I worked for Ron McMahan the entire time he was editor of The Knoxville Journal, from 1981 to 1988.
Writing editorials for Ron was the most enjoyable and rewarding experience I had in 40 years of newspapering. He was at the helm of The Journal when it arose from the hyper-conservative grave it had been digging for itself for decades. He took it by the scruff of the neck and made it into a news force to be reckoned with. Now he’s dead at 70, the Biblical three score and ten. He made the most of his allotment. That’s some solace.
Then in his 40s, Ron had matured both as a newsman and as a political sidearm to then-Sen. Howard Baker, the distinguished Tennessee Republican, when he came back to The Journal, where he’d started as a kid. He was ready to take over a daily newspaper, and his skill as a hard-charging editor was apparent from the start.
His Journal wasn’t altogether impartial, but he had few sacred cows, and the paper would lay almost anything and anyone bare in the process of the reporting he directed. He gave it a fresh, bipartisan, sometimes shrill voice on the editorial page, to my everlasting gratitude. Though he was a Republican, I thought of him as a fulminating moderate. He called me the meanest Democrat he knew, and said that was the reason he made me editorial page editor.
On mornings when the latest news had exposed the misdeeds or foibles of some political figure on the state or local scene, Ron would come storming to the door of my office, grumbling, “Pop that sonofabitch.” I had known it was coming and had often already started on the editorial that would do just that.
It’s hard to imagine an editor and an editorial writer from such different political and social backgrounds agreeing on more things than we did. He always told me that if I’d write his side of an issue, even though I opposed it, I could publish my differing opinion in a signed column on the next day’s editorial page. He meant that, and I did it, I think, three times in the seven years he constituted The Journal’s one-man editorial board. We were that compatible. It’s still a bit stunning to look back on the accord we shared on the widest variety of subjects that had an impact on Knoxville and East Tennessee.
His news judgment was as good as any editor’s I ever knew. He could look at an issue, determine what he called “the upside” of it, and turn it into a compelling story, utilizing the exceptional reporting talent he recruited to the paper and stimulated with his personality. His Journal let the reading public know what the upside and downside of the story was in no uncertain terms. I sat back and marveled at his ability orchestrate that. The result was a cascade of awards from journalism organizations, and a turnaround in circulation that saw The Journal growing faster than any other Tennessee daily at the time.
Ron’s first day on the job at The Journal, then the newly acquired property of the dreaded Gannett Corp., a news conglomerate spreading its tentacles across the country, was instructive. He ordered the removal of a right-wing column from the editorial page, saying that the author would never again appear on The Journal’s pages. He told me to subscribe to a list of more moderate editorial columnists, with even a liberal or two thrown in, and to use more reasoned conservative voices, such as George Will, in counterbalance.
The only thing I ever held against him—and I joked about it at the time—was that if he got a phone call complimenting the paper on an editorial stand it had taken and that I had written, he’d accept the praise and thank the caller. If he got a complaint about an editorial, he’d tell the caller, “Oh, that was Barry’s,” and transfer the call to me. That was OK. I had thick skin.
The one editorial I reflect on most often was one lambasting a 1982 World’s Fair marketing official who’d suggested that the fair might not honor season passes on some days if the crowd was too large for the fair site. Thousands of those passes had been bought by locals, and I recall pointing out that many of them had been skeptics, but that they ultimately had the feeling that the fair was “in some small way theirs,” and that such a suggestion that they stay away was an outrage. “We’ll, by damn, remember,” the editorial concluded.
Those were Ron’s words. I stole them, and the editorial won the top state award that year. He gave me all the credit. That was a surprise at the moment, but not in retrospect. He was an ornery gentleman, but a gentleman who knew his business, the news business, my business, as well as anyone ever.
I’ll, by damn, remember.