A small-town Alabama newspaper continues to baffle beyond comprehension, ever since it made headlines with a Valentine’s Day editorial calling for “the Ku Klux Klan to ride again.”
The newest episode of this saga begins just days after the resignation of the black woman charged with replacing Goodloe Sutton—the Democrat-Reporter’s longtime owner and publisher who wrote the pro-Klan editorial—with the sale of the print-only paper first reported by the Associated Press on March 21.
Goodloe Sutton told The Associated Press this week’s issue of The Democrat-Reporter of Linden, Alabama, could be his last.
Sutton — who has refused to apologize for promoting a resurgence of the KKK — would not go into details about the supposed buyer, and he has been trying to sell for years since the death of his wife. The weekly has few local advertisers.
Linden Mayor Charles Moore said he was recently contacted by a representative from a newspaper company interested in purchasing Sutton’s operation.
“She asked me if I thought someone could turn that paper around,” said Moore. “I told her she was going to have to do a lot of legwork.”
Sutton’s “last issue” supposedly hit newsstands last week, again, with the news of the sale dominating the front page, according to Chip Brownlee, the APR reporter who first broke the story of the KKK editorial and surfaced other racist content the paper printed through the years.
But when Brownlee attempted to learn more about the Democrat-Reporter’s sale, and new owners Harless and McMahan, he set in motion a stunningly odd and concerning chain of events that offers little insight into what’s actually going on down there in the media world of tiny Linden, Ala.
Brownlee discovered the paper’s sale had been announced in an above-the-fold, front page story published in the March 28 issue of the Democrat-Reporter. Again, the paper is print-only, so enjoy this image of the actual paper, which Brownlee shared with Daily Kos on April 4.
The exact text of the typo-ridden announcement, which carried no byline or attribution, is as follows, with no editing on the part of Daily Kos.
New owners promise loyalty to Marengo
The Democrat-Reporter has been sold to C.T. Harless and Sabrina McMahan, who are new co-owners in the newspaper business.
They will be working diligently to bring the family newspaper back to the families of Linden and Marengo County.
When asked about their vision for The Democrat-Reporter the new owners smiled and said, “We are going to report community news , we are going to write about the local issues, engagements, a cooking section, crossword puzzle humor, we are going to write about Aunt Margret’s tulips, little Jimmy’s Grand Champion bull at the fair, gardening, in-depth reporting, a new look, and a great relationship with our customers, our neighboring communities, and look forward to having a family paper with a family relationship with all residents of Marengo County
The new owners are bringing the traditional hometown newspaper back. With more community based reporting and community involvement .The new owners are determined to bring The Democrat- Reporter back to our community.
Harless is owner/publisher and McMahan is marketing and distribution manager.
Also anyone can email stories, photos, notices, etc. and receive advertising rates at email@example.com
The new number for advertising, circulation, and news line is 334-216-7341.
The article crossed Brownlee’s desk on the day it was printed, accompanied by a captioned snapshot of the new owners.
I called Sutton on Thursday at The Democrat-Reporter office in Linden. He told me it was his last day at the paper — he’d sold it, a task he’d been trying to accomplish for years since the newspaper began losing advertising, its subscribers, its printing presses and its former offices over the last decade.
Sutton said he sold the paper to “C.T. Harless” and “Sabrina McMahan,” two people from out of the state.
Brownlee spoke with Harless that same evening, and it was a friendly conversation at first. Harless claimed that he’d seen the stories about Sutton’s paper on Facebook, and “sometimes things come to your attention that you want to do something about.” He explained that he just wanted to revive a community newspaper.
“What people in America are missing today is information and reporting about their hometown and their community,” Harless said.
I couldn’t agree more! Local media is super important! This guy gets it!
After Harless amicably shared a bit about himself—Indiana-born, formerly in the military, currently in the travel industry—and his plans to relocate from Florida to Tuscaloosa in order to run the paper, Brownlee brought up a tip he’d received. Was he in the Ku Klux Klan?
“No, I’m C.T. Harless from Key West, Florida,” he said with a slight laugh.
They ended the call, but “C.T. Harless from Key West” soon called Brownlee back, and demanded to know who his tipster was. He threatened to activate his legal team. The most crucial thing to remember for the next twist in this odd saga is that Harless insisted that “C.T.” stood for “Christopher Thomas.”
Brownlee headed to Google. The phone number Harless used showed up in registrant information for the American White Knights—a Tennessee division of the Klan. That same website was secured with an email that clearly indicated that the “C” in “C.T.” stood for Chuck, not Christopher.
No records for a Christopher Thomas Harless of the proper age were found in Tennessee or Florida.
Which brings us back to Chuck.
Chuck Harless definitely exists, and is not secretive about his participation in the Ku Klux Klan. As early as 2014, he identified himself as the Imperial Wizard of this Volunteer State version of the KKK. Comparison of Brownlee’s calls with Harless to a Fox News Radio appearance revealed that both voices were quite similar.
Next, Brownlee and his colleagues found a Facebook account for “Ty Harless” that featured pictures of a man who looks just like the C.T. Harless who’s in the Democrat-Reporter front-page sale announcement, as well as language indicating membership and support of the KKK and American White Knights.
The Ty Harless Facebook account was soon deactivated, but Brownlee and his team collected screenshots.
That brings us to Friday. Brownlee called Harless back and it went to voicemail. The outgoing message changed three times that day—from Chuck to C.T. to just the Democrat-Reporter.
Brownlee eventually did get through to Harless, and a series of increasingly strange phone calls between the men culminated in more threats to activate legal counsel, and a sudden denial that Harless even owned the paper, in direct contradiction to both the front page article and his own interview the previous day.
His story about the ownership of the paper continued to change, conflicting with what was printed on the front page of The Democrat-Reporter and conflicting with what he had initially told me in previous phone calls.
“The LLC that owns the newspaper — I do not know anything about them,” Harless said. “But they contacted me and asked me to do the advertising for the newspaper, and that’s exactly what I’m doing. There’s another lady involved, Sabrina McMahan, who actually, if you want to know the letter of the law, actually 100 percent owns the newspaper. Okay?”
Harless cited ageism and sexism as the reason he was brought in, since nobody would take a 29-year-old woman seriously. He also claimed poverty and bad credit, which should have made the idea of him paying $75,000 for a paper laughable.
Later, someone claiming to be McMahan, via text message, asserted that she was the sole owner of the paper.
But, oh, there’s more. “Christopher Thomas” eventually confessed that his brother was Chuck Tyler Harless, the Tennessee Klan Imperial Wizard. They’ve got the same initials, see?
In addition to vowing to publish a front page takedown about Brownlee, not-Klan C.T. Harless promised to give Brownlee’s number to the C.T. Harless who is in the Klan.
“After I get through talking to Chuck this morning, he’s going to be very less than polite to you.”
His threatening tone continued.
“I can’t wait to talk to Chuck this morning,” Harless said. “I’m going to tell him, ‘Little young Chip wishes to talk to the Ku Klux Klan.’”
Sure enough, a man purporting to be a KKK Imperial Wizard, calling himself “Chuck Harless,” did later call Brownlee. Much, much, MUCH more madness ensued—truly, you should just go read the entire story right now. Listen to the audio clips. Let’s scratch our heads together at this shoddily-constructed house of lies.
But we’re still not done.
After Brownlee’s brilliant story was published in the Alabama Political Reporter on April 2, the purported new owners of the tiny paper reached out to say … thanks?
If you thought this wouldn't take another strange turn, "Chuck" is now threatening to send this "certificate" claiming I'm in the Klan to reporters.
Looks like someone spent about 10 whole minutes putting this together in photoshop. pic.twitter.com/dpdCKzw3KZ
— Chip Brownlee (@ByChipBrownlee) April 2, 2019
That’s right. Brownlee got a golden Klan “degree,” just by researching this story! (Note: The reporter cheerfully denied Klan affiliation in a conversation with Daily Kos on April 5.)
What’s more, Brownlee’s colleague, Josh Moon, who also worked on the story, got his own dose of gratitude from the person purporting to be McMahan.
The new owner of the Democrat-Reporter just texted me with a statement about today's story: "Nice article it's been great for My business people are calling and giving us their support again I thank you"https://t.co/GRNBo79RA7
— Josh Moon (@Josh_Moon) April 2, 2019
The strangest part about all this? Despite the sale being reported by the Associated Press on March 21, and by the Democrat-Reporter itself one week later, Brownlee and his associates were unable to find any proof that the business had changed hands.
No paperwork registering the formal sale or transfer of The Democrat-Reporter had been filed with the Marengo County Probate Court or the Alabama Secretary of State’s Office as of Monday evening.
Four days later, on April 5, Brownlee confirmed with Daily Kos that he remains unable to find any record of a formal sale.
And thus the burning question remains: Did a tiny Alabama paper owned by a man who called for the KKK to ride again actually get sold to a KKK Imperial Wizard who’s pretending to be his own imaginary brother?
It may seem silly to track this twisting and turning tale of a fumbling Imperial Wizard seeking to become a small town media mogul. Yet as hate groups and hate crimes continue to rise, and U.S. President and established racist Donald Trump continues to make gains in his manipulation war on the media, this is a situation worth monitoring. Goodloe Sutton routinely used his position as the editor, owner and publisher of the Democrat-Reporter to spread bigoted views in his community, so clearly there’s a precedent.
Linden, Ala. may only have a population of a couple thousand, and the Democrat-Reporter a circulation of even less than that, but if, indeed, an Imperial Wizard just took over, the KKK just bought themselves a platform that can be used to help spread their message of hate, without depending on companies like YouTube, Facebook, or even webhosting company GoDaddy, who are (finally) actively working to stop them.