LOCAL PRESS UNDER PRESSURE: THE VIEW FROM CHARLOTTESVILLE
This article originally ran in the Guardian, and was a collection of the local coverage following the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, VA.
A week-long sampling of the output of the Daily Progress newspaper in the Virginia city hit by racist protests reveals the enduring value of local journalism.
When an internationally newsworthy incident happens, as it did recently in Charlottesville, the Big Media descend, write and move on swiftly. But the local journalists, who were serving that community before the incident, remain and carry on reporting.
Using Charlottesville as an Anyplace, it is an opportunity to highlight an under-appreciated service at this time of challenges to journalism’s legitimacy and its economic underpinnings.
For a week, I regularly visited the website of the Daily Progress, Charlottesville’s local paper. What might it add to an understanding of the tragedy of 11-15 August, when a racist crowd gathered in Charlottesville, was opposed by counter-protesters, killed one, and prompted the extraordinary spectacle of the US president equating opponents of neo-Nazis with neo-Nazis?
What follows is part update, part glimpse of unresolved societal tensions, and part tribute to those who put together the Daily Progress in a pressured period. Like local news services in many parts of the world, their efforts demonstrate in a practical, relatable way the importance of journalism to community, civil society and functioning democracy.
Scrolling down from the Daily Progress masthead’s old-fashioned typeface, beneath a carousel of ads reproduced just as they appear in the printed paper, you learn in “about us” that the paper was established 1892, was 78 years in one family, and is now owned by a subsidiary of the Warren Buffett-led Berkshire Hathaway. The website design is tidy and staid, the tone of the small headlines low-key.
These fragments start from 16 August (the day after Donald Trump’s fiery news conference) when the paper reported the memorial service for Heather Heyer, the counter-protester killed the previous weekend when a car was driven at speed into a crowd.
• Headline: “NC [North Carolina] man in Confederate uniform with rifle in Emancipation Park met by counter-protesters”.
• Headline: “Man beaten at protest says police were indifferent to attack”. The black man was beaten by white men under media gaze in a garage next to the police station. More than a week later, the Virginia governor said he too wanted to see arrests and prosecutions.
• Report: University of Virginia library employee (and activist) Tyler Magill is in a fair condition after a delayed response to his clash with white supremacists: “doctors found his carotid artery was partially dissected, which caused a clot that resulted in a stroke. It is believed the stroke is the result of blunt force trauma to the neck.” The online appeal to defray his medical bills is called “Tyler’s Stroke of Genius Recovery”.
• Various community healing events include “Clear eyes and full hearts: debriefing and moving forward” and a peace rally where organisers prefer “no protest signs referring to various hate groups, or the president”.
• After the maker of Merrywhite Bread posted disparaging comments about the death of Heyer, calls poured in to a market “demanding that the owner stop selling the bread, and he obliged”. Another store said the breadmaker “had come to their business and removed the bread himself”.
• Citing risk to the campus community, University of Virginia denies a request from “alt-right” figure Richard Spencer to rent a venue for a September event.
• Report that workers had begun drilling holes for parking meters at the site of Heyer’s death. Update later: work called off.
• Headline: “Richmond mayor: Confederate monuments should stay with context added”. Levar Stoney “said he was aware of a pending application with the state for a rally next month at the Robert E. Lee statue on Monument Avenue”.
• Headline: “FBI trying to ID people spotted with Fields before car attack”. (James A Fields Jr is the driver charged over the death of Heyer.) Subheading: “Two sources have confirmed that FBI officials recently spoke with workers at the Shell station on Preston Avenue and reviewed video footage taken from the gas station.” Text: “The footage allegedly shows Fields with an unknown number of people not long before 1:40 p.m. on Saturday, the recorded time of the fatal crash.”
• Report: Virginia state police say governor was mistaken when he said police had found weapons “stashed around the city” during Saturday’s white nationalist rally.
• Sometimes vitriolic comment threads beneath articles, for example, about the opposing protester groups, about whom police should prosecute, on whether statues should be removed, and about how authorities, including Trump, behaved.
• Photos of students, accompanied by parents, moving into university to prepare for new term.
• Notice to residents about “concealed carry training” [for firearms permit] offered at the practice range by Orange County parks and recreation and the sheriff’s office.
• Heyer’s mother, Susan Bro, visits site of daughter’s death: “Love is what’s keeping me going.”
• Editorial: criticises city officials for not ensuring the demonstration was at McIntire Park, where police could have kept the two groups apart more easily. But the Daily Progress says it recognises why a judge ruled against the city’s last-minute attempt to force the rally to be moved: “the judge said he found sufficient evidence that the city’s decision was based on its opposition to [the ‘alt-right’ organiser’s] political viewpoints … The law and the constitution require a neutral approach toward speech, in all but the most narrowly defined instances.”
• Letter to the editor about challenging racists without physically confronting them: “Operation Care Bear Stare … called for volunteers to donate stuffed Care Bears and place the dozens of bears opposite the racists before the protest so the media and counter-protesters would see a bunch of Care Bears facing down the hate. … An Art-in-Place permit was applied for so the bears would not be disturbed, but the city police denied the permit because of fears someone would hide an explosive device in the bears. Yes, a permit was granted for violent, armed racists to provocatively rally … twice, but placing stuffed bears on the sidewalk was deemed too dangerous.”
• Report about the heavily armed men in combat gear filmed in the streets at the weekend demonstrations. On the right, the Three Percenters, mostly military veterans. On the left, the Redneck Revolt. Each is said to have got between opposing protesters to avert more clashes. A Three Percenter is quoted: “Most organisations like us train on a regular basis, so it’s no surprise that no shots were fired. We disagree politically [with the Redneck Revolt] but they’re good people.”
• Headline: “Councilors vote to shroud Confederate statues at meeting overwhelmed by anger”. Report (updated at 1.11am) of a chaotic meeting at which the Charlottesville council voted unanimously to cover the city’s statues of Confederate generals in black fabric, “which will represent the city’s mourning of Heather Heyer. … Within 30 minutes of starting its meeting, the entire city council, the city attorney, the city manager and council clerk all retreated into a backroom. Two women stood on top of the dais with a banner: ‘Blood on your hands.’” The comment thread beneath the report has a strong pro-statue theme.
All this is condensed, impressionistic and refracted through a non-American’s eyes. Concluding anything from it about the bigger themes would be unwise. But I think it does convey something of the enduring value of local journalism.