GREENSBURG, LA. -- Ah, for the life of the small-town newspaper publisher. How idyllic it must be to set your own type, deliver your own papers and report the births, marriages, ceremonies, athletic accomplishments and public events of folks you know on a first-name basis. Forget that notion, at least if your name is Harrell Griffin, and you run the St. Helena Echo and five other weeklies in the backwoods of eastern Louisiana.
A veteran newspaperman who began as a printer at the News-Ledger in Amite, La., as a high school junior, Griffin, 50, said he does not go out looking for trouble. He nevertheless seems to find it by using his moral compass to determine what to publish or refuse to publish.
Supporters of U.S. Senate candidate David Duke (R) have threatened to boycott the Echo because Griffin declined to run a paid advertisement for the former Ku Klux Klansman's campaign in the May 2 edition. The David Duke Campaign Clearing Fund sent a check for $27.50 signed by treasurer Callie O'Pry. Griffin returned it, saying that, because of Duke's past associations with the Klan and Nazi organizations, "he will have to run for public office without my assistance or that of the Echo."
O'Pry then called the Echo with a boycott message: Advertisers would be pressured to pull out and readers to cancel subscriptions. It was not a toothless threat because Duke's candidacy is thriving in this quarter of Louisiana, where the roots of racial separation run deep and John Rarick, the former segregationist congressman here, is among Duke's legions.
But Griffin met the challenge with a front-page column. "I am a God-fearing man," he wrote. "I fear nothing else."
In recent days, Griffin's newsstands have been vandalized, his papers stolen, his tires ruined by tacks scattered across his driveway and several allies have received anonymous warnings.
Duke and his followers deny association with acts of intimidation. They certainly are not Griffin's only adversaries. The list of people he has riled is considerable and ideologically varied, including the local tax assessor, the sheriff, the district attorney, the entire police jury (equivalent to a county council) and the most powerful member of the Louisiana Senate, B.B. "Sixty" Rayburn (D-Bogalusa).
Most of these people say that the dispute is about economics, that the soft-spoken Griffin is gouging them with his rates to publish official notices. A few, such as Sheriff Eugene Holland, acknowledge that the animosity runs deeper. Holland is so upset with the publisher that he once told him that he did not care who vandalized Griffin's property.
"We just want Mr. Griffin to get his paper in line with the rest of the people in our parish," Holland said.
Griffin said Holland is disgruntled because he published an item about the death of a Baton Rouge prisoner in the St. Helena Parish Jail. He also angered the sheriff by running a story that said Holland built a new office without adequate blueprints or wiring schematics.
Of each antagonist, Griffin tells a similar story -- somewhere along the line, he published something that upset them. Assessor Chaney Phillips did not like a story about how he had changed his method of payments. The clerk of courts was upset that Griffin kept publishing all suits filed. He asked Griffin to stop, because some defendants were embarrassed, but the publisher said it was the public's right to know.
And it seemed the entire police jury became angry when Griffin ran a story about the arrest of a member's son in a neighboring parish.
Underlying these parochial complaints, Griffin said, is race. He said many whites in St. Helena do not like the fact that his top reporter, Eunice Paddio-Johnson, is a black woman and that his weekly publishes so many black faces and stories about blacks. "I think he's right that it's part racial," Paddio-Johnson said. "It used to be that blacks were on the front page when they did something wrong. But never whites. Now Griffin is putting whites on the front page when they do something wrong. They don't like that at all."
Not that Griffin's publications are totally free of racism. A town-talk column in one of his papers recently referred to blacks as "darkies."
Griffin did not see it beforehand and swiftly published an apology. And Paddio-Johnson does not always agree with her boss. She noted that, four years ago, he refused to publish an ad for Democratic congressional candidate Faye Williams, a black woman, who did not share Griffin's staunch antiabortion position.
"I was incensed," Paddio-Johnson said. "But he's a person who stands by what he believes."
The struggle between Griffin and his adversaries is being played out in the state legislature. Whatever the various sources of their discontent, St. Helena officials focused it on the fact that Griffin charged them $5 a square (100 words), the maximum by law for 10 years, to publish official notices in the Echo. Griffin said he makes $17,000 a year publishing the notices, about one-third of the Echo's annual gross income. St. Helena officials say $5 a square is too much for their poor little parish.
Enter Rayburn, the crusty, frog-voiced, 40-year legislative veteran, widely considered the state's most powerful senator. Rayburn, whose district encompasses St. Helena, drafted a bill saying that, in any parish whose population was between 9,500 and 10,500 and had only one newspaper, officials could go outside the parish for bids on publishing official notices.
Only St. Helena parish met that standard. It was aimed only at Griffin.
The bill sailed through the Senate but stalled in a House committee where several black members, impressed by Griffin's stand against Duke, defeated it June 27. Griffin, thinking the matter finished, drove back here and typed a letter to the police jury offering as a good-will gesture to drop his rate by $1. But he forgot that Rayburn does not like to lose.
Somehow the bill resurfaced Friday. It passed, 6 to 3, after St. Helena officials told the panel that the measure had nothing to do with Duke, just economics. Several officials snickered when Griffin, hands shaking, ended his statement to the panel by saying: "I must uphold my ideals."
Back at his office, Griffin said, "I'm a survivor. I can survive under any circumstances. I'll keep publishing until my last dollar is gone. I'll continue the fight . . . . I don't relish the fight, but I hate to see power abused."