By Joey Kennedy
Alabama Political Reporter
Journalist Eddie Burkhalter did what few in our business will ever do.
Burkhalter quit his job on at The Anniston Star in November on principle because the newspaper wouldn’t allow him to pursue a story about allegations that former Star Publisher H. Brandt Ayers spanked some of his women employees over the years.
As a former Star reporter myself, I know these are more than allegations. My wife, Veronica, was actually a victim of such an assault.
Burkhalter first contacted me after one of my APR columns in November alluded to the attack. I know exactly what happened to my wife when she was in her early 20s and had just started working for Ayers and The Star. Unlike most of the incidents, Veronica’s assault was witnessed by another Star reporter. Ayers thought Veronica was the only person in the newsroom that Saturday morning.
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.
Burkhalter got the story, by interviewing my wife and at least one other victim, and talking with former Star employees who knew of other such assaults. He worked it through public records. He did what good reporters do.
And The Star tried to shut him down.
“It breaks my heart for the paper and the people I worked with,” Burkhalter said. “It breaks my heart that this may taint the paper.”
But the story was there, and the story needed to be told, especially during this time of national reckoning, where many sexual and other assault victims are speaking out against the powerful people (almost always men) who abuse them.
And though The Star was supposedly back on the story, Burkhalter wouldn’t let it go, even though he was now unemployed.
“I’m a stubborn A-hole,” Burkhalter said. He believed it was important that the Star do the right thing and write the story itself. The Star management thought otherwise.
“I don’t see the long play for them (the Star),” Burkhalter said. “I have no idea what’s going to happen. I think it was a tough decision to make for me. And my actions put others in a difficult place.”
On Tuesday, Burkhalter starts work in a plumbing supply warehouse as a clerk. But he’d return to journalism if an opportunity presents itself. But not at the Star, as long as Ayers and the current high management remain in place.
“Journalism is a tough gig to get into,” Burkhalter said. “It’s a tough gig to stay in, even if you get it. You want to do your best and keep your head down. Burkhalter said he believes management thought he would just drop the story, and, indeed, ordered him to, including having no more contact with my wife.
“I can only say what I had to do,” Burkhalter said. “The worst scenario I thought of was playing out. (But) I’m emboldened by the women, your wife and other victims, for speaking out.”
Burkhalter, 43, is married and has four children.
Still, Burkhalter said, “I have to sleep at night. I couldn’t have just swallowed it and gone back to work.”
Burkhalter has worked for Consolidated Publishing, The Star’s parent company, for eight years. He, like my wife and other victims and witnesses, showed remarkable courage in speaking out. There probably aren’t many in our profession who would – but they should.
Joey Kennedy, a Pulitzer Prize winner, writes a column every week for Alabama Political Reporter. Email: [email protected]