Inside Report: McAllister story ‘healthy for society’

Sam Hanna Jr. has been writing about the people and events of northeast Louisiana for decades, publishing stories and opinion pieces in his three newspapers.

It’s in his genes. His father was legendary newspaper editor and opinion writer Sam Hanna Sr., who died in 2006.

Hanna said he believes a huge part of reporting the news and opining about things is to have the spine to unveil unpleasant things for all to see. Such as video of the region’s once-rising political star U.S. Rep. Vance McAllister engaged in a passionate kiss with a woman who was not his wife.

“It was one of those rare occasions when you get a guy like McAllister, who thinks he’s bulletproof and perpetuated a lie to get elected,” Hanna said.

The video was date stamped Dec. 23, and McAllister, a father of five and husband to Kelly McAllister, had been elected weeks before on a Christian and family values platform.

In early April, the recording got dropped off at the biggest of Hanna’s three newspapers: the Ouachita Citizen in West Monroe, which with the Franklin Sun, in Jonesboro, and Concordia Sentinel, in Ferriday, comprise Hanna’s publishing company.

“As soon as we got (the video) we recognized what it was,” Hanna said, explaining he and his editors knew it was McAllister kissing a woman, but they didn’t know who the woman was.

To identify the woman, Hanna said, his news editor at the Ouachita Citizen, Zack Parker, spent a few days digging through records in parish courthouses. Hanna’s staff also explored Internet social media sites such as Facebook to identify the woman. She turned out to be the wife of a man who grew up 3 miles from McAllister, which in sparsely populated West Carroll Parish means a close neighbor.

The video of the tryst and accompanying story was posted April 7 on the websites of Hanna’s weekly papers.

Hanna said he knew the video would cause a storm in Louisiana, but then he started fielding calls from national media outlets such as The Washington Post and New York Times, international operations that cover the Democrat versus Republican vitriol in Washington, D.C. All the news outlets asked to air the video.

Internet traffic at his papers’ websites spiked. Usually pulling 100,000 page views a month, the McAllister story vaulted the number to 1 million a month. Subscriptions for his hard-copy papers rose, and papers in racks and in stores suddenly were sold out.

“It went off the charts with the McAllister piece,” he said. “Internet traffic is still a lot stronger than what it was.”

McAllister was a political star on the rise. With few financial contributions from others and no support from establishment Republicans, he self-financed a run for a special election to the 5th Congressional District, which incumbent Rodney Alexander had left with more than a year remaining on a two-year term. McAllister won handily after running a campaign based on “faith, family and country.” But his fall, which was immediate upon release of the video, fueled calls to resign from state and national Republican leaders, who never considered McAllister one of them. He also caught the wrath of voters who believed they had been duped.

Hanna, 44, said he caught grief from some who stood by McAllister, and some of them questioning what gave Hanna the right.

“I’ve had some problems in the past. I had it thrown in my face, ‘Hey Hanna, who are you to criticize Vance McAllister with your past history with alcohol,’ ” Hanna said.

“Quite frankly, I’ve been sober for 10 years,” Hanna said. “And at the same time I didn’t go run for Congress and (portray) myself to the voters as a devout Christian and devoted family man and father.”

He said the majority of people in northeast Louisiana agreed with his decision to make the video available for viewing, no matter how uncomfortable it made people.

“I think from time to time it’s healthy. It’s healthy for society, for people to have to stop in their tracks and actually think about something and get out of their comfort zone,” he said.

“The press doesn’t just have a right to bring that to the public’s attention, it has a responsibility,” he said.

Billy Gunn is a staff writer for The Acadiana Advocate. He can be reached at bgunn@theadvocate.com.