John Archibald—a double standard

John Archibald, columnist for The Birmingham News/al.com
John Archibald, columnist for The Birmingham News/al.com

Writing about John Archibald might be the riskiest and dumbest thing I’ve ever done in my life, but this piece is not really about Archibald.

I’m also going to write about UAB football, but this piece is not about UAB either.

As the title indicates, it’s about a double standard.

On September 30, 2012, Birmingham became the second largest city in America without a daily newspaper. The decision to cut back daily delivery of The Birmingham News was made by Advance Communications–its parent company, headquartered in New York.

Many of you will agree that Advance’s decision to strip Birmingham of a daily newspaper has been pretty traumatic.

Losing our daily newspaper and eliminating scores of professional journalists robbed Birmingham of traditional high quality journalistic coverage.

When Dr. Watts announced the controversial decision to terminate football at UAB, we never saw the fair and balanced reporting in The Birmingham News or in al.com we would have expected prior to September, 2012.

The Birmingham News and al.com repeatedly published one-sided inflammatory videos and articles stroking the flames of discontent by UAB football supporters :

Watch UAB football player’s emotional outburst after meeting with president Ray Watts

Mob taunts, curses Ray Watts as UAB football supporters leave in tears following announcement

UAB students march, demand answers from the administration, disrupt traffic

No wonder the public turned with a vengeance against Dr. Watts. Dr. Watts didn’t have a chance.

When Advance cut production and staff for The Birmingham News and al.com, John Archibald was retained and Kyle Whitmire was hired.  Both are excellent writers and journalists, but their jobs are to be political commentators.  They don’t have to be fair or give both sides of a story.  If they hit a raw nerve and get the public riled up, then they’ve done their jobs.  It’s just too bad so many folks in our community judge Birmingham, Jefferson County, and public officials based on this inflammatory type of reporting without any kind of balance.

When the publisher of The Birmingham News announced the decision to curtail production, there was no employee of The Birmingham News or al.com that wrote incendiary articles or opinions to galvanize the public against a very unpopular decision.  So there were no demonstrations, no social media explosion, and no ‘no confidence’ votes against the publisher.  Everyone clearly understood the decision was made by Advance–not the publisher.

UA Board of Trustees made decision to end football program

The University of Alabama Board of Trustees wanted to kill UAB football.  If they would have allowed UAB to build an on- campus stadium the program would not have been terminated.  Dr. Watts’ may have botched the announcement, but he was the messenger—and the public decided with the one-sided story being told by the media to ‘kill the messenger.’

When Advance made its unpopular decision, did Archibald or any of his co-workers write scathing inflammatory pieces criticizing their publisher or their bosses in New York?  Archibald is not crazy–he preferred to keep his job.

However, when Ray Watts announced that the UAB football program was being dismantled, Dr. Watts was criticized for being a coward and not standing up to the UA Board of Trustees.  Watts is not crazy either.

This is clearly a double standard.

Editor’s note:  In fairness to The Birmingham News and al.com, 12 days after Dr. Watt’s historic announcement,  they did publish a balanced piece on Dr. Watts written by Barnett Wright, one of the few experienced– talented journalists who survived Advance’s cut backs. Of course, this was well after the damage had been done.

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David Sher is the publisher of ComebackTown, a co-founder of Buzz12 Advertising Agency and co-CEO of AmSher Collection Agency.  He’s past Chairman of the Birmingham Regional Chamber of Commerce (BBA), Operation New Birmingham(REV Birmingham), and the City Action Partnership (CAP).

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17 thoughts on “John Archibald—a double standard”

  1. Well said David.  What was needed then, and what is needed now is an intelligent discourse on this entire situation.  To my thinking, you have provided just that, and I regret the criticism and anger you have had to endure in doing so.

    We should have learned as a citizenry during the civil rights movement what happens when you turn the public voice of an issue over to the bomb throwers.  Thank you for your continuing voice for fairness and evaluation of both side of this complicated issue.

  2. *So, Mr. Archibald is exercising a double standard for not standing up to his bosses, but Dr. Watts is just “not crazy” for not standing up to his?

  3. *David, excellent piece. However, regarding what happened at The Birmingham News, you need just a bit more context. It was not that John Archibald did not want to write about the terrible decisions that Advance Publications made. It was, in fact, that such commentary was forbidden – and forbidden by the powers that be over all three Advance newspapers in Alabama. None of the three newspapers was permitted to write an honest story about what was happening. Each of the three was required to print, on its front page, a terrible press release that touted the devastating changes as positive. The Mobile paper went so far as to put a headline on the story saying “Exciting changes ahead.” It was unspoken, but very clear, that any effort to write honestly about the changes would be met with unemployment. I know, because I watched from the inside – I had resigned my position as managing editor just a couple of weeks before these horrific changes were disclosed in a story in The New York Times. What happened in the summer of 2012 at The Birmingham News was inhumane and a journalistic tragedy. The people in Birmingham live with the results today. You don’t need my commentary on the net effect – it is evident every day of every week of every month since October 1, 2012. And, I agree with you, that on this enormously important story, the devastation to journalism in Alabama has never shown so clearly.

  4. Wow. I can’t believe you are doing it again. 

    al.com did not put that video up on YouTube that millions watched. 

    Ray Watts showed his true character in that video. He should have employed his faculty to assist him and help those young men get through this. UAB has a great health and wellness center and numerous counselors that have been trained for such situations. One way Ray does not need help. He told those young men that he cares about UAB more than them. Like they did not have the right to be upset. 

    Ray Watts is the antithesis of a good leader.  I don’t think al.com had anything to do with the lack of Shared Governance used in making  his decision. I’m quite sure al.com has nothing to do with Ray Watts refusal to come clean with the students, faculty, city leaders and fans about the timeline on this decision. I’m quite sure they did not tell Ray Watts to lie and state no decision had been made when it is obvious it had. 

    For whatever reason you are propping this soulless man up. I think Ray Watts needs to let the truth out on who influenced this decision and the real timeline on it. We should not say anything positive about him until he allows full disclosure on this issue. Why won’t he tell us? What is he hiding?

  5. Didn’t I see your own “fair and balanced” guest comment column on the same al.com that John and Kyle write for, espousing your support of Dr. Watts?     While I do not like what happened at The Birmingham News, I am a huge fan of both John Archilbald and Kyle Whitmire (as well as Chuck Dean).   Yes, they usually make their own stances clear, but they back it up with actual investigative journalism.   Both brought information to the discussion that the public was not aware off. Oh, the hypocrisy (and incorrect usage) of your reference to the “attack” on Watts amounting to “kill the messenger”!   Dr. Watts may very well be a fine man.  No one should be judged on their character solely by their worst moment.  But if Dr. Watts is merely the puppet YOU portray him to be, that is not a leadership quality. Some jobs are just too big for some folks, despite their measurable intellect. President of a university the size of UAB requires someone with much better communication and public relations skills, among other qualities, that Dr. Watts does not appear to possess. 

  6. *David…your comments and insights are much appreciated.  There does need to be intelligent conversation about the facts in the UAB decision.  I find myself so cynical about media coverage on every topic today that I find myself turning a deaf ear.  Everything seems to be designed to incite anger.  News isn’t really news anymore, it’s an effort to present the case the news station wants the public to support.  Anyway, the point is, what you are doing is creating discourse and thought, and for that I appreciate your efforts.  Keep sharing your opinions so we don’t forget these important issues.

  7.   * Listen, UAB football has been in free fall ever since it played it’s first game. The only thing more agonizing than the losing was knowing that most everyone didn’t really give a toot about UAB football to begin with but we had to hear about this sorry program every week as part of the sports segment on the local TV programs. I do feel bad for all the athletes who bought into their program and wasted their time and talent participating in a program that never had a chance to begin with. Dr. Watts made the right decision. The only fault I have with it is that it should have been made long ago. The whole state of Alabama has had to endure the results of this sorry ill fated and doomed from the git go so called football program for too long. One thing I would hope for but realize will never happen is that all the money UAB can save by eliminating this program will be used to reduce the cost of tuition for all it’s students. I hope but do not expect more accountability and follow up as to how all the savings will be applied.

  8. *Bill Smith is correct. In spite of all the excuses, editorial comments, and analysis, UAB could not financially support the program, the Board of Trustees would not, and the students and alumni would not support the team with their attendance. No support, no team. The commuter students and urban hipsters on Southside could care less about football.

  9. *You continue to amaze me with your support of Watts. You are rolling out adolescent and oranges and telling us they are both vegetables instead of fruit. John Archibald was never the least of the Birmingham News. Watts is supposed to be the leader of UAB. John did tell many people of what was really going on, something Watts still hasn’t done. John was forbidden from printing the truth, because he wasn’t the person in charge. Your piece (like sine of your others recently) are baffling to me. Watts has lied throughout this process. Archibald never lied about his situation. Your argument here is invalid. 

  10. *Thank you everyone for your comments.  The objective of http://www.ComebackTown.com is to begin a conversation about a better Birmingham.  I hope that is what we are doing.  I know some of you are going to agree with me and some aren’t–that is a real conversation.  I just appreciate you guys for having a passion for Birmingham and UAB.

    You might want to read this article from the New York Times:  > http://www.nytimes.com/2014/12/16/opinion/joe-nocera-when-football-gets-the-ax.html?_r=0

  11. As I read all that has been written about Dr. Watts ending UAB football I am reminded of a far less offense when President William Walker and Athletic Director David Housel took a flight to Louisville to secretly hire Bobby Petrino and fire then coach Tommy Tubberville. They both lost their jobs.

    Dr. Watts may be a good person. He is not the leader I would want my children to learn from. There are times, in most of our lives, when we are asked – or told – to do something that is inherently wrong. We know our position is on the line if we fail to comply. Men of character and integrity will usually make the right decision and not do the wrong thing.

    Unfortunately for UAB and the City of Birmingham Dr, Watts made the wrong decision. Now he is being considered as Chairman of BBA – bad choice, bad decision by the BBA.

    Once again a once great city has a big black eye. Thank you David for the courage to post this article.

  12. *David; You are my friend and I have a lot of respect for
    you, but your comparison here is way off base. 

    One point important to this conversation was covered by the
    Birmingham Business Journal on Dec. 1, 2014. The UAB Football program was a
    revenue generating sport and actually made a profit of $24,000 in 2013. With a
    130% increase in home attendance, UAB Football would have made even more money
    in 2014.     http://www.bizjournals.com/birmingham/news/2014/12/01/other-urban-universities-are-starting-football.html?page=all

    Now to address your comparison; Nothing John Archibald has ever
    done has violated the public trust. Neither has John ever fabricated lies to
    advance an agenda. Thank goodness John Archibald is at his post to help shine a
    light when he sees public malefecence.

    On the other hand, you point out Dr. Ray Watts, as is clear
    to anyone close to the story, was being directed to kill the UAB Football
    Program by certain meddling members of the UA Board of Trustees. That Dr. Watts
    would loudly proclaim he alone made the decision shows Dr. Ray Watts lied to all
    of us. On top of that, Dr. Ray Watts commissioned a study by Carr Sports which
    was clearly designed to give him cover for killing the football program. To
    hide behind obviously false numbers, was as good as  another lie, a breach of the public trust and
    a betrayal of his own University.  For
    anyone who doubts the Carr Sports study was designed to give cover for killing
    the UAB football program, I simply say . . please read for yourself the
    CarrSports study;   http://www.scribd.com/doc/248979169/CarrSports-Report-on-UAB-Athletics#scribd

    And here is what Forbes had to say yesterday;http://www.forbes.com/sites/vincentfrank/2014/12/17/revisiting-the-cancellation-of-the-uab-football-program/

  13. Dr. Watts should have never taken a job that involves students because he is terrible role model and yes a coward. He clearly was told from higher powers to once and for all put UAB in its place. I will give him some credit for being a terrible lier because that press conference was painful to watch. I don’t see how you can come on here and support Birmingham but then support the hidden agenda that is meant to hold Birmingham back. Birmingham is different from the remainder of the state and will constantly have to struggle to get ahead because of the boys gang that dosen’t like its progressive and liberal tendencies. Do you support Birmingham or not? Because it appears you support whatever will get you ahead at that time.

  14. *The reason why so many in the Business Community, including Mr. Sher, in my opinion, prop up Dr. Watts is because of money.  Mr. Sher does not have the City of Birmingham best interest at hear because he does not live in Birmingham nor will he live ever live in the City.  He uses Birmingham in the metro sense so that he can live in suburbia, make money, and get his ego filled by stating he is for improving the area.  Therefore, since UAB has a $3.6 billion economic impact on the MSA Mr. Sher is pro Ray Watts.  The blief is that UAB will save the Birmingham MSA by being its anchor.  That same thought used to be true for US Steel over 50 years ago when it drove the area’s economic engine.  Economic drivers come and go, but many in the business community only see dollars and not the damage non-leaders like Dr. Watts cause.

  15. I have lots of problems with Sher’s reasoning skills but there is a pretty glaring flaw with this argument:

    The digital age has changed the news business entirely.  Online news allows for an immediacy that wasn’t available in years past.  It also allows citizens the opportunity to exchange thoughts and ideas in the imperfect setting of message boards on AL.COM.

    I still like my 3 days of the print news, but I admit I have read most of the stories by the time they arrive on my front yard.   

    I think local newspapers are still vital to our democracy.  Without the media, the tyranny of Alabama politics would probably be far worse than it actually is.

    Although Alabama Media Group had to evolve or die, does the analogy really hold for UAB?

    The central purpose of public universities has never changed, and from the 1800s intercollegiate athletics have been part of the University experience.   

    Why should UAB have intercollegiate sports?  

    Because that’s what universities do.

    It is a sad day when ANYONE defends a man who thinks universities are to be run like a corporation with every decision thought about in terms of ROI.

    Why do we do anything as a society that doesn’t bring in more dollars than we spend?  

    The answer is obvious to anyone with any sense whatsoever:

    The money we spend on public education, on the campus green, on campus safety, and yes on our football team are INVESTMENTS — INVESTMENTS IN US.

    FIRE RAY WATTS

    FIRE RAY WATTS

    FIRE RAY WATTS

    1. Smarter guy named David, I agree with what you said about the changing landscape of the news business and when the B’ham News cut production, I assumed other cities would follow. But that has not been the case. Atlanta, Charlotte, Nashville, Austin, etc. all still have daily newspapers. And it’s not the loss of daily news that is of concern, it was the many journalists and investigative reporters that were sent packing. I think you will agree that the content of the News and al.com has suffered accordingly. BTW, there was a much greater negative reaction in New Orleans when Advance cut it’s production. We just sort of laid over in B’ham.

      I’m certanly not upset with John Archibald–who I like and respect. It only makes sense that reporters at the News were not going to criticize their bosses–just as Dr. Watts was not going to criticize his bosses.

      Many people feel that the reason Dr. Garrison is no longer President of UAB is because she fought the UA BOT’s too hard for UAB Football and an on-campus stadium. The BOT’s nixed the Jimbo Fisher contract and refused to allow UAB to have an on-campus stadium even though there was great local support. That is the hand that Dr. Watts was dealt. How was UAB football going to be successful in the long run at Legion Field–and if Coach Clark continued to win, he would have been recruited by another University with a lot more cash. He was earning about $600,000. Will Mushchamp was hired as an’assistant’ coach by Auburn for $1.6 million.

      Bottom line is that if Dr. Watts is replaced, UAB football is still not coming back. Everyone may feel they have gotten revenge, by having a new President, but nothing will change. The UA BOT’s is doing the hiring.

      I welcome your comments. The objective of http://www.ComebackTown.com is to start a conversation on a better Birmingham. Hopefully, that is what we’re doing.

  16. **This is the story of wealth, power, greed, oppression and corruption reaching up to the highest levels of politics in Alabama.  UAB has been under the thumb of the University of Alabama Board of Trustees for too long and the time is now to #freeUAB.

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