One of my friends in town told me a while ago that he always liked what I wrote, but he wondered why I was not feared as an editor. I told him I was not sure, but that maybe it was because I was more interested in building the framework for conversations than expressing my own priorities. But there is more to it than that.
A few months back, I was accused of promoting hate speech because of something that ran in The Rant section of C-VILLE Weekly. A group of protesters came to the office with television cameras. I went out to meet them and to apologize and they shouted me down. One of them called me a Nazi, and others called our paper racist. It was an ironic turn for me, since I have worked as a community organizer and participated in that kind of protest. I didn’t say much at the time, but I had mixed emotions about what had happened. On the one hand I was contrite that an editing oversight the week after the Trayvon Martin verdict broke had led to hurt feelings in the black community and then to an uproar of righteous, liberal indignation mostly generated by white people.
On the other hand, I felt that our paper in my time running it had worked hard to change the discourse around race issues in Charlottesville, and I was miffed that I had gotten caught up in one of those newly-minted Facebook hurricanes that seems to drive the news weather so often nowadays. Still, I was not proud of our paper’s part in what happened, so I ate crow.
Last week, another media storm blew in the windows. This time I was accused of limiting free speech after I shut down the online comment section on a story about an alleged assault on the Downtown Mall. Our story, which Courteney Stuart reported, went viral after it got picked up on The Drudge Report. What I had read as an unresolved crime story that led into a number of complex local issues (safety on the Downtown Mall, local law enforcement, race tension, social media as a reporting tool) was reduced to an abstract by over 400,000 readers in a matter of minutes. Nationally, people took the assault as an example of black on white violence and used it to reflect on a host of conservative issues, like open carry and, to come full circle, the Obama administration’s handling of the Trayvon Martin verdict.
I shut the comments down because many of them were hateful, not in any abstract way, but very literally. You cannot say the n-word in our paper. Or call a race of people animals. Or threaten violence. The sheer volume of those kind of responses would have made deleting them a job distraction, so I closed the strand. I didn’t think twice about it.
After I made that decision, the hate-mongers turned on me. They called me names. Filled my inbox. Sent letters. A few of them even left threatening phone calls. One of them was actually scary. The ones who didn’t call me a traitor to my race said I was an enemy of free speech or a lily-livered liberal hack. I even got called a Nazi again, this time on Twitter.
All of this happened before the New Year on a Monday, and when I got in on Thursday there were people who were still wondering if I was an enemy of free speech. I am not. I am an editor of a newspaper, and typically newspapers protect the right to free speech. But that does not mean we put everything in our newspapers. If you want to call a race of people cruel names, write it on a posterboard and walk down the Mall. Don’t send it to our newspaper or put it on our website. If you want to talk seriously about race in Charlottesville, tell it like it is, but be polite about it and make an argument your neighbors can respond to.
A little context for this effusion of words. My wife and l spent a little bit more than a year living on the backwaters of the Wisconsin River in the Northwoods. I was the general assignment reporter at the Rhinelander Daily News. We had two neighbors on the river. On one side, the Wakeleys kept an out-of-town cabin. The elder Wakeley ran for Oneida County Sheriff every year and never got any votes. Before the election in 2008 he and his sons built an Obama bunker. In case the world went to hell because our country had elected a black president, they would have some canned goods and a hole to shoot out of. After we moved in, they prominently displayed a bumper sticker that read “Ignore the liberal, lying media.”
On the other side of us were the Bandows. Bill Bandow ran a surveying company that his grandfather had started before the turn of the century. Bill was a Libertarian sort of fellow of Acadian descent who worked for a Democratic county government. He didn’t want to be told what he could and couldn’t do with his dock on the river but he also didn’t want to see it ruined by vacationland seasonal residents with overcharged bass boats. In northern Wisconsin, no one talked about race; taxes, specifically for schools, was the topic that got people calling each other names. So there we were the three of us lined up in a row on a bend in the river that opened up first in the spring, inviting itinerant loons and cranes, otters and muskrats, pintails and wood ducks. We shared a view.
I have sometimes mentioned that I am a fifth generation journalist on my father’s side. I am not bragging. In fact, I would bet I am likely the fourth best newsman in that line. It is more something I relate as a way to explain the way I do my job, which is to say with a sense of the long view, so that when I get called names in the furious conversation that is media in today’s opinionated online world, it mostly rolls off of my back. In the past six months, I have been called a racist, first by liberal activists for allegedly publishing “hate speech” and last week by white supremacists for editing their hate speech out of our online comments stream.
When I was leaving the paper in Wisconsin, having reported on 20-30 stories a week for a year, I wrote an editorial, in more or less the same style I write this column, in which I told people what I thought of the issues I’d covered in the community. It generated an energetic comment stream. Some people called me, as they still do, a self-absorbed pseudo-intellectual spouting drivel. One commenter wrote to say that I would win a Pulitzer Prize when I learned to say exactly what I think.
Well, here’s what I think about being the editor of a newspaper and being called a racist by liberals and conservatives a few months apart and how that all relates to why I’m not feared as an editor. It is very difficult to be seen these days, and when you are it is usually because you moved against the grain, so that like a fish flickering in the shallows, you draw the attention of a cold eye looking for prey. I recently attended a dinner and the subject of race relations in Charlottesville came up. Some people thought the problem really didn’t exist, or if it did, that it was an unfortunate holdover from a past that we had already moved past. Other people, including myself, think the city stands at a moral crossroads.
The “race problem” in Charlottesville will solve itself in a few short years. The city’s black population is shrinking steadily, because there are not enough opportunities, culturally and professionally, for upwardly mobile African-Americans who grow up here and because those who remain poor are being priced out by the housing market and a lack of jobs. Increasingly, the city’s historic black neighborhoods will melt away, its population base concentrated around the public housing stock. When and if that stock deteriorates, federal funding evaporates, or the city implements a voucher system, its black population will drop dramatically before it levels off, probably somewhere around 10 percent.
The educated, mobile, professional class that is Charlottesville’s future doesn’t have a race problem; it is multi-ethnic, multi-racial, and not tied to local history. So the question, with regard to race in Charlottesville, is whether the city has a moral obligation to help preserve its black population or whether it should let economics and demographics create a new equilibrium in which class is the primary delineation of social conflict. And that’s a question whose answers are liable to get you called a racist by people on both sides of the issue, which may be why it doesn’t come up much.