Robert McCord, of North Little Rock, a legendary Arkansas journalist died Saturday, April 13 at the age of 84.
McCord was known as the “father” of the state’s open records law, also called the Freedom of Information Act, longtime Arkansas Press Association retired executive director Dennis Schick said.
It was his work at The Times of North Little Rock that brought McCord the most acclaim
McCord was drafted for the Korean War but spent most of his time at Fort Sill working on the base newspaper and doing public relations work in the nearby southern Oklahoma town of Lawton.
Following his discharge from the U. S. Army, McCord returned to the Democrat where he stayed until 1958 when he had an opportunity to purchase the paper in his adopted home town.
It was the turn-around of The Times that earned McCord his biggest reputation. McCord instituted larger, clearer and artful photographs, cartoons and localized news coverage.
But he also hired two bright young North Little Rock men who helped him and later followed in his footsteps as owners, editors and publishers of the Times.
McCord hired a young advertising student, Tom Riley as his advertising manager and John Thompson as a news reporter.
In his later years it was his weekly columns in the Arkansas Times through which most young Arkansans know of McCord’s tireless dedication to journalistic integrity and unbiased reporting.
McCord’s nemesis was the mayor of North Little Rock — Casey Laman, that he spent a lifetime sparing with and it was that interaction — or more correctly the lack of information — that lead McCord to his greatest achievement.
After years of having to snoop around to scrounge news that he said should have been released as a matter of routine, McCord sought to get the Arkansas General Assembly to pass a Freedom of Information Act that guaranteed reporters could attend City Council meetings and get public records. But its passage didn’t come easy.
McCord and his reporters and photographers sharpened their skills to work sources for news and kept their promises to protect identities because McCord said he knew that Laman would have fired any city employee on the spot if he even suspected they’d talked to reporters.
This banter between the two went on for about ten years and McCord’s most effective tool was the use of humor in cartoons depicting Laman as a cartoon character that cut Laman to the bone, McCord said.
The young graphic artist McCord recruited would go on to a lifetime of prize winning political satire and the publication of numerous books of his cartoons, the most famous of which depicted an “old guard” rest home of Arkansas political figures. In every single one, Laman was shown around the rundown wooden shack with one word in a bubble above his head that he became known for saying. The quoted word was “asinine” and the young artist’s name was George Fisher.
Asinine was a frequently used word by the late mayor to dismiss and discredit ideas he didn’t like.
Some friends said it was McCord’s experience with the use of humor that lead him to become the perennial producer of a political satiric play called the Farkleberry Follies,” named after an imaginary bush that former Governor Orval Faubus once referred to and George Fisher picked up on it and included it in every Faubus cartoon — and Faubus was his favorite subject.
After having his proposal rejected over and over, McCord became a political activist and recruited one of his city’s own representatives at the Capitol, Leon Holstead to co-sponsor the bill along with a brilliant young aggressive attorney from Little Rock who was making a good name for himself as a state senator — Ben Allen.
And McCord worked the 1966 primaries and secured the promise of both parties gubernatorial candidates that they would not only support the bill but also sign it if it passed both houses.
Winthrop Rockefeller won that election as the first Republican Arkansas Governor since reconstruction and although he had difficulty passing his reform legislation in a Democrat controlled General Assembly; the passage of the Freedom of Information Act was touted as his landmark legislation.
Rockefeller’s almost entire reform legislative package would be passed a few year’s later virtually unchanged by Gov. Dale Bumpers and recognized as the most significant reorganization of state government ever.
The photo that ran in the Times that week showed Rockefeller signing the act in his conference room at the State Capitol with McCord, as president of the Sigma Delta Chi journalism fraternity, Rep. Holstead and a beaming Sen. Ben Allen beside him. With McCord’s passing, all those in that photo are now deceased.
In a 2007 interview McCord said it was his finest hour and the quiet unassuming journalist’s journalist gave recognition to other news reporters and organizations for the bill’s passage. But Ben Allen said a the time and later in an interview that without McCord there would not have been an FOI law in the state for decades if not later.
It was one of the most comprehensive and far reaching open records and information laws in the country and McCord found himself in the spotlight being asked to speak to this national convention and meeting after another.
In the 2007 Times interview McCord lamented the number of times the FOIA act had faced heavily funded attempts to weaken it. But the attempts he really regretted, he said were those that became law.
Not long after the bill became law, there was a North Little Rock City Council meeting which ended with Laman summoning aldermen to a private meeting in another City Hall backroom where an uninvited Times reporter was not only uninvited but when he followed aldermen into the room and sat down, Laman ordered his city attorney Reed Thompson to have police throw him out.
McCord said a City Hall policeman threatened to arrest the reporter unless he left.
At the time McCord called it a blatant violation of the new FOI act and did everything he could to call attention to it.
Subsequently there was even court action on the claim and response to it.
But to his credit, McCord said Laman was the “best thing that ever happened to North Little Rock” pointing out his “iron-fisted rule of the city changed its previous “dog town” reputation when the former Little Rock first ward started getting newer and better buildings and amenities than its southern sister city.
In fact, McCord said he and the Times led the campaign when it became controversial to name the new Northside library after Laman.