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Commentary : TV REPORTER WHO KEEPS THE SOUND OF THE SOUTH

January 23, 1986|DAVID CROOK | Times Staff Writer

If Supreme Court correspondent Fred Graham leaves CBS News, network television will be losing its first literate Southerner who was proud--or stubborn--enough to sound like one.

After a contract dispute last fall, Graham was scheduled to depart CBS on Saturday. But last-minute negotiations considerably more confusing than the terms signed at Appomattox may be extending for a while his occupation of the network's offices in the Union capital.

Nonetheless, Graham's 14-year stay at CBS has meant much to me. His presence on the national news taught, too late for me, a great lesson about my region, my past and myself.

"If I had made an effort to lose my accent," Graham said in a telephone chat the other day, "I think I would have felt it would have been a bit intellectually dishonest. . . . I am what I am."

Graham's appearances on CBS mean that it's all right to sound as if one comes from some place.

I don't, you see. Other than a steadfast insistence on the use of "y'all" as English's only appropriate second person plural, absolutely nothing in my speech even hints that I am a Southerner of unimpeachable heritage.

My maternal grandmother's family grew and prospered in the environs of Oxford, Miss., which is best known as the home of the state's university and of William Faulkner, who named the town "Jefferson" and the county "Yoknapatawphwa," taking the name from a narrow river seeping into the delta's broad, flat, alluvial Cotton Kingdom from the loam-poor hills where my great-grandfather, who was called Big Daddy by his one-quarter-Choctaw wife, 13 children and countless lesser progeny, founded the Methodist Church at the small town of Yokna long before my grandmother and Texas-bred grandfather settled in the steep hills of the Civil War citadel at Vicksburg, from which my mother moved to the great metropolis of Memphis to meet and to marry my Arkansas-born, Tennessee-reared father, whose home city dominates the economic and cultural life of three states and sends some of its native sons, like this one, to study at Tulane University in Catholic New Orleans to discover Carnival, Desire and pompano cooked in a brown paper bag while they learn to write sentences meandering through ox-bow loops of dependent clauses like the great artery uniting and dividing a culture that was already decadent when California dozed a distant province of Mexico.

"You sure don't sound like it," Graham said on the telephone. He was repeating a variation on a comment that I have heard for years.

It is because of what Graham does for a living that I don't have an accent and because of Graham that I sometimes regret not having one.

As well as a son of Tennessee, I am a child of television, the only member of my family in fact who has no memory of a time when no set occupied a place in our house. I recall vividly when Arkansas-born, Oxford-educated (the other one) Fred Graham joined CBS News from the New York Times in 1972.

Before Graham, TV presented only three symbols of the South: Confederate flags, "Dixie" and the accent. The last rarely denoted anything other than a person from an intellectual backwater populated by Jed Clampetts, Gomer Pyles and, in news shows, an assortment of racists distinguishing themselves only by the water pressure in the fire hoses that they trained on civil rights marchers. "There was a clear implication," Graham said, "that all Southerners were rednecks or Ku Kluxers. . . . I felt it was unfair to stigmatize people from an entire region based on a stereotype."

Being an ambitious sort with horizons stretching far beyond the sea of cotton fields that surrounded my home city, I began at a young age to work at getting rid of my accent. To keep it, I believed, doomed me. To sound like the TV voices, I believed, was a first step out.

I remember well, then, when Graham took to the airwaves. Here was a fellow who made it out but kept that wonderful, warming, friendly talk that I had known since infancy.

Graham sounded just like the folks at home (maybe a bit Georgian), but there he was on TV standing in front of the Supreme Court doing the job of a real live national journalist. He was a broadcaster in that long and noble lineage of Southern intellectuals, stretching clear back to Thomas Jefferson, who, before radio and TV, never had to endure the humiliation of sounding like a fool.

"There were some ashen faces around CBS News" when he showed up on the air, Graham recalled. "They didn't fully appreciate how much of a Southern accent I had."

He remembered being handed a tape recorder and told to practice his speech at home. "I was a little appalled myself," he said.

Graham believes that his presence on TV has done much to erase the negative connotations of the South that were still very much a part of the country as late as the 1960s. Other Southern accents have come out of the video closet since. CBS commentator Bill Moyers, a son of Texas, has kept his accent.

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