A prominent newspaper executive in Alabama has been accused of assaulting multiple female employees during the 1970s by spanking them, according to reports in Alabama news outlets this week.
H. Brandt Ayers, the former publisher of the Anniston Star and current chairman of the company that owns the Star and five other newspapers, on Tuesday admitted that he spanked at least one female reporter decades ago, claiming he was simply following a doctor's advice.
Ayers, now 82, told the Anniston Star he spanked the woman in her home. He claimed the woman, who worked at the Star between 1973 and 1974, had been psychologically ill, and a doctor had suggested he "calm her down," Ayers told the Star. When Ayers asked the doctor if spanking would work, the doctor said it would, Ayers said. Ayers told the Star he could not recall the name of the physician.
The Star named the woman who was spanked, saying she may now be deceased. The Washington Post does not name victims of sexual assault who have not gone public with their stories.
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Ayers also acknowledged allegations from Star reporter Veronica Pike Kennedy, who spoke publicly to the Star, the Montgomery Advertiser and the Alabama Political Reporter, that the publisher spanked her 18 times with a ruler in the Star newsroom in 1975. When asked about the alleged assault, Ayers told the Anniston Star: "Let the accusation stand."
"As a very young man with more authority than judgment, I did some things I regret," Ayers said in the statement to the Anniston Star. "At my advanced age I wish I could relive those days again, knowing the seriousness of my position and with the accumulated judgment that goes with age."
Ayers said he had no intention of resigning as chairman of the board of Consolidated Publishing. "Of course not," Ayers told the Star. "I am the third generation of a family that has served honorably, even courageously, in the public interest."
The allegations against Ayers were first reported on the website Alabama Political Reporter and later described in articles in the Anniston Star and Montgomery Advertiser.
Kennedy told the three publications Ayers spanked her on a Saturday morning in February 1975, when the two of them were among a few employees in the Star newsroom. Kennedy was 22 at the time, and Ayers, then publisher, turned 40 that same year.
Ayers asked her to read an article he had written. After reading it, she told him it "really is a good piece of writing," Kennedy recounted to the Montgomery Advertiser. Though she knew he had written the piece for an editorial, she joked, "Can you tell me who wrote it?"
"And he said, 'Oh, you are being a bad girl,' " Kennedy told the Advertiser. "'You know what I do to bad girls? I spank them.'"
Kennedy said she then held onto her chair as Ayers "picked me and the chair up" and then "bent me across the desk behind me."
He allegedly spanked her forcefully 18 times with a metal pica pole, a type of ruler used by newspaper designers and editors at the time.
"I was fighting him the whole time. Trying to kick him. Bite him. Scratch him. Whatever I could do," Kennedy told Alabama Political Reporter. Then Ayers told her, "Well, that ought to teach you to not be a bad girl."
Another Star reporter, Mike Stamler, then 22, said he witnessed the assault from across the room.
"I was staring with my mouth hanging open," he told the Advertiser. "I was stunned."
Kennedy didn't know what to do, she told the Alabama Political Reporter. "I just had to pull myself together because I could lose my job." She also feared how her father would react, she said.
"I knew I couldn't say anything because my daddy would get his .38 and shoot Brandy in the head, and he'd be in prison for the rest of his life," Kennedy told the Star, referring to Ayers by his nickname.
Ayers was described by the Star as "among the best-known figures in Anniston, and one of the best-known small-town newspapermen in the South." He was the son of the Star's founder, Harry Ayers, and replaced his father as publisher in the late 1960s. He stepped down in 2016 but still serves as the publishing company's chairman.
Leading the Star during the civil rights era, he became known nationwide for his views as a Southern liberal. He advocated for school integration - a rare progressive voice in a conservative state. His syndicated column has been published in newspapers across Alabama.
A summary of one of his books, "Cussing Dixie, Loving Dixie: Fifty Years of Commentary by H. Brandt Ayers," calls the newspaperman, "A loyal son of Alabama who extols Southern culture" and "unapologetically calls for Alabamians to cast off the moribund ideologies of the past."
But in other writings, Ayers touched on the controversial topic of spanking. In his book "In Love with Defeat: The Making of a Southern Liberal," Ayers wrote that in the 1940s, spanking "was as American and Southern as fried chicken on Sundays."
He described a date with the woman who later became his wife, Josephine. At one point on the date, he became upset with her and "made a comment not calculated to endear me, 'If I knew you better, I'd spank you.' "
Trisha O'Connor, a journalism professor who worked at the Star as a reporter and editor during the 1970s, told the Associated Press that stories of Ayers's assaults on women were common knowledge in the newsroom at the time. She and other female employees at the newspaper would warn new female workers to avoid Ayers.
"We took it to upper management and said, 'We need assistance. This is terrible,' " said O'Connor, who teaches at Coastal Carolina University in Conway, S.C. "Basically, from what we were able to see, nothing happened."
The allegations against Ayers first emerged in mid November, in an online column by Joey Kennedy in the Alabama Political Reporter, vaguely mentioning allegations involving his wife, Veronica Pike Kennedy, against a publisher. He didn't initially mention Ayers by name.
Eddie Burkhalter, then a reporter at the Star, noticed the column and expressed interest in reporting on the story. Burkhalter claims the newspaper would not allow him to pursue the story about the allegations. In response, Burkhalter quit his job and reported the story for a different outlet, the Alabama Political Reporter.
Ben Cunningham, managing editor at the Star, wrote in a commentary that Burkhalter's allegations about pursuit of the story are "flatly false." Bob Davis, the current editor and publisher of the Star, wrote in a separate column that he instructed Cunningham to tell Burkhalter to suspend work on the story for a few days until they had a chance to discuss how they would go about treating anonymous sources. Burkhalter agreed to wait, Davis said, but later revealed that he had continued reporting anyway.
Then Burkhalter resigned and the Star assigned a new reporter to the story. The Star published its story shortly after the Alabama Political Reporter. On Tuesday, Burkhalter started work in a plumbing supply warehouse as a clerk.
"The airing of these allegations, in our pages and elsewhere, are a difficult time for this extended family," Cunningham wrote. "For the women who say Ayers attacked them, though, I hope it leads to peace and to a sense of justice."