One of the basic rules of daily journalism is that the reporter isn’t the story — what’s important is the news that is being reported.
I’m going to ignore that rule to talk about three people in the news business who are all retiring after long years of writing about Georgia politics. They have each performed a valuable service in their careers by pointing out the misdeeds and mistakes made by the people running this state. I also consider each of them to be a friend, although that really isn’t the point here.
Bill Shipp let the word out last week that he will stop writing his political column, which still appeared in dozens of Georgia newspapers, and hang it up after more than 50 years in the business.
Shipp was a pugnacious journalist from the very first. As an editor at the University of Georgia’s student newspaper in the 1950s, he criticized the racist activities of the people who ran state government — and was kicked off the newspaper staff by university officials.
He made his professional reputation as first a political reporter and then as city editor and columnist for the Atlanta Constitution. Bill could be a wild man in those days, but when he was on the trail of a story, there were few people who had more tenacity or energy.
Shipp went after Republicans and Democrats alike and had enemies in both parties. He carried on a long, bitterly personal feud with the late House speaker, Tom Murphy, over the drunken driving issue. He is still loathed and despised by Gov. Sonny Perdue because he looked into some of Perdue’s personal business dealings in Houston County.
Bill was also one of the first people to see how the internet might be used as a medium for getting information to the reader, moving his political newsletter online several years ago. He was, in effect, one of the pioneers of political blogging in the days before anyone had ever heard of the concept.
Dick Pettys is another political reporter who probably covered his last legislative session this year. If things work out according to plan, he and his wife will retire to the mountains of North Georgia.
Pettys was the Associated Press’ man at the capitol for nearly 35 years before retiring from the AP in 2005. He remained at the capitol for several years after that first retirement, covering politics for Insider Advantage.
Dick was just as tough and thorough a reporter as Shipp, although he was able to avoid the kinds of personal battles that Shipp tended to stir up. His presence at the capitol for nearly 40 years gave him unprecedented access to the folks who really knew what was happening. Pettys was always scrupulously fair in his reporting and did not take cheap shots at the scoundrels who populated his articles.
If Pettys had the facts on you, that was it. End of story.
Another veteran observer of the political scene who will be retiring in June is Jim Wooten, the conservative columnist for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s editorial page.
I first met Jim in the early 1970s when he was a metro beat reporter at the Atlanta Journal. He was first-rate when it came to digging up the facts but also had a flair for writing a clever lead that could draw in the reader.
Wooten was always quite conservative in his political views and gravitated naturally to writing editorial page columns that reflected that point of view. Fortunately, Wooten retained his interest in exposing the dubious financing schemes that got proposed every year in the General Assembly.
One of his favorite topics as an editorialist was the tendency of politicians to pass legislation that would personally enrich them while ripping off the taxpayers, usually through a questionable bond or pension proposal.
Jim was rightly outraged at these blatant attempts to raid the public treasury and did his best to bring them to the reader’s attention.
In their own way, Shipp, Pettys and Wooten played an important role in our democracy by keeping people informed about what their elected representatives were doing for them — or to them. It’s a good thing for us that they were around for so long to do their jobs.
Tom Crawford is the editor of Capitol Impact’s Georgia Report, an Internet news service at www.gareport.com that covers government and politics in Georgia. He can be reached at tcrawford@capitolimpact.