle, calls ACOG “one big power trip” and notes that “you can’t talk to officials.” Gillam has pursued stories on ACOG’s ticket scheme – in which some unlucky ticket-seekers waited months for refunds while ACOG racked up millions in interest, and even some successful customers were double-billed – and its decreasing rates of minority and female hiring between 1992 and 1994. The Chronicle also broke a story in April about the threat of a water shortage in downtown Atlanta during the Games because of construction and renovation delays at the city’s main water treatment plant.

The control of ACOG, as well as the U.S. and International Olympic Committees, will make Olympic coverage especially challenging for broadcasters not blessed by the “official” Olympic designation. Unofficial cameras won’t be allowed in venues or at press conferences. “After the rights were awarded, we no longer had the same access, the same degree of relationship,” says Carl Ward, Olympics producer for WSB, the local ABC affiliate. While the station was considered by some to be leading the way with its coverage early on in the Olympic story, that changed after rival WXIA became the “official local station” of the Games. WSB cameras will be shut out of official Olympic venues and events, and the station has to negotiate for spots around town where it can set up cameras and dishes to shoot and edit without having to brave traffic. “In my opinion, ninety percent of what goes on in the Olympics occurs outside of it,” Ward says hopefully. “It’s one big, gigantic party.”

For unofficial local stations and national networks, there are strict limitations on the use of Games footage: two minutes of video can be used three times in a twenty-four hour period, provided they are separated by two hours. Robert Abbott, sports producer for CNN’s Olympic coverage, says that his Olympics-accredited staff of four will interview athletes away from venues. Often, he says, that will require making “eye contact” with the athletes at official press conferences to signal interest in an interview on neutral territory.

In most ways, CNN is more connected to the world than it is to the city it inhabits. And while Ted Turner’s ties to the community are considerable – he owns much of it – he is too much of a maverick to follow the city’s team-player corporate ethos. Turner has been notably detached from much of the Olympic hoopla, forgoing corporate sponsorship in spite of the fact that the Games will provide him economic gains, from downtown development that will boost his property values to a sparkling new Olympic Stadium for his Braves. The way CNN will cover the Olympics reflects this remove. “As a news organization that happens to be headquartered here, we have more resources here,” says Abbott. “But we can’t lose sight of the fact that although it’s in your backyard, you cover it as if it was New York, or Detroit.”

CNN Center, monument to the Turner behemoth, is part shopping mall, part news operation. Its atrium is lined by the Turner Store (stocked with Tshirts and more featuring the cartoon characters of Turner’s Hanna-Barbera), the Braves Clubhouse (T-shirts and more featuring “America’s Team”), the Omni Hotel, restaurants, a movie theater, fountains, international flags, and a $7 “studio tour” of CNN. Natural light leaks in far overhead, but not enough to spoil the ambient glow of neon; from somewhere near the ceiling, cascading columns of box-like structures spill downward, suggesting clustered DNA chains composed of televisions.

At one end of the center, CNN’s “Talk Back Live,” a news talk show that places emphasis on the studio audience, is produced each day from the middle of the floor. Upstairs lies the heart of the Turner empire: CNN Headline News, CNN International (where tourists can peer directly into the newsroom as if window shopping), CNN Airport News, and CNN Interactive. More than 3,000 employees filter in and out of this news machine daily. Beneath the gazes of tourists looking down from a glassenclosed observation deck, the CNN newsroom looks like Mission Control, with its bays of computers, monitors, televisions, editing terminals constantly in motion — anchors are fed news to read while, behind them, reporters and editors work their phones and computers and, behind them, producers and technicians scoop up a steady stream of satellite feeds from around the world.

A couple of blocks down Marietta Street, past the giant Coca-Cola bottle being constructed near Centennial Olympic Park, lies the Atlanta Journal and Constitution. If CNN Center is a news mall, the Journal and Constitution’s dim lobby is more of a museum, decorated with blown-up front pages – from PRESIDENT CHANTS HYMN AS HE PASSES FROM TIME INTO THE WORLD BEYOND (1901) to NIXON QUITS (1974) – and photographs, like the one of a KKK demonstrator picketing the newspaper, and thumbing his nose at the camera, in 1960. Today’s Journal and Constitution is a different paper, but it might bear more resemblance to its former self than does Atlanta, which has spread out like kudzu since it began booming in the ’80s – from 2.2 million to an estimated 3.3 million in 1995.

“I think Atlanta has come a hell of a long way since the Civil War,” says the Journal and Constitution’s editor, Ron Martin, who says his mission is to “stay on top of this incredible growth.” The Journal and Constitution has covered the Olympic story extensively and exhaustively. For over a year now it has produced an Olympic Weekly section, and on July 8 it will begin publishing an entire four-section, forty-eight-page daily newspaper devoted solely to the Games.

Thomas Oliver, a former business editor who is overseeing the paper’s Olympic coverage, was also in charge of covering the Barcelona summer games in 1992. The staffing needs to produce such output are enormous: 300 reporters, editors, photographers, and artists are on hand for stories. Early on, Oliver and his staff assigned fifty-eight sportswriters to develop specialties and began covering national and international championships. Other reporters cover Olympics stories that fall within traditional beats: metro, business, international, and features. Most of Oliver’s team has been in place for two years.

While the newspaper has clearly gotten excited about the Olympics along with its community, it has pursued stories likely to loom large in the Games with a critical eye. Weeks before the Barcelona Games in 1992, and in anticipation of the issue’s significance for the Atlanta Games, the Journal and Constitution probed the corporatization of the Olympics in “The Selling of the Olympics,” tracing the evolution of fundraising and the significant rise in corporate sponsorship since Los Angeles in 1984. In the spring of 1995, the paper anticipated traffic woes with “The Gridlock Games?,” analyzing the city’s plans – to rely largely on the under-utilized MARTA transit system – and pointing up weaknesses. It tackled heat next, exactly one year ahead of the Games, with “The Hottest Games Ever?” In seeking the Olympic bid, ACOG chairman Payne had disingenuously claimed the city’s mid-summer average temperatures to be a cool 75 degrees; the Journal and Constitution pointed out that, when factors like humidity and urban (pavement) heat were considered, downtown stadium temperatures could feel like 124 degrees.

In 1993, after another Cox Enterprises-owned newspaper, the Waco Tribune-Herald, lost the story about the siege of the Branch Davidian compound to big out-of-town papers, Oliver feared that, in the event of terrorism at the 1996 games, the Journal and Constitution would also lose out to the likes of The New York Times. So he recruited the Journal and Constitution’s military affairs reporter, Ron Martz, to begin immersing himself full-time in security and terrorism issues. In April, when a raid on a right-wing Georgia militia was erroneously reported by CBS News and others to have uncovered a plot to blow up Olympic venues, Martz and staff writer Bill Rankin weighed in early with a report in time for the afternoon Journal: “The raid set off a flurry of news reports that the plot was Olympics-related, but an ATF official in Atlanta said that was not the case.” While the militia were in fact building pipe bombs, they were stockpiling them for the advent of the New World Order, not the Olympics, the Constitution reported the next day.

The militia story revealed the Southern Gothic underbelly that Atlanta would prefer, understandably, to distance itself from: the backwoods boys from Deliverance giddily plotting global destruction. A year ago, in a piece beginning, “Brace yourself, Bubba, the curmudgeons are coming,” the Journal and Constitution had predicted for the city the role of “sitting duck for the world’s press,” quoting such press accounts of the city as this, from the Minneapolis Star Tribune: “While the city has developed a wellhoned ability to promote itself, it hasn’t shaken its southern roots. It’s still legal to marry your cousin. Grown-up men commonly keep little-boy nicknames: Bubba, Billy, Johnny.”

Editor Ron Martin calls Atlanta “the de facto capital of the South,” and says “you feel and read more of the South” in his newspaper. Martin, who created the prototype for USA Today and worked as its executive editor for ten years, is a gracious man who has clearly heard his approach criticized -both at USA Today and since he took over the reins of the Journal and Constitution after Bill Kovach’s bitter resignation in 1988. When asked about the disappearance of jumps from the paper’s front page, he says the most important question is how to “get the stuff off the page and put it into readers’ heads. The question of jumps, graphics, color, short stories all that is white noise.” Martin is acutely aware of his readers’ array of news sources: “You’re kidding yourself if you think we can operate in a vacuum.”

The Journal and Constitution’s critics point out that, as with the vast amount of space being devoted to Olympics stories ranging from the important to the trivial, the paper’s presentation sometimes seems to lack both context and judgment. “It’s not that you can’t find good stories, it’s that you have to look for them,” says one former Journal and Constitution reporter who fondly remembers Kovach’s short-lived reign. “There’s no way to tell what the paper thinks is good or relevant.” For example, one Sunday this spring found, among the three stories on the front page, an AP story about a fountain pen dating from World War I, unearthed by a French farmer and found to be in working order. Tight space on page one meant that readers had to look inside to find excellent, staff-generated stories about train-depot ghost towns in rural Georgia, the assistedsuicide debate, and an analysis of the resources devoted to fundraising by senators who aren’t up for re-election until 1998 and 2000.

At fifty, the Journal and Constitution’s local columnist Colin Campbell, with his lanky frame, bright blue eyes, auburn hair, and cowboy boots, looks the part of a southern newspaper columnist. He actually hails from Boston, speaks with no accent, and spent part of his career as an editorial writer for The New York Times. But Campbell is also the great-great-grandson of the city’s preeminent post-Civil War journalist, Henry Grady, whose statue stands about a hundred yards down Marietta Street from his office. When it comes to “hyping Atlanta,” Campbell explains, “I know all about it, genetically.” Still, he says, “Bragging needlessly about a city is in bad taste, imprudent, adolescent, dumb, unsophisticated, and provokes journalists to prick your balloon.”

For the most part, though, Campbell feels the Journal and Constitution has been the paper of record for the Olympics story. While not technically part of the Olympics staff, Campbell has weighed in with advice for visiting journalists, as well as columns on one of his pet issues, homelessness (in 1995, Atlanta was cited by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty as one of five U.S. cities that are especially “mean” to the homeless), and on lighter subjects such as the Olympic mascot, a strange Smurf-like creature called, appropriately enough, “Whatizit,” or “Izzy,” for short. (“It’s bad. It’s stupid.”)

Homelessness, growth, traffic, heat: these stories will emanate like mantras from Atlanta during the Games; while representative enough, they are issues that could make for stories almost anywhere. But a unique Atlanta story — unique because of the city’s size and status as “de facto” southern capital – is race. It’s a complicated story, one told with conflicting images – the Martin Luther King Jr. memorial, where King’s tomb lies on a promontory in the middle of a pool of turquoise water, for example, contrasted with nearby Stone Mountain, a dome of granite boasting a heroic carving of Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, and Stonewall Jackson that will be the site of Olympic tennis.

“Atlanta was built on black hope and white pragmatism,” says Gary Pomerantz, a Journal and Constitution editorial board member and author of the recently published Where Peachtree Meets Sweet Auburn. The book explores, through the prisms of two historical streets, Peachtree Street and Auburn Avenue, as well as the lineages of two of its more memorable mayors – Ivan Allen Jr. and Maynard Jackson – the intersection of White and Black Atlanta, an intersection Pomerantz calls “a detente for mutual gain, as opposed to a truly mutual understanding.”

“Atlanta is an integrated city by day,” says Pomerantz. “But in all matters of the heart, it remains largely, not entirely, a segregated city.” Still, great strides have been made for a city whose state flag boasts the Confederacy’s stars and bars. (That flag was adopted not in Civil War days, but in 1956, in defiance of the desegregation order resulting from Brown v. Topeka.)

Pomerantz talks excitedly about race, throwing out phrases like “the great test tube for the black and white thing” and “racial moderation,” and quoting W.E.B. Du Bois (Atlanta is “south of the North yet north of the South”). He hopes the visiting media will take the time to find the Atlanta he researched for his book, to avoid the “quick hit” and the “inevitable inclination to bash the South.” He fondly recalls interviewing Dr. Irene Dobbs, the mother of Jackson, Atlanta’s first black mayor, and hearing her reminisce about her grandmother, a former slave whom she tried to teach to read and write. “Grandma Dobbs was born in 1824, and here I am talking to the mother of Atlanta’s first black mayor 172 years later,” Pomerantz says. His tip for the media: “Recognize that Atlanta’s greatness comes from its people.”

For the 15,000-plus accredited journalists descending on the city in search of the real Atlanta, the one beyond the shiny new Olympic venues and traffic snarls, sorting the three million natives out from the two million tourists won’t be easy. Many Atlantans are determined to keep their distance from the whole extravaganza. Airlines are cashing in on the disaffection of some residents with “Exit Atlanta” discounts during the Games – Delta was reported to have booked more than 20,000 passengers in the first two days of its offer. In any event, those watching from afar will have the better view. Local journalists all speak about the time, fast approaching, when everybody relaxes a notch and lets things happen; when the city sparkles in the spotlight it has so eagerly sought, when trifles like traffic detours and wet paint are but distant memories in the collective swelling of pride. Soon the city will put away its cranes and scaffolding and get down to the business it knows best: becoming Atlanta.

Frank Houston is an assistant editor at CJR. A graduate of Emory University in Atlanta, he worked as a journalist there in the early 1990s.

Copyright Columbia University, Graduate School of Journalism Jul/Aug 1996

Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning Company. All rights Reserved