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A rich part of Arkansas history was publicly celebrated last week. Some people, especially those young or recently relocated to the state, expressed or revealed confusion. A few longtime residents familiar with the history seemed resentful or dubious.

This column will seek to explain for some and assuage for others.

The Arkansas Gazette was founded in 1819 at Arkansas Post by William Woodruff. It won two Pulitzer Prizes in 1957, for public service and editorials, based on a bravely moderate position advocating acquiescence to court rulings for school desegregation in Little Rock.

The Gazette's 200th birthday is this year if you accept what is fact: The paper continued to exist after being purchased in 1991 by the Arkansas Democrat and shut down.

That is because it was instantly absorbed--the very morning after the sale--by its purchaser for what then became a merged Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, which you are now reading.

A few elements of the Gazette made the transfer, such as the "In the News" column on the front page and a couple of local contract columnists. But the product was plainly the Democrat with but a few Gazette seasonings. And the Gazette's left-of-center editorials were gone. The usually conservative editorials of the purchasing Democrat prevailed.

Yes, the paper called "Democrat" was the conservative one more likely to endorse Republicans.

The Democrat had long been a lesser afternoon paper, but, in the '70s, it went to all-morning publication for head-to-head competition with the Gazette, beginning with free want ads. That set off a long, expensive, explosive, and at times personal and bitter newspaper war.

Along the way, the Gazette's family owners found it advisable to sell to the nation's largest newspaper chain, the Gannett Corp.

While boasting of "deep pockets," Gannett made a mess of the Gazette, seeming to trivialize it, and squandered its market advantages.

This year, Walter E. Hussman, who published the old Democrat and now the Democrat-Gazette, considered it his responsibility and privilege to lead an appropriate commemoration of the Gazette's 200th birthday.

The Gazette's historic birthdate was his to commemorate in the same way, for example, that it would be Jerry Jones' responsibility and privilege to celebrate the anniversary of a Dallas Cowboys' Super Bowl championship that occurred before he bought the team.

On Thursday, the state's two conservative Republican senators took the floor of the U.S. Senate to celebrate the history of the Gazette while throwing in a seamless appreciation of the excellent newspaper the Democrat-Gazette is today.

That evening, the birthday was celebrated at a dinner thrown by Hussman at the Statehouse Convention Center in Little Rock. The keynote address came from a left-of-center former U.S. president from Arkansas--Bill Clinton.

He had served a dozen years as the state's governor during the newspaper war, getting generally supported editorially by the Gazette and generally assailed by the Democrat.

He was persuaded to accept Hussman's invitation because of the historic nature of the evening. He yielded to a little prodding from Ernest Dumas, the beloved former liberal editorial writer of the Gazette who helped Hussman plan the commemorative events, and Mack McLarty, an old friend of both Clinton and Hussman.

Excellent young reporters who worked for the Democrat-Gazette in the '90s and now toil in the journalistic pantheon elsewhere put on Twitter on Thursday that it was great seeing their old training ground honored on the Senate floor. I replied on Twitter that they were very good reporters but that none of them ever worked for the Gazette.

That caused one of them to tweet, "OK boomer," which is a term that millennials and Generation Xers use to dismiss baby boomers for their invoking of ... oh, personal experience, maybe, or facts.

All of that leads to a final twist: It turns out now that even the most devoted old Gazette loyalists, forever scarred though they be from the war, acknowledge that the Democrat-Gazette is a better newspaper, with a stronger sense of local responsibility, than whatever pitiable irrelevancy Gannett would have published under the Gazette nameplate had it won the war.

Dumas, the beloved and devoted Gazette man, made that concession plainly in public remarks at the birthday gala. Clinton repeated it, speaking directly to thank publisher Hussman. The former president said Gannett might now be publishing movie reviews on the front page.

(At one point in the war, a quirky Gannett-assigned editor who was a movie buff decided it would be a good idea to review on Saturday morning's front page the big weekend cinematic openings the night before. Purists for the Old Gray Lady, as the Gazette had long been locally known, were aghast.)

To conclude, here's a one-question test: Whose 200th birthday was celebrated Thursday evening at the Statehouse Convention Center? Was this the bicentennial of (A) the Arkansas Gazette, or (B) the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, or (C) A, of course, but with credit due B?

There are two correct answers.

John Brummett, whose column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, is a member of the Arkansas Writers' Hall of Fame. Email him at jbrummett@arkansasonline.com. Read his @johnbrummett Twitter feed.

Web only on 11/27/2019

Print Headline: BRUMMETT ONLINE: Happy birthday to ... who?

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