“Hokum. Corn. Pap. Shlock.
“Call it what you will: Anita Bryant served it up by the bucketful Tuesday night as she opened the Mississippi State Fair’s evening entertainment series in the Coliseum.”
That was the lead of my review that ran in the Jackson (Miss.) Clarion-Ledger on Wednesday, Oct. 12, 1977.
Three weeks later, I was out of a job, fired for what I was told was the newspaper’s inability to trust my opinion, based on that review.
I was reminded of the incident when Anita showed up as a figure in documentary footage about anti-gay-rights activity in 1977, in the new movie “Milk.” The moving new film by Gus Van Sant casts Sean Penn as Harvey Milk, the San Francisco City Supervisor who was America’s first openly gay candidate and winner of political office.
Certainly, the prose in my review of her concert was incendiary, particularly when it came to what I thought of as Bryant’s proselytizing for Christianity:
“But when Bryant gets on her high horse about how wonderful this country is, how fortunate we are to live here and how prayer is the solution to all our problems, I have to demur…
“There is something repugnant about the whole approach. While Bryant’s religious zealousness is well-known, a performing stage is not the place to espouse it. Further, it is presumptuous of a performer to shove her beliefs down the throat of her audience…
“Perhaps she felt emboldened by the sheep-like standing ovation for her overly melodramatic rendition of ‘God Bless America.’ Perhaps it was her assumption that a Southern audience would jump at the chance to swallow some of Bryant’s home-fried theology…
“Bryant overstepped the bounds of entertainment, into the nonsecular area which she normally traverses. Her exhortations to the audience that prayer will be this country’s salvation and that decent people still get down on their knees regularly smacked of revivalism instead of the family entertainment her show was supposed to be.”
The next day, my phone was ringing off the hook. Based on a rather cutting review I’d written earlier in the summer about a Donny and Marie Osmond concert, I had a feeling it would. I even brought my cassette recorder to the office to tape what I figured would be a flood of angry responses.
Many of the upset callers asked me the same question: “Are you a Christian?” No, I’d tell them, explaining that I was Jewish.
“Well,” drawled one caller, “you’re headed for hell.”
I was young and full of fight and felt like I’d done my job: I expressed my opinion in the strongest possible terms and got a reaction from readers. But I miscalculated the wave of outrage I had unleashed.
Before the week was up, the paper decided it needed to run what came to be known as “the counter-review”: a review of the same show written by a reader, who rebutted my opinion. The paper’s staff – young and mostly from the north, as I was – was up in arms that the paper wouldn’t stand behind its critic.
In fact, there was a staff meeting at which the paper’s executive editor, Rea Hederman, defended the counter-review. His rationale: that, the day of the concert, newsroom employees had been overheard telling me, “Go get her,” as I headed out to review the show, which seemed to predispose me to a bias against Bryant. He also was upset that a gay man who worked on the copy desk had joined an anti-Anita protest in a downtown park the afternoon before the concert. This, he explained, compromised the newspaper’s integrity. Running the counter-review, he offered, was a way to show that the paper was sensitive to the readers’ concerns.
And Rea was the young, liberal Hederman. The paper was owned by his parents and their generation of his family – people who had allowed ragingly racist coverage of the civil-rights movement. Rea was supposedly the one working to change the paper’s image and approach.
For the next three Sundays, the newspaper ran full pages – more than full pages – of letters to the editor denouncing me and my review. I received postcards from local churches, telling me someone had thought to pray for my obviously troubled soul the previous Sunday.
But the whole thing seemed to blow over, or so I thought, because I was still working there – no further reprimand, no indication that the review had a lasting effect. Indeed, I was so clueless that, when Rea Hederman called me in for a meeting three weeks after the review ran, I assumed it was because it was my six-month anniversary with the newspaper. I thought he wanted to discuss how big a raise I was to receive.
Later, anecdotally, I heard that, in fact, my continued presence on the newspaper’s staff after this outrageous review was affecting the newspaper’s bottom line. The review not only triggered a loss of subscribers – it also had an impact on advertising. It got to the point that the Hederman family, the owners of the newspaper, had been vilified from the pulpit of the Baptist church to which they belonged (and, one assumed, were big muckety-mucks).
I had no hint of any of this as I walked into Rea’s office. I sat down and he told me, “We’re letting you go. We feel you compromised your integrity by going into that concert with a preconceived notion of what you would write. We can no longer trust your opinion as a critic.”
Never mind that I’d written at least one review a day in the subsequent three weeks since the Anita Bryant review ran. Never mind that the Anita review had passed through several layers of editors before it landed in the newspaper; none of them were suffering the consequences. I was the sacrificial goat.
I argued then and would argue now that a critic’s biases are what form his taste and his aesthetic. The professional critic, however, enters every event – be it concert, film, play, whatever – with a clean slate and reacts to what he sees, writing from the standpoint of that aesthetic.
But this wasn’t a discussion about the role of the critic. This was a firing fueled by social and economic pressure.
I’d poked a finger in the eye of what would come to be known a few years later as the Christian Right. I had to go.
That was 1977. Twenty years later, as the anniversary of the Anita Bryant affair approached, I thought about writing a piece of personal journalism – sort of like this one – and tried to contact Rea Hederman. I wanted to talk to him and find out what pressures he had been under to fire me from the elders in his family, what was going on behind the scenes that I didn’t know about.
He wasn’t hard to find. He’s been the owner of the New York Review of Books, once described as “the premier journal of the American intellectual elite,” since 1984. A profile in the New York Observer in 2006 talked about how he had tried to fight his family’s ingrained conservatism for years at the Clarion-Ledger and was subsequently fired, a few years after firing me. So he obviously was doing someone else’s bidding when he terminated me.
I called his office and left messages. I wrote him a letter, saying that I wasn’t looking for a confrontation, just a chance to get a clearer picture of the past.
But I got no response. At the time, I thought it was cowardice. Now I’d chalk it up to wanting to leave the past alone, or perhaps an unwillingness to face an unfortunate moment of his own history.
I was fired at the beginning of November 1977. By the end of January 1978, I found a job with the Gannett newspaper in Sioux Falls, S.D. (though, in my fervor to get as far as possible from the South, I actually flirted with going to the Gannett paper in Guam). I subsequently stayed with Gannett for 25 years before moving on.
For a long time after I was fired in Jackson, I was able to assume the martyr’s pose with barely a cue: the sacrificial victim on the altar of the First Amendment, who had dared to tell the truth and been fired for his trouble. I was interviewed for an article in More magazine, then a kind of anti-management journalism monthly – and was asked to recount my experience in a piece for the Los Angeles Times’ Sunday Calendar section. I even got a call from “Tomorrow” with Tom Snyder about being on the show – though nothing ever came of that.
To some degree, I was a martyr: to intolerance, to ingrained conservative beliefs, to a region’s unwillingness to let go of its past.
But, in retrospect, I realize that I might has well have doused myself with gasoline, tied myself to the stake and struck a match with my teeth. I knew I was pushing it with that review; I just didn’t realize how far.
Those memories were all triggered by seeing Anita Bryant in archival footage in Gus Van Sant’s movie, “Milk,” recently. It’s a terrific movie about a shining moment in 1977, when people with compassion and sense rose up and said to anti-gay-rights bigots, “No – not this time,” and defeated a California referendum that would have allowed the firing of school teachers for being gay.
In the wake of California’s recent Proposition 8, which made gay marriage illegal, it’s painful to see how much hatred and intolerance still exists. Hopefully, this movie will move the needle a little farther in the direction of understanding and acceptance.