By: Larry Timbs
As hundreds of gun-toting federal agents and story-chasing journalists tramp through
a tiny mountain town, they’re changing the community and challenging its newspaper
When you’re the editor of the 2,700-circulation weekly Andrews Journal in Cherokee County, N.C., and one of the country’s biggest news events suddenly drops into your backyard, you take a deep breath every now and then and keep focused.
Journal editor Sally Hudson says this helps you hold your own covering that once-in-a-lifetime story ? pursued also by hordes of reporters
from the national and international press and by dozens of broadcasters with TV and radio satellite trucks.
“This has all been a learning experience,” said Hudson, who has been editor of the Journal since 1996. “It’s totally different from anything I’ve ever been in before.”
As E&P goes to press, her community in this rugged mountain wilderness bordering northeast Georgia is literally overrun by flak-jacketed FBI and ATF agents conducting a manhunt for fugitive Eric Robert Rudolph.
Rudolph, a pony-tailed survivalist and woodsman who grew up near Andrews, is suspected of bombing a Birmingham, Ala., abortion clinic in January 1998 ? an explosion that left one off-duty police officer dead and seriously maimed a clinic nurse. He’s also wanted for questioning in three Atlanta-area bombings, including the explosion at the 1996 Olympics that killed one person and injured dozens of others.
The more than 200 federal agents here have sniperscopes, helicopters with heat sensors, bloodhounds and even spelunking equipment. Last week, heavily armed officers began warily descending into the region’s cave systems, much like the “Tunnel Rats” of the Vietnam War. Rudolph is known to have recently purchased enough provisions to last for about six months.
Fugitive as Myth
Further complicating the story is the growing sense that the longer Rudolph ? reported to know these densely forested mountains like the back of his hand ? eludes such an awesome task force, the more mythical he becomes. Already, to the dismay of searchers combing the rattlesnake-, wasp-, hornet- and mosquito-infested mountains of Cherokee County, some anti-government and anti-abortion groups tout Rudolph as an underdog folk hero.
Meanwhile, the manhunt continues to attract swarms of reporters and photographers from a variety of national publications like the New York Times, Washington Post, Atlanta Journal and Constitution, Time and Newsweek. Nearly four dozen radio and TV satellite trucks further contribute to the media feeding frenzy here, jamming the streets of a sleepy rural community that describes itself as “The little town with a big heart.”
Small-Town Editor’s Challenge
Hudson says that during the current crisis, she has tried not to forget that readers in Andrews and elsewhere in Cherokee County still want to know about the town council and school board meetings, regular police blotter and activities at the senior citizens center. And therein lies her challenge, she says ? trying to keep tabs on the biggest story in the history of Cherokee County while covering other important goings-on in the community. She takes all the local pictures and writes all the local copy for the Community Newspapers Inc.-owned Journal.
Perhaps the stickiest issue Hudson has to deal with concerns how folks in the close-knit conservative mountain community view Rudolph.
One Andrews woman interviewed by E&P made it clear that lots of folks side with the reclusive, mysterious Rudolph. “I don’t need the ($1 million reward) money that bad,” said the woman, loading groceries into her car in front of the Ingles grocery store, “and I think you’ll find the majority of people around here feel the same way I do.” She declined to be identified.
Another area resident, Darla Colvin, felt differently. “Absolutely, they would turn him in,” she said when asked whether she thought Cherokee Countians would help shield Rudolph from the feds. Colvin, who teaches fifth grade in Robbinsville, about 10 miles north of Andrews in neighboring Graham County, added: “These are not redneck people who would harbor this man. I think most people are appalled at his (suspected crime).”
Hudson said she had no qualms about reminding her readers in an editorial that the search for Rudolph is not about abortion or about being pro-government. Instead, she wrote in a July 23 editorial that the feds are focused on “finding the man suspected of killing an off-duty police officer (at the abortion clinic in Birmingham) who was trying to earn a little extra money for his family.”
“(This search) is about the death of a father and a husband,” Hudson editorialized. “Those people who appear to believe Rudolph is a folk hero are mistaken. . . . He is no hero and he doesn’t deserve the sympathy some people have shown.”
Hudson, who noted that the Rudolph story has boosted the Cherokee County economy inasmuch as all those journalists from afar have to eat and sleep somewhere, was asked what she has learned so far from all the high drama besieging Andrews.
“I guess maybe it would be me coming up here and thinking I would have a couple of easy years,” she responded. “You never know what will happen in your little corner of the world.”
?(The Rudolph search is the Journal’s biggest story ever.) [Caption & Photo]
?(Sally Hudson has been editor of the Journal since 1996.) [Photo & Caption]
?(Timbs teaches, journalism at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, S.C.) [Caption]
?(Editor & Publisher Web Site:http://www.mediainfo.com) [Caption]
?(copyright: Editor & Publisher August 15,1998) [Caption]