Virginia weekly editor reflects on racism flap

This past July, Giles Morris found himself at the center of a minor media storm. The newspaper he edits, C-Ville Weekly in Charlottesville, Va., printed a transcribed screed from a phone call to the paper saying blacks shouldn’t approach local restaurants hoping for free food. It was part of a print-only feature called “The Rant” that lets residents sound off on whatever they like, but a photo of the page spread online.

“It was a sort of intense and pretty scary couple of days,” Morris said by phone this week. The headlines — which he characterized as “Virginia newspaper says something racist” — were a surprise, he said: “I think that’s the thing that was so rough for me as an editor. We’ve always tried to be at the forefront of that conversation in the town.”

The offending piece, he said, ran in an issue of the paper with a cover story about finding middle ground on gun laws and a melancholy editor’s note about the verdict in George Zimmerman’s trial.

“We are the liberal paper in Charlottesville,” Morris said. Charlottesville is home to the University of Virginia and has a lot of media for a city with 44,000 residents, including the Warren Buffett-owned Daily Progress, another alt-weekly called The Hook, network TV affiliates, public TV and radio stations and a really good college station, not to mention various U.Va.-based publications including the Cavalier Daily.

The Rant preceded Morris, who became the paper’s editor two years ago after the Tuckasegee Reader, a news startup in Western North Carolina that he cofounded, ran out of gas. Like many features in alt-weeklies, it’s easier to keep around as a reliable page-filler than rethink. But it’s definitely a throwback to a different era, one when people who wanted to be heard picked up a phone and left a voicemail, which the paper would then transcribe into something resembling a conversation.

“I’d say it’s lost steam,” Morris said about the feature. “There are serial conversations that have evolved over time — stuff about socks, stuff about people picking their nose.” People use the rant to complain about cyclists, or really anything.

“I get complaints about the Rant every week,” he said. “I also get complaints about the Rant from people who always read the Rant.” Every week, he said, “we publish a highly curated editorial product, and in the back we have this free speech wall that shows you what people are talking about.”

Morris said he and the staff of five full-timers decided after the fracas that they “want to leave [The Rant] behind,” but they don’t have a timeline yet for figuring out its replacement. “[O]ur policy has been only to edit rants that contain libel or hate speech,” the paper said in a printed apology after the restaurants screed ran. “Giving voice to racist sentiments is not consistent with the mission of this paper or the aim of The Rant.”

Someone called C-Ville claiming to be the author of that diatribe and saying he was African-American, Morris said. That person didn’t leave a phone number.

The Associated Press, The Blaze and local TV station WVIR-TV covered the controversy and protests outside the newspaper’s office. 196 people signed an online petition. A Virginia group called the Wayside Center claimed victory after the apology.

Morris said he went out and to speak to protesters on July 22, when they gathered outside C-Ville’s offices. He apologized to one protester, Deirdre Gilmore, and TV cameras. “There was a guy there who was shouting me down and calling me a lot of unflattering things,” he said. “I was outside for about a half hour after agreeing to stay late to talk to them. Seemed like a fair chunk of time for a small group who wouldn’t accept my apology. So then I went inside, packed up, and went home.”

In a press release, the Wayside Center’s Jeff Winder called the apology “Sadly Lacking” and promised his center would meet “during the coming days to develop on ongoing strategy to put an end to this irresponsible and destructive practice.” I emailed and phoned Winder asking for an update on those efforts but didn’t hear back.

Morris is still frustrated that so much reaction arose from a print piece that few people saw in context. “It’s not hate speech,” he said. “It’s a shitty thing to put in a newspaper.”

“We’re roller skating with scissors with a staff this small,” he said. Things have mostly blown over since July. He met with leaders in the African-American community in Charlottesville, all of whom, he said, told him things were OK.

The paper published an ambitious project this week, a “Snow Fall”-like examination of a planned bypass called “The Road,” whose story touches on everything that makes the South such a complicated place — race, class, money, development, history. At one point in the piece, author Graelyn Brashear takes one of the road’s loudest critics and one of its strongest proponents on a ride along its proposed route in her Honda Fit.

The Daily Progress doesn’t have the “bandwidth or mission” to look at such a project this way, Morris said. A weekly can help readers “conceptualize a complex issue.”

“What we’re just interested in saying is here’s a local issue,” he said. “It’s complicated.”

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  • Greg Thrasher

    Hate speech is an American pastime the majority often done in a cowardly manner …