CASE STUDIES

This is the first in a series of articles from a case study of the Chatham (N.C.) News + Record.

By Buck Ryan
Associate professor, University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Media

The Chatham News + Record has been embroiled in coverage of issues surrounding a Confederate statue in front of the Chatham County Historic Courthouse, now a museum in Pittsboro, N.C.

Editor and Publisher Bill Horner III addressed the controversy in an editorial, “A message to the agitators: When enough is simply enough.” Inspired by the editorial, I conducted a Q&A with Horner:

What was the tipping point that led to your editorial?

The protests have attracted activists and extremists from outside Chatham County. A few neo-Confederate groups and a few extreme liberal groups have camped here on weekends and raised the level of rancor and added much hate to the mix. They needed to be called out on it. Our photographer would take pictures of groups of protesters and longtime residents would say, “I don’t recognize one person in that picture.”

It’s clearly gotten to the point where enough is enough. The statue issue is going to come down to a legal ruling; it’s not a popularity contest and it won’t be settled with a public vote. These Saturday protesters from outside Chatham County aren’t adding to the conversation. They’re bringing more anger and more hate into an already volatile situation, which accomplishes not one thing. That’s what drove me to write this latest editorial.

When did the Confederate statue issue first emerge?

The “Our Confederate Heroes” statue was erected in 1907, and I’ve heard anecdotally that it has been a point of contention for some of the county’s African-American population over the years. Pittsboro’s mayor recounted a conversation she had with a black resident recently who said many of those in the African-American community always thought the soldier in the “Our Confederate Heroes” monument was black.

For the most part, the issue of moving the statue didn’t get real steam until a local group called Chatham For All began this past spring to push the county commissioners to move it. The local group was led primarily by “new” Chatham residents who either retired here or transplanted here over the last few years from outside North Carolina. That’s what has angered so many of the locals, most of whom, it seems from my observation, have seen it simply as a memorial to those from the county who fought and sacrificed during the Civil War. So many people look at this as a case of outside agitators stirring up trouble where trouble didn’t exist before, but clearly the issue is more complicated and complex than that.

What has been your approach to the coverage?

Measured and balanced and not overblown. That’s been the goal.

So you have to look at our coverage of the discussions at public meetings and in the community about the future of the statue and the commissioners’ work to address it as one piece of our work, and the protests that have followed as another. Our focus has been on the former; we’ve tried hard not to do what some of the state’s TV stations have done in terms of sensationalizing the protests. All sorts of media come on Saturdays to show the protesters clash. It’s like a made-for-TV show. We’re watching, but telling the more relevant stories.

We recognize that some of the protesters are doing things for effect. Remember, the protests began after the county commissioners ruled that the statue’s owners, the United Daughters of the Confederacy’s local chapter, had to move it. So a lot of what’s happened since is bloviating and yelling and making noise. In those instances, we have to ask: Is this newsworthy? How newsworthy, in the scheme of things? Protesters are lining up on opposite sides now almost every Saturday in Pittsboro, our county seat, so we’re looking at issues such as, How are downtown businesses impacted? As opposed to, say, what are the arguments of the agitators who come in from out of state and scream and spit at those on the other side?

Playwright Arthur Miller once said, “A good newspaper, I suppose, is a nation talking with itself.” What have you done, beyond coverage, to promote a community conversation about the issue?

We’ve tried really hard to have broad and balanced coverage and explain the issues succinctly and clearly. Editorially, we chastised the UDC when they walked away from the negotiations with the county on the future of the statue; that was Chatham County’s one great opportunity to show everyone that we could do it right, and do it better, and solve a problem without pouting or pointing fingers. We’ve also welcomed guest columns and published letters to the editor about the statue.

But we’ve also worked at the same time to point out there are many more serious, many more significant issues that need addressing in Chatham County. Our “One Chatham” public forums, for example, have taken place during all this hullabaloo with the statue. We could have packed the house with a public forum about the statue, but instead one addressed socioeconomic inequality among our residents and another addressed poverty’s impact on public education. We also have had a series of stories about mental health issues in the Hispanic community and one man’s effort to lead a conversation about the county’s lynching legacy. We can’t guide conversation on the statue because there’s so little of it; as I said earlier, it’s a lot of yelling and not much listening. But we can tell the relevant stories in a measured way.

What have been the reactions from readers?

A few weeks ago, I received two email messages taking us to task. One woman railed about how it’s so obvious we’re in favor of having the statue removed. Another said we were horrible journalists because it was so clear we’re in favor of letting the statue remain. Both messages were referring to the same exact news story.

We got a very angry call from one elected official berating us for — and this is what he said — publishing stories that were “too balanced, too fair.” He thought our stories should have been slanted toward the statue’s removal.

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