I Worked for Hodding Carter III at a Small-Town Mississippi Newspaper
May 16, 2023 | Tags: Politics, REASON
In 50-plus years of working in journalism, my relationships with bosses were almost always…well, let's say "fraught." But the news that my very first one, Hodding Carter III, died last week broke my heart a little.
I worked for Hodding at the Delta Democrat-Times in Greenville, Mississippi, in 1975 and '76—my first job out of college. He was the editor-in-chief, a position he took over when his civil-rights crusading father died a couple of years earlier. As a manager, Hodding had some peculiar traits. He hired me sight unseen about six weeks before I graduated from Stanford. When I told him I had already accepted a post-grad journalism fellowship that would keep me from joining his staff until around the first of August, he was unconcerned. "That'll give you the chance to come see the place," he told me. "Small Mississippi Delta towns aren't for everybody."
So, on a Saturday after I arrived at my fellowship in Indiana, I flew down to Greenville's tiny airport, where Hodding picked me up. We got out to his car, and he promptly handed me a beer. I was startled, to say the least. Daytime drinking during my first meeting with my new boss? In a car? Was this a test to which the correct answer was no? Uncertainly, I accepted the beer, and away we went.
The surprises continued. Unknown to me, Greenville's airport was located in an abandoned Air Force base that was seedy, dilapidated and rat-infested. It was six or seven miles from town. But I thought we were actually in Greenville. Though I didn't say anything I was horrified. Could I actually live in a place like this?
Once we exited the old base, Hodding unknowingly reassured me, telling me the town was still several miles away. But then he dropped a bombshell. "It's getting so I could drive this in my sleep," he said. "I've been out here every day for a week, picking up you job applicants."
Applicants? I thought I had the job—he had really been quite clear about that in the phone call—and this was just a pro forma visit to see if the place was OK with me. (And it almost hadn't been!) Now I discovered that I was actually in the middle of a job interview.
Instantly I plunged into the deepest depths of an unfathomable depression. In the summer of 1975, the country was locked into a post-Vietnam recession. I had sent out something close to 100 job applications and, aside from Hodding, hadn't attracted a single bit of interest. If this job fell through, it looked like I was heading for a career at McDonald's.
And falling through seemed likely. I hadn't prepared any line of patter about why I'd be a good hire or what ideas I had about stories or what I wanted to do. Now, already slightly drunk—Hodding gave me another beer as we drove in—I didn't have a thought in my head.
It only got worse. We stopped at the home of one of his friends (more beer!) and then went on to dinner (even more beer). After that, we headed for One Block East, the only bar in Greenville where you could sit for an hour without getting punched out by a drunken tow-boat pilot. You can guess what we drank there.
The evening finally ended at 1 a.m., after something like nine hours of steady drinking. I no longer had any idea what I might have said or even what I was saying at the moment. I concentrated mostly on not falling down as I walked to Hodding's spare bedroom, thus achieving the day's only success.
The next morning I was waaaaaaaay too hung over to carry on even a semblance of conversation. I worriedly noted that Hodding didn't have much to say either. Silently we drove back to the airport, which certainly didn't look any better in the morning aftermath of a dozen beers. I flew back to Indiana, spent most of the day in bed either recovering or wishing I was dead, depending on how conscious I was. On Monday, I went to work and, as I sat waiting for the city desk to give me an assignment, wondered how to restart the job application process when all my résumés, clips and stuff were packed away back in California.
My suicidal reverie was interrupted by the phone, where the ever-surprising Hodding was booming with good cheer. "When can you get here?" he asked. "And oh, by the way, I don't think we talked about salary. The job pays $140 a week." I was so stunned—by the job offer, not the dumpster-diving salary, which in my euphoria hardly even registered—that I just mumbled a date and hung up.
Some months after I arrived in Greenville, the managing editor revealed what had happened. Hodding's silence on the drive back to the airport was a sign not of disapproval but of a hangover even worse than mine. He scarcely remembered a thing about the whole evening, including whether he had offered me the job. So he decided to assume he had. The other editors, appalled, breathlessly waited for my arrival to see if I even spoke English. And so, perhaps for the only time in my career, I turned out to be a pleasant surprise to my bosses.
Hodding never did anything quite so crazy again. (Almost, though, which I'll get to in a minute.) But he kind of ruined me when it came to bosses. You could go into his office and argue with him about literally anything—your salary, your assignments, his knee-jerk liberal editorials, or all kinds of stuff that really wasn't any of our business. You could even shout at him, and although he'd shout back, he never maintained any sort of a shit list. Five minutes after the argument was over, he'd forgotten about it.
Unlike a lot of small-town editors, who just want to make sure the gardening column gets the right page-play, Hodding honestly wanted to put out a good paper—a paper that was arguably much smarter and more ambitious than its readers. He supported every idea for a project or a series that any of us ever had, and offered a number of his own, including some that shook up the town a good bit. (One I remember in particular was the discovery of some old Ku Klux Klan documents including membership lists, the publication of which seriously embarrassed—and angered—a lot of Greenville's town fathers.) When I used the word "shit" in a quote (which we did all the time back at The Stanford Daily) and a couple of mid-level editors unaccountably let it go through, he firmly instructed me never to do it again, but he didn't yell or carry on or fire me, any and all of which a lot of other editors probably would have.
Hodding wanted a culturally and intellectually diverse newsroom. (He wanted racial diversity too, but he had a hell of a time attracting black reporters or editors to a Mississippi Delta town just a couple dozen miles from where young Emmett Till had been bloodily beaten to death not so long before.) He consistently filled his newsroom jobs with journalists who not only weren't from Greenville but weren't even from Mississippi, a practice then unthinkable in most of the state and which meant the paper was constantly challenging the town's status quo. A lot of local folks, running into us at bars and restaurants around town, would shake their heads and murmur about "you Democrat-Times people," sometimes in anger but surprisingly often in good-natured amazement.
All that cross-culture immersion brought no hostility: The Democrat-Times was the tightest-knit newsroom I ever worked in, and I'm still in touch with almost all my colleagues from those days. But it did sometimes seem like we were speaking different languages. Literally. I'd been at the paper about three weeks when I was assigned a preview of a big upcoming citywide civil defense drill.
I turned in my piece. A few minutes later, the managing editor called me over to her desk. "Glenn," she said in a kindly Mississippi drawl, "you write that the headquarters for the civil defense team will be in the 'airport tunnel.'"
"That's right," I replied. "That's what they told me."
"Glenn," she continued, "have you been to the airport?"
"Sure," I answered, remembering with a shudder my first encounter with Hodding.
"Did you see a tunnel?" she asked. "Or even a place where we could put one? Or any possible need for a tunnel? What would it connect to?"
"Well, no," I said, recalling the little postage-stamp size terminal. "I wondered about that. But I didn't want to insult anybody's civic pride by asking about that."
The managing editor pondered my reply for a moment, then gave me a sympathetic but also slightly exasperated look. "Glenn," she said gently, "is it possible they said 'tum-i-nul'?"
Proudly, I declare that it only took my addled Yankee brain a moment to recognize the word "terminal."
None of this is to say Hodding didn't care about money. He had us on something we called "the Chinese work week," in which the more overtime we worked, the further our hourly wages declined. When a bunch of staffers went into his office to yell about it being illegal, he stayed surprisingly calm and said, "OK, OK, let's talk to the U.S. Department of Labor about it."
A guy came up from their Jackson office and told us—somewhat sadly, I thought—that the pay plan was weird but legal. It was really designed for dock workers or fruit pickers, he said, people who might work a lot one week and practically not at all the next. The good part for the workers was that in weeks where there wasn't much for them to do, they still got paid for 40 hours.
"Do you guys not put out a paper some weeks?" he asked drily. "Because then it would work out pretty well for you."
Hodding just smirked.
Hodding did make one big mistake when it came to money. Majorly drunk during an argument with me at a party at the managing editor's home, he claimed the paper gave two weeks' severance pay to anybody who left. Of course he meant anybody who got fired. But he said it wrong and then stubbornly refused to be corrected, and the managing editor was there to witness the whole thing.
When I resigned a couple of months later to move to a paper in Austin, I went to the general manager's office to ask for my two weeks of pay. He snorted and kicked me out, but the managing editor—to her eternal credit—marched in and told him she had heard it from Hodding's own lips. (Hodding was on leave working on the Jimmy Carter campaign by then, and he had made it clear he didn't want to be a party to newsroom problems, so he wasn't available.) I got my money, but a note went out the next morning saying severance pay was now available only to staffers who left in a pine box.
As it happened, Hodding and I left the Democrat-Times at about the same time. After Carter's victory, Hodding became the State Department's spokesman. His proudest moment: getting to explain to a room full of befanged reporters the desert burnout of a White House plan to rescue the hostages at the U.S. embassy in Iran.
After that job, I knew Greenville was too small a stage for Hodding. But I always thought he would return to the world of journalism. He really was an excellent editor, both when cleaning up copy and when conceptualizing stories. He knew how to motivate reporters (though occasionally he motivated us to want to kill him), and I think almost all of us would have happily worked for him again
Every so often, it seemed we might get the chance. Rumors would start flying that he was about to take over some top-flight newspaper. The Washington Post in the wake of Ben Bradlee was an especially furious one. But it never happened. Too bad—I would have loved to hear about Hodding negotiating money with Woodward and Bernstein.
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