Robert R. Douglas

Robert R. Douglas:
A Journalist Who Got It Right

White County Historical Society 2000 White County Heritage

Robert R. Douglas was 20 years old when he received maybe the most important news of his life: Japan had surrendered. World War II was over.

Douglas, a sailor on the carrier Essex in the Pacific, was asleep when the word came. “Somebody woke me up and told me the news,” he recalls. “I went back to sleep.”

His low-key response belied the relief he felt. Since joining the Essex in September 1943, Douglas had seen heavy combat on what was known as “the fightingest ship in the fleet.” The Essex served in more than 80 operations and won 13 battle stars, more than any other ship in the Pacific. In the first serious combat Douglas saw, the six ships of the task group led by the Essex came under attack from about 130 Japanese planes. Later, during the battle of Okinawa, the Essex and its support group were attacked 350 times in three months.

Douglas had known that if the Japanese didn’t surrender, his ship would be in the thick of an invasion that was expected to cost 1 million American lives. “I thought my number was up,” he says. “I had never thought so before, but I had a sense that the odds were getting real thin. We’d been so lucky.”

As it turned out, his ship, so long at sea, was sent home immediately after the surrender was announced. The Kensett, Arkansas, native who had never seen the ocean before entering the Navy, was on his way to a long and distinguished career in journalism, a profession he had picked for himself while still in the sixth grade.

Standing on the carrier’s flight deck during that final cruise, Douglas felt a sense of euphoria. “That was a great time of life,” he says. “Everything was going to be OK. The future couldn’t have been brighter.”

An avid reader of the Arkansas Gazette – “It was the usual male progression from the comics to the sports page to the general news columns” – Douglas had taken an early interest in public events. He recalls driving with his parents to the White County courthouse in Searcy to watch election returns in the 1930s. And, as a young boy, he formed a friendship with an adult neighbor who would go on to fame and infamy in state and national politics – Wilbur D. Mills.

After leaving the Navy, Douglas enrolled at the University of Arkansas, where he served as managing editor of the Arkansas Traveler before graduating with a degree in journalism in 1948. While visiting a friend at the Gazette, he was hired as a general assignment reporter, a job that paid him $40 a week and began his 33-year association with the oldest newspaper west of the Mississippi.

During his time at the Gazette, Douglas also worked as a copy editor, telegraph editor, news editor, and night managing editor. He was named managing editor Feb. 14, 1972. Douglas held editorial positions when the paper won two Pulitizer Prizes, the Freedom House Award, the John Peter Zenger Award, the Elijah Lovejoy Award – all earned as a result of its coverage of the 1957 crisis at Central High School. He led one unsuccessful newsroom strike (in 1949-50) and served as managing editor when a second attempt to organize newsroom employees failed (in 1974). Also as managing editor, Douglas formed the Gazette’s first team of investigative reporters and expanded the paper’s staff. He presided over the newsroom when Martha Mitchell made her famous late-night phone calls from Washington and when the Washington Post called to ask for help investigating an out-of-control Arkansas politician.

That politician was Congressman Wilbur Mills, the former White County judge who had taken a young Douglas to ball games and movies. “It was hard for me,” Douglas says. “I went the other way and overdid” the paper’s coverage of Mills’ drunken escapades with a stripper. To his credit, Mills never asked Douglas to kill the story, but when it was over he did invite the newspaper editor to his office. “For an hour and forty minutes I listened to him talk,” Douglas says. “He said he didn’t remember any of it. He’d been suffering from a serious back problem, and he said the doctors who prescribed tranquilizers for his pain hadn’t told him not to mix them with alcohol. I believed him.”

Douglas left the Gazette in 1981 to become chairman of the UA journalism department. “The department was underfunded,” he remembers. “They were doing the best they could with no equipment. They were teaching one class in the hall.”

Douglas worked to secure the department’s full accreditation and to start a master’s degree program that combined journalism with other disciplines such as history and political science. One of his more memorable battles rose out of his efforts to name the department for its founder, Walter J. Lemke. After the dean’s office had rejected the idea three times on the grounds that no other UA department was named for an individual, Douglas asked alumni to write letters to the chancellor urging the change.

“The chancellor called one day and said, ‘There’s a move on to name the department for Walter Lemke. Would you object?’ I said, ‘No, I guess that’s OK.’”

Douglas, who admits he wasn’t entirely sure what to do the first time he stepped into a classroom, now says, “Teaching has been very rewarding. I enjoyed the students and how receptive they were to learning and what great people they were. They were interested in the same things I was as a student: news-papers, newspaper presentation of the news and newspaper ethics."
Douglas retired from the University in 1991. He is married to Martha Leslie, the Gazette’s former radio and TV editor. He writes a weekly column for the Democrat-Gazette and does some newspaper and legal consulting.

Douglas’ idea of what constitutes good journalism hasn’t changed over the years: “A newspaper’s mission is to inform, entertain, and get it right. I don’t like gimmicks. I like straight journalism. That’s what really sells newspapers, and that’s what we ought to do.”

The RimThe preceding was written for the program for Bob Douglas Day, October 29, 1999, in the Department of Journalism at the University of Arkansas. White County Historical Society president Eddie Best and his wife Pat were members of the Gazette staff with Douglas from 1954 until 1965. Pat Best returned to the Gazette in 1972 and served as Douglas’ administrative assistant until he left for the U of A in 1981.