January 8, 2018
In Alabama, a daily newspaper has its #MeToo reckoning, forty years late
by Susan Rella
The #metoo movement has, since its inception, been a mixed bag, emotionally: the relief that, finally, this sort of behavior is receiving a social shaming long past due, combined with the skeevy full-out horror of hearing the abuses these victims faced.
And 2018 is already off to a promising start, ensuring that mixed bag never empties out. Chapter One: The Alabama newspaper publisher who spanked his female employees.
A shout-out of thanks and shudders to Billy Perrigo at TIME for reporting on the story of H. Brandt Ayers, the eighty-two-year-old chairman of Consolidated Publishing and former publisher of the Anniston Star (owned by Consolidated) based in Anniston, Alabama. Ayers is the son of the Star’s founder, Harry Ayers. He was publisher of the Star from 1969 until 2016. Recently, Ayers issued a statement (which the Star printed) about his conduct in the 1970s, saying, “As a very young man with more authority than judgment, I did some things I regret.”
And, … yeah. I’d deeply regret my behavior, too, if it included spanking a twenty-two-year-old female employee with a goddamn metal ruler. Because that’s just what Ayers did in 1975, according to former reporter Veronica Pike Kennedy, who was quoted in in the Alabama Political Reporter by Eddie Burkhalter, who resigned from the Star just before Thanksgiving. She claims Ayers called her a “bad girl” and told her, “I’m going to have to spank you.” He then proceeded to physically force her out of the chair she was clinging to, bend her over a desk, and hit her eighteen times with a metal ruler. Afterwards, he told her, “Well, that ought to teach you not to be a bad girl.” Ayers was forty years old and married at the time.
“I was still determined to be a reporter after that,” Kennedy told the Star’s Tim Lockette. “But I hated Brandy Ayers with every cell in my body.”
Kennedy’s claim is corroborated by fellow former reporter Mike Stamler, also twenty-two at the time, who told Lockette he witnessed the incident from the other side of the room. And, of course, this wasn’t an isolated incident (because it never, ever is): a second woman, who didn’t give her name, told Burkhalter that Ayers spanked her in his office the very same year. A third former Star reporter, Trisha O’Connor, reported that Ayers had spanked one of her co-worker friends, Wendy Sigal. And former columnist Dennis Love stated that three former employees had told him about Ayers’s abusive behavior. Indeed, Stamler says Ayers’s behavior “was pretty much common knowledge among reporters.”
But wait, there’s more. Burkhalter also writes about a civil lawsuit from 2006 has a really fantastic bit of overheard conversation by former Star advertising employee Sharon Rutherford. Per the deposition, Ayers tried to spank a female employee at her office birthday party. And when the attorney for Consolidated Publishing asked Rutherford if she knew of any other sexually inappropriate encounters that had taken place at the business, she replied that Ayers “loved to spank the little young girls. That was his thing.”
Burkhalter also notes that Ayers frequently mentioned spanking in his editorials, and his 2013 autobiography, In love With Defeat: The Making of a Liberal Southerner, includes several references to him spanking or wanting to spank women and girls, including his wife.
Happily for those of us who love being constantly depressed by the extreme sliminess of humanity, the eighty-two-year-old has no plans to step down as chairman of Consolidated Publishing, telling Burkhalter via email that he has “no memory of the alleged incidents. Of course I intend to remain as Chairman of this company which has been the central mission of my family for three generations.”
Susan Rella is the Director of Production at Melville House, and a former bookseller.