LINDEN, Ala. (AP) — An Alabama newspaperman who drew widespread condemnation after a recent editorial embracing the Ku Klux Klan says he has sold his little weekly paper — but the new owner’s identity and maybe even the sale itself are shrouded in doubt.
The Democrat-Reporter, whose longtime editor and publisher Goodloe Sutton once won praise from Oprah Winfrey for exposing local corruption, has published two differing stories about the deal, in which Sutton said no money has changed hands.
But he also says he can’t recall if he’s even met the buyer in person.
“My brain doesn’t remember like it ought to remember sometimes,” Sutton, 80, said Tuesday in the newspaper’s tiny office. “I’ve talked to a lot of people.”
Sutton says he could wind up working weeks or months longer because the new, out-of-town owner has no newspaper experience.
In Linden Mayor Charles Moore’s opinion, the sale is “questionable” since Sutton’s car is parked outside the paper almost daily, just as it always has been. Moore said he hasn’t met any new owner and doesn’t know what to make of it all.
“I wish them luck, that’s all I can say about it,” said Moore.
The people initially introduced as the new owners in a front page story, C.T. Harless and Sabrina McMahan, haven’t commented publicly. Questions have arisen about whether Harless is himself connected to the Ku Klux Klan, but Sutton said he doesn’t care one way or the other.
“You know, there are worse things than Baptists and Klansmen,” said Sutton.
Once hailed as a crusading Southern newspaper editor, Sutton won accolades along with his late wife Jean for covering local corruption involving a former Marengo County sheriff, Roger Davis, in the 1990s. The sheriff and two deputies were imprisoned for crimes that the paper uncovered including bribery, thefts and money that was missing from a department drug fund.
Their work was featured in stories in The New York Times and Reader’s Digest, and the couple appeared on a segment of Winfrey’s show about “people who did the right thing” in 1998.
The woman everyone in town called “Miss Jean” died in 2003, and Sutton began trying to sell the paper soon after. No one bit, and the paper’s circulation fell.
Sutton worked in virtual obscurity until Valentine’s Day, when he wrote and published an editorial that began: “Time for the Ku Klux Klan to night ride again.” Democrats and “Democrats in the Republican Party” are plotting to raise taxes in Alabama, it said, so the Klan should raid the “gated communities” where they live.
Condemnation was swift once Sutton’s words hit social media and got past the city limits of Linden, population 1,900. Auburn University and the University of Southern Mississippi, Sutton’s alma mater, both rescinded past awards, and the Alabama Press Association censured Sutton and suspended the Democrat-Reporter’s membership.
Sutton announced within days he was turning over control of the paper to a black employee, Elecia Dexter, but she quit after accusing Sutton of sneaking a story into the paper criticizing the Montgomery Advertiser for is coverage of the KKK debacle.
On March 28, the paper carried a front-page story written in Sutton’s style saying the Democrat-Reporter had been sold to Harless, who would work as editor and publisher, and McMahan, who would be the marketing and distribution manager.
The front-page photo of Harless published with that story bore a striking resemblance to Chuck Harless, an Indiana native who has previously identified himself as a Klan leader in media accounts and a YouTube video. An Alabama-based website, the Alabama Political Reporter, published a story questioning whether the new owner actually was the KKK member.
The next day, Sutton told The Associated Press that McMahan, not Harless, would own the paper going forward. He said the new owner didn’t pay up front for the paper but would instead provide him a percentage of the newspaper’s gross income.
“The pay comes for the rest of my life,” Sutton said.
A person who responded to text messages sent to a contact phone number published by the newspaper refused comment on Harless’ identity, and a story published Thursday gave no reason for the ownership change, saying that Harless had been removed from his position and a deal was completed this week in Florida. Neither McMahan nor Harless returned messages seeking comment.
Sutton said he doesn’t know how much longer he will keep working, but he said he’s now just a consultant at the paper. He also indicated the sale may not be final.
“Don’t you want to buy a good weekly newspaper?” he asked at the end of an interview with AP. “If you got a couple million dollars I can wiggle out of that deal.”