Wednesday, January 03, 2018

Alabama newspaper owner admits spanking female employees; his paper struggled with reporting it

H. Brandt "Brandy" Ayers
The owner of an Alabama newspaper long considered one of the nation's best small dailies has acknowledged spanking at least one of his young female reporters at her home in the 1970s. H. Brandt "Brandy" Ayers, until 2016 the publisher of The Anniston Star, left unchallenged a story that he spanked another young female reporter in the newsroom.

The story began emerging in mid-November, when Joey Kennedy, a columnist for the Alabama Political Reporter and a former Star reporter, published a column largely about the allegations facing U.S. Senate candidate Roy Moore, in which he said his wife, Veronica Pike Kennedy, had been spanked by her employer when she was first starting out at a newspaper.

Eddie Burkhalter, then a reporter at the Star, noticed the column and started to pursue the story. Kennedy wrote in a Jan. 1 column, "It was pretty much common knowledge in The Star newsroom that Ayers had this strange proclivity. Women were warned not to be alone with him, if they could help it." Star Editor and Publisher Bob Davis says in a column that he had never heard such allegations in his 14 years at the paper.

Davis writes that Managing Editor Ben Cunningham told Burkhalter "to suspend work on the story for a few days until we had a chance to sit down and discuss it the following week," and "to review how we would go about treating sources who wished to remain anonymous and inquiring into events alleged to have happened more than 40 years ago." At a subsequent meeting, Davis says Burkhalter revealed that he had continued to gather information despite agreeing not to do so, and resigned.

Kennedy said in his Jan. 1 column, "Burkhalter said he believes management thought he would just drop the story, and, indeed, ordered him to." Davis says in his column that the paper had made no decision to publish or not publish. Cunningham, in his own column, says the charges were "flatly false, and were delivered without any attempt to verify their accuracy or opportunity to respond." He also writes, "As of Monday morning we felt we needed more before we could publish — more women willing to share their stories and their names with our readers. Our hand was forced, though, when another outlet published its version of the story first."

After Burkhalter quit, he continued to gather sources, contacting Kennedy to compare notes. The Alabama Political Reporter first broke the story with a Dec. 28 column by Kennedy. On Jan. 1 Burkhalter published a more extensive story in APR naming both Ayers and some of his alleged victims who had agreed to speak up. He recounted the assaults in detail: "Kennedy said Ayers picked up the chair with her in it, wrested it out from under her, bent her over the desk behind and spanked her hard 18 times with a metal pica pole, leaving marks," Burkhalter reports. Another reporter in a corner of the otherwise deserted newsroom saw the incident but didn't report it. Kennedy says she didn't report it because she was afraid she would lose her job and feared that her father would kill Ayers and be put in prison for it. Burkhalter reported that another woman who didn't want to be named said Ayers spanked her in his office in 1975. Another woman named Wendy Sigal, now apparently deceased, told colleagues that Ayers had come to her apartment, told her she had been bad, and spanked her.

The Star quickly followed up with its own story about Veronica Kennedy; it mentioned other victims but said the paper did not have permission to publish their names. Ayers first denied any memory of the incidents, but in a later Star story by Tim Lockette he said that had spanked Sigal on doctor's orders, claiming that she had been out of work because of a psychological problem.

Ayers took over as publisher of the paper in 1969 from his father Harry Ayers and stayed on until 2016. He's now chairman of Consolidated Publishing, which owns five other papers, and writes occasional columns for the Star. He told Burkhalter that has no intention of stepping down as chairman. He later told the Star, "As a very young man with more authority than judgment, I did some things I regret. At my advanced age I wish I could relive those days again, knowing the seriousness of my position and with the accumulated judgment that goes with age." He is 82.

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