Ethical concerns surround candidate for Student Media director position


A question of ethics surrounds a candidate for the Office of Student Media director position after allegations surfaced that he censored an unfolding story about sexual assault on his former newspaper’s staff. 

Bob Davis, former editor and publisher at The Anniston Star, is one of three candidates who are being considered for the position at The University of Alabama. The OSM Director oversees six student media outlets: The Crimson White, Alice Magazine, 90.7 The Capstone, Marr’s Field Journal, The Black Warrior Review and Bama Life newsletter.

The concerns surrounding Davis’ potential hiring were brought to The Crimson White’s attention on Wednesday, July 17 by former Anniston Star reporter Eddie Burkhalter, who worked with Davis at the newspaper (often referred to as “The Star”) for nine years.

In November 2017, Burkhalter discovered allegations that H. Brandt Ayers, The Star’s chairman of the Board of Consolidated Publishing and former publisher, “spanked” multiple female reporters in the mid-1970s. Some of the incidents occurred in the Anniston Star workplace, often using a pica stick. Other accusations included Ayers going to one woman’s home and striking her there.

Burkhalter first learned of an allegation of sexual assault against Ayers by reading a column written by Alabama Political Reporter columnist Joey Kennedy. In the column, Joey Kennedy described how his wife Veronica Kennedy was forcibly spanked by Ayers, but went on to write that she did not report the incident because she was afraid her father would kill Ayers and then be sent to prison.

After questioning former newsroom employees at The Anniston Star, Burkhalter said they were surprised he had not heard of Ayers’ reputation for spanking women. Burkhalter began talking to sources and developing a story on the allegations. Burkhalter said that he was then “ordered” by Ben Cunningham, then-managing editor at The Anniston Star, that he was not to contact any victims or sources and to quit pursuing the story.

Cunningham initially seemed receptive to working on the story, Burkhalter said, but that he needed to check with Davis first. After returning to the office, Burkhalter said he was told to stop working on the story. 

“So I went out to do my daily (rounds) and when I came back about an hour and a half later, I came into [Cunningham’s] office and he had this look on his face and I knew it wasn’t good,” Burkhalter said. “So I said, ‘What happened?’ And Ben’s like, ‘It didn’t go well.’ [Cunningham] ordered me, he said, ‘I’m going to order you: You cannot contact anybody about this story. You’re not to contact the victims, you cannot tell anybody else in the newsroom, you’re not to tell anybody about this or actively work on this.’”

In a column published by The Anniston Star on Jan. 2, 2018, Cunningham gave his account of his conversations with Burkhalter and Davis:

“I agreed with Eddie that we should look into it, and that The Star should publish the story if it checked out. I felt certain that The Star’s editor and publisher, Bob Davis, would agree, and filled him in at the first opportunity later that morning. Eddie had left the newsroom to report a story at the YMCA downtown. I was surprised at Bob’s initial reaction: an instruction to halt work on the story, but felt that in time he’d come to the decision I felt was right: to at least check the allegations out. I’d worked with Bob long enough to have a sense of his journalistic ethics and general character, and been proud to work for him. I believed that he’d agree with me, sooner rather than later. I asked if he was open to future arguments to resume work on the story, and he said he was.”

However, Burkhalter pursued the story and reached out to alleged victims, including Veronica Kennedy, who previously worked as a reporter at The Anniston Star and was the only victim willing to go on record to talk about the assault.

During the course of his investigation, Burkhalter found court documents that contained mentions of spanking instances involving Ayers. 

Burkhalter said he later met with Davis and Cunningham and was reprimanded for pursuing the story. Burkhalter said he asked Davis if he would be allowed to pursue the story, but Davis would not respond with a yes or no.

Joey Kennedy, a former Anniston Star employee, said there was no question that Davis and Cunningham were trying to keep the story from going public. 

“Bob Davis just acted unethically as a newspaper person and he acted to cover his boss instead of pursuing a story,” Joey Kennedy said. “When I was at The Star, that just wasn’t The Star’s history.” 

Burkhalter decided to leave The Anniston Star after he was censored and published the story with Alabama Political Reporter, which detailed a host of allegations – corroborated by court proceedings and other interviews – against Ayers that extended beyond the newsroom.

Ayers stepped down as chairman of Consolidated Publishing on Jan. 4, 2018, three days after the story about the sexual assault allegations were published. Ayers issued a statement on the allegations, saying he regretted his actions.

“As a very young man with more authority than judgment, I did some things I regret,” Ayers said in the statement. “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.”

Davis wrote a column for The Anniston Star on Jan. 2, 2018, the day after the original story on the allegations was published. In it, Davis said, “Over my 14 years with this company, I’d never heard such allegations.”

In his column, Davis gave his side of the encounter with Burkhalter:

“On Nov. 17, I directed Cunningham to tell Burkhalter to suspend work on the story for a few days until we had a chance to sit down and discuss it the following week. Cunningham did that, and Burkhalter agreed to wait. But Burkhalter revealed the next week that he’d continued reporting anyway, despite agreeing not to do so and against the direction of his supervisors. We hadn’t yet had a chance to review how we would go about treating sources who wished to remain anonymous and inquiring into events alleged to have happened more than 40 years ago.

“During a meeting, I asked Burkhalter to acknowledge that he had not followed Cunningham’s direction. In the course of that meeting, Burkhalter resigned. My point still held: We hadn’t made a decision to publish a story, and we hadn’t made a decision to not publish a story. We can’t do that until we’ve assembled all the relevant facts.”

Veronica Kennedy, however, told The Crimson White that she does not believe Davis was unaware of the allegations before Burkhalter began investigating them.  

“I know with his columns that he wrote, he said he had never heard of these allegations,” Veronica Kennedy said. “I know that’s a lie because if he had been there for 14 years, he knew. He’d heard them.”

Davis resigned from The Anniston Star in May of 2018. 

When The Crimson White reached out to Davis on July 17, 2019 about the allegations brought forth by Burkhalter, he said Burkhalter’s account of the events is “a complete misrepresentation of the truth” and that The Anniston Star published multiple stories about the allegations against Ayers. 

“I would suggest to you that Mr. Burkhalter is a disgruntled employee who tried to make the story about himself, not about real suffering of people, which is the story that The Anniston Star pursued,” Davis said. 

One confirmed member on the hiring committee for the OSM Director position said they were unaware of Davis’ involvement in censoring any reporting about sexual assault at The Star, but had they known, their opinion on his candidacy would have been less favorable. Two confirmed members declined to comment on whether Davis was questioned on the allegations during the interview process. Those same two members also declined to comment on whether Davis had officially been offered the position, which has yet to be announced. 

Adam Sterritt, the assistant vice president of the Division of Student Life, has the final say on who is hired for the OSM Director position. He was not available for comment by the time of publication. 

Editor’s Note 1: In order to prevent a conflict of interest, Mark Mayfield and Julie Salter, two employees of the Office of Student Media who are also candidates for the OSM Director position, were not privy to the gathering, interviewing, reporting or publishing of this story.

Editor’s Note 2: Jessa Reid Bolling, the primary author of this story, works remotely as a reporting intern at Alabama Political Reporter, the same publication for which Eddie Burkhalter works. Burkhalter started his job at APR about three weeks ago, and the two first met the night of this reporting.

Editor’s Note 3: The Crimson White’s Editor-in-Chief Savannah Bullard, Managing Editor Ben Stansell, Opinions Editor Brett Hodges and News Editor Rebecca Griesbach contributed to the reporting of this story.