News & Record editor apologizes for ‘offensive’ column featuring fictional couple

News & Record | New York Times 

The executive editor of the Greensboro (N.C.) News & Record has apologized for a Sunday column portraying a Tarheel couple in a manner readers found offensive.

Jeff Gauger wrote Tuesday that he “stumbled” when using a fictional couple named Vernon and Fleta Mae to discuss a July 9 New York Times editorial titled “The Decline of North Carolina.” The Times column decried changes in unemployment benefits in the state, as well as state spending cuts brought about by the Republican-controlled legislature.

Readers complained that Gauger’s column — in which Vernon said he didn’t care about the Times editorial ’cause it was written by a bunch of New York liberals” — was “demeaning and condescending.” The column didn’t indicate that Vernon and Fleta were fictional, though one may assume they were. Gauger said he had intended to use “an author’s license to satirize a point of view to help make a point.”

I’d intended for Vern to represent a universal hick: a mountain hillybilly in Washington state or eastern Ohio, a cornshucker in Nebraska, a sodbuster in Illinois, all places I have lived and know well.

The universal hick is an archetype. I thought that the manner with which I presented Vern’s speech reflected that archetype, and that readers would see him as a mere device.

It didn’t work. I tripped on that most important lodestar for any writer or journalist: Know your audience.

(As a Nebraska native, I feel compelled to mention the term is “Cornhusker,” not “cornshucker.”)

On Feb 22., Cherokee Scout publisher David Brown told readers in the N.C. town of Murphy he was sorry for his paper’s public records request for the names of citizens who applied for concealed weapons permits. Four days later editor Robert Horne resigned.

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