A Koppel of Thoughts About Mayberry
By Jim Clark
Reporter Ted Koppel’s story about Mount Airy, N.C., and Mayberry (Sept. 19 edition of CBS’ “Sunday Morning”) ruffled some feathers in Andy Griffith’s hometown and in the normally tranquil nest of Mayberry fans. A lot of veins in necks are still popping and a lot of jaw muscles are still working.
Some folks were upset that Mr. Koppel, or anyone else for that matter, would dare ask provocative questions or say a discouraging word involving Mayberry or while visiting Mount Airy. They feel strongly that no one should ever use Mayberry as a springboard for having a meaningful discussion about controversial issues of the day, and most especially touching on anything as divisive as politics.
And while I, too, might have preferred that Mr. Koppel’s story be just a pure love story about Mayberry, Mount Airy, the feel-good, wholesome entertainment of TAGS, and the dreamy appeal of the simple life and an uncomplicated time, I have to stand up for Mr. Koppel and his right to ask any questions he would like and to dig into whatever issues he wants to.
What has compelled me to write something in support of Mr. Koppel’s reporting is the firestorm of comments on social media and elsewhere against Mr. Koppel from Mayberry fans, who weren’t just disagreeing with the gist of Mr. Koppel’s reporting (which everyone has the right to do), but were also personally attacking him more broadly as a member of an untrustworthy news media and even as an “enemy of the people.”
While I feel as emotionally invested in and protective of “The Andy Griffith Show” and the ideal of “Mayberry” as anybody, I feel equally protective of the importance of free and full-bodied press in any society, but especially in a democracy like ours.
And I also believe Ted Koppel is among the most distinguished journalists working during our lifetimes. To say that he is an “enemy of the people” or that he did a “hit piece” on Mayberry just because he raised questions and discussed issues that some people didn’t want to hear about is, I think, misguided.
While the first handful of members of TAGSRWC and I were busy escaping to Mayberry in an organized way during the early months of 1980, Mr. Koppel was anchoring the first installments of ABC’s “Nightline,” which became the nation’s nightly vigil for the American hostages in Iran.
In the four decades since then, Mr. Koppel has done nothing but distinguish himself as a fair and thoughtful journalist. Does he sometimes ask questions that make people uncomfortable? Yes. And that’s usually a good thing, because it can widen our scope of thinking and understanding. That’s also his job.
We as fans have every right to resist discussions of politics and other controversial topics on our own Mayberry websites, in our own newsletters and in other fan-controlled forums. We often even have clear written rules in those settings about limiting comments and discussions just to positive things about “The Andy Griffith Show” and Mayberry. We have moderators who make sure the discussions obey all rules. The moderators nip the comments in the bud when people stray from the prescribed focus.
And that’s all fine. But it’s a different thing when we blast a reporter from outside our Mayberry bubble for violating our self-imposed, internal rules. Mr. Koppel didn’t sign up for those rules. He has different obligations and responsibilities, and they’re important ones.
I also think that once we as fans went from just watching TAGS episodes as entertainment and enjoying TAGS as an art form and instead started holding up Mayberry as an ideal to be aspired to (which I’m all for and have been a part of promoting), then an examination of what Mayberry is, what Mayberry means and even what makes Mayberry fans tick is fair game. It would be lazy reporting to try to understand Mayberry without asking some probing questions, including some that might make Mayberry fans squirm a little.
And in fact, there are striking parallels to just that sort of investigation of Mayberry in TAGS episodes themselves. In “Stranger in Town,” Ed Sawyer is essentially like Ted Koppel. He has found out things about folks in Mayberry that make them uncomfortable. The main difference between Ed Sawyer and Ted Koppel is that Ed read the Mayberry Gazette and learned about folks in Mayberry before he came to town. Mr. Koppel, on the other hand, came to town to learn about Mayberry (and Mount Airy) and its citizens and visitors. Out of all the towns that either Ed or Ted could have chosen, each picked Mayberry.
When Opie did his investigation in “The Battle of Mayberry” episode, he was also like Ted Koppel. Just as Mr. Koppel perturbed some people with his questions and some of the beliefs and truths that were revealed in the answers he got, so did Opie also upset the citizens of Mayberry when he discovered and wrote about what turned out to be unheroic true facts about the Battle of Mayberry.
In the whole 13 minutes of Mr. Koppel’s report about Mayberry, I noticed only two statements of fact by him that were in error. First, he said that the scene of Andy and Opie strolling to the Fishin’ Hole in the opening credits was filmed on a backlot in Culver City rather than at Franklin Canyon Reservoir. And he said that TAGS was canceled, when, as fans know, Andy Griffith just decided to end the series. Both errors are common and minor.
More than trivial quibbles or even Mr. Koppel’s questions themselves, I think it was the answers he got that made many people the most uncomfortable.
Without drifting from a defense of a free press and solid journalism into a discussion of politics, I think it’s safe to say that where a viewer is on the political spectrum, from left to right, likely determines whether that viewer was cringing or cheering about the responses from the people riding the Good Time Trolley in the second half of Mr. Koppel’s story.
Either way, I believe they were fair questions of our times for Mr. Koppel to ask, and he let the folks speak their minds at length. I also noticed that the tourists on the trolley didn’t take a lot of coaxing from Mr. Koppel to begin passionately sharing their political beliefs, for better or for worse.
Whether the responses by the trolley passengers represent a majority view among Mayberry fans, whether the trolley passengers had a sound factual basis for their sincere, heartfelt opinions, and whether Mr. Koppel could have included Mayberry fans with very different views are questions for another forum. My purpose here is simply to defend the importance of Mr. Koppel’s right as a journalist to ask whatever questions he wants of whomever he wants and to report the story in a responsible way, which I think he did.
I also believe Calvin Vaughn, the trolley’s popular tour guide, spoke for many when he reminded Mr. Koppel, “This conversation about politics and division is what people come here to get away from. We don’t care what color you are. We don’t care what your politics are. We just want to be good neighbors and treat everybody alike.”
That yearning for a kinder, gentler place and time is in fact a big part of what draws many visitors to Mount Airy and many viewers to TAGS. I think it’s also worth noting that Mr. Koppel even-handedly chose to include Calvin Vaughn’s remarks in his story.
Getting to the heart of the matter, Mr. Koppel’s story also included the concerns of a trolley passenger who said, “I just hope, when this airs, it won’t show Southerners as a bunch of dumb idiots–like so many parts of the country do, you know? We have a lot of love in our hearts. We love our country. We love our fellow man. And if the rest of the country felt like that, it would be a better place.” Mr. Koppel allowed the passenger’s earnest plea to speak for itself.
Some fans thought it was snarky that Mr. Koppel asked an Ohio family he encountered in Mount Airy whether they were worried that their young child watching four hours (“or more”) of TAGS per weekday might “turn his little brain to mush.” I believe that was a totally legitimate question for Mr. Koppel to ask.
Assuming that little boy sleeps eight hours per night, if he’s watching TAGS for a quarter of his remaining, waking hours on most days, that might indeed be considered a worrisome amount of time for a developing mind to be spending watching a screen, especially if he’s also staring at a screen watching other things during other parts of his day.
Mr. Koppel fairly gave the adults with the child a chance to fully answer his question. They justified the four hours of daily TAGS watching (at least on weekdays in the summer, when school is out) as “good, clean comedy” and as having “morals, values,” while adding, “You don’t see that a lot today on TV.”
As a founder of a club with “Rerun Watchers” in its name, it’s hard for me to argue with any of that. (That said, I can see now that it probably wasn’t wise during the early days of TAGSRWC for me to be cutting classes in order to watch TAGS.) While watching TAGS is arguably more interesting than planting spinach as Aunt Bee had Opie doing that time, Miss Crump might suggest maybe trying only an hour or two of TAGS a day for a young child and seeing if he then discovers some additional interests and finds some new horizons with the newly available time.
As reporters before him often have been, Mr. Koppel was also interested in the fact that there were few Black people seen on TAGS and that the only Black person with a speaking part was Rockne Tarkington’s Flip Conroy, the accomplished pianist who was also Opie’s new football coach in “Opie’s Piano Lesson.”
TAGS is frequently singled out for the lack of diversity depicted in Mayberry. And I very much agree that TAGS would have benefited from being more racially diverse, inclusive and well-integrated. (There’s also a fair amount of male chauvinism in Mayberry. That foible was mostly used as a lever for generating laughs in the storylines, which usually ended with a degree of enlightenment, at least for Andy. But Ted Koppel’s story didn’t focus on that aspect of Mayberry, so I won’t do so here either.)
A lack of both diversity and positive portrayals of minorities was also true of virtually all of television’s programming during the first couple of decades of television. While many other television shows of that era (and their shortcomings) are usually forgotten, TAGS remains enormously popular, which, almost by default, has made Mayberry a 1960s touchstone in popular culture.
The show’s continuing popularity makes it an easily recognized and relevant example to use for illustrating a lack of diversity. I don’t think it’s fair that TAGS gets singled out for its lack of diversity or that today’s more evolved views often don’t also get applied to other shows of the early era of television. But TAGS is head and shoulders above most other television shows in both quality and longevity, and every Mayberry fan knows that it’s the giraffes, not the dogs, that get struck by lightning.
Mr. Koppel also brought up the fact that TAGS noticeably didn’t address the serious concerns of its time (especially the Cold War, disturbing assassinations, the turmoil of the civil rights movement and the war in Vietnam), and he’s right. Of course, that avoidance was deliberate by Andy Griffith and the TAGS producers. Their mission was not to debate, legislate or preach, but rather simply to create a half hour of compelling entertainment for CBS each week. Then as now, TAGS was a great escape from the headaches of the real world.
Over time, Mayberry has taken on broader meanings for us fans (and for Americans as a whole, including journalists). I think that, at least every once in a while, it’s maybe a good idea for all of us–devoted fans and outside journalists alike–to take a deep breath and remember that TAGS was and, at its heart, still is a show created for the simple purpose of telling good, entertaining stories. And TAGS just happens to be wholesome and nostalgic as well.
Maybe we sometimes burden our watching of TAGS and our loving of Mayberry with too much unnecessary personal and cultural baggage. At airports these days, all baggage gets scanned, and the largest bags also need to be checked. Maybe that’s how it should also be with how we handle our trips to Mayberry.
Mr. Koppel talked with three African-American siblings, including scholar Dr. Evelyn Scales Thompson. All three had grown up in Mount Airy in the years before TAGS. (Each moved away for a time, but all three eventually returned and are current Mount Airy residents.) Each recalled the discrimination they had faced in Mount Airy. That discrimination was wrong and is regrettable. As painful as it might be to hear, that history of imperfect real life in Mount Airy and elsewhere deserves to be described and remembered. The siblings also expressed happiness about life in Mount Airy today.
Even so, trying to draw connections between stories about life in Mount Airy and what viewers like about TAGS or what Mayberry fans hope to find when they visit Mount Airy is a case of comparing apples to oranges. All are valid experiences, but life in the real Mount Airy and the stories of fictional Mayberry are separate matters.
And maybe in the end, Mr. Koppel understood that distinction when he stated, “Somehow Mount Airy becomes more complex with each conversation that I have.” He added, “Mount Airy is a place where fantasy and reality intersect.” Or, putting it another way, Mr. Koppel also noted that visitors seem to come to Mount Airy “searching for what made America great in a copy of a town that never was.” I think that’s a fair observation.
I’m glad that Mr. Koppel cared enough about TAGS, Mount Airy and the phenomenon of Mayberry to make a visit to Mount Airy and do a thoughtful story. Parts of his story made many fans uneasy, or “tensed” as Goober would say. Others resented Mr. Koppel for poking the happy Mayberry cocoon that they prefer to keep always completely undisturbed. But I think TAGS, Mayberry, Mount Airy and those of us who love all three of those things can be enlightened by reporting like Mr. Koppel’s.
When Barney looks in the mirror, he sometimes sees Rock Hudson or maybe an amazing resemblance to Frank Sinatra. When Floyd looks at himself, he might see a “miserable, deceitful wretch.” Self-reflection can be useful. And just as important, I believe, is having insight into how others see us. With his report, Mr. Koppel provided us Mayberry fans with just such a glimpse.
I think our country and our democracy are stronger because of reporters like Mr. Koppel. And whether it’s CBS News or the Mount Airy News, or for that matter, The eBullet, the Mayberry Gazette or Opie and Howie’s Mayberry Sun, I believe we’re better off as a Mayberry community and as a society and also stronger as a democracy when we celebrate a strong, truth-seeking and independent press rather than besmirching those who do reporting we don’t like as being the “enemy of the people.”
And no matter what reporting goes on in the real world, it’s nice to know we can always watch TAGS (or even the recent Mayberry Man movie and Mayberry Effect documentary) and take a relaxing trip to Mayberry any time we want. And by all means, be sure to visit Mount Airy, too.
As Mount Airy’s Dr. Thompson told Mr. Koppel, “What Andy has projected is a quiet, peaceful town with everybody happy. Everybody’s looking for peace. … It’s a good place.”
But truly, folks, maybe think twice about that four hours a day of TAGS watching for youngsters and their developing brains!
Jim Clark is a founder and Presiding Goober Emeritus of TAGSRWC. (If he weren’t already fully” emeritusized” before writing this piece, he would probably have to be now.)
Note: For a humorous musical counter point of view to the above essay, check out this video of bluegrass musician Tim White’s “Ted Koppel Song” sometime when you’re on Facebook. If nothing else, Mr. Koppel can now say he has inspired a folk song to be written about him.