‘A watershed moment’: How The Bitter Southerner covered Charlottesville

When a car rammed into a crowd of protesters at a White nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, last Saturday, Chuck Reece knew he had to do something.

"It just kind of became clear to all of us really that it was kind of a watershed moment in the South," he said. "We haven’t seen images like that in a long time, and we knew we would have to do something to respond to it."

So Reece, editor in chief of The Bitter Southerner — a digital multimedia magazine aimed at telling "real stories of the American South" — called up his small staff and smattering of contributors to brainstorm. After speaking with his part-time Managing Editor Tim Turner, politics columnist Tom Lee and Publisher Eric NeSmith, Reece settled on publishing the group's initial reactions to the violence and displays of racism.

His reflection was forceful.

"White people in the South who know better must call out our neighbors and family members who apologize for or justify the actions of murderers, the actions of the deluded, the actions of the cowards, the actions of the dangerous," Reece wrote. "When we hear the code words, the dog whistles, or even completely overt expressions of racism, people like us no longer have a choice."

Since that initial piece — which features the perspectives of Reece, Turner and Lee — The Bitter Southerner has published several stories in the aftermath of Charlottesville. Last week, freelance photographer Pat Jarrett wrote a first-person account of the White nationalist rally, where he was only about 10 feet away when James Alex Fields Jr. allegedly rammed his car into a crowd and killed Heather Heyer. The publication also published several full-length essays from readers reflecting on the tragedy and its repercussions in the South, as well as a column on hip-hop and anti-racism.

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Poynter caught up with Reece to talk about The Bitter Southerner's approach to covering racist violence in the South, the importance of the publication's readers to its storytelling mission and the problem with national news organizations' coverage of Charlottesville. This Q-and-A has been shortened for clarity.

In the aftermath of the events in Charlottesville this past weekend, The Bitter Southerner has taken a pretty aggressive approach in addressing the underlying issues at play. Walk me through how you’ve gone about covering it.

My wife Stacy and I were at my mother-in-law's house in Watkinsville (Georgia) on Saturday when all the violence broke out. And after the car rammed into the protesters, it just kind of became clear to all of us really that it was kind of a watershed moment in the South, you know? I mean, not to mention the whole nation. We haven’t seen images like that in a long time, and we knew we would have to do something to respond to it.

So on Saturday evening, we started talking among ourselves what we were going to do … The three of us basically agreed to sort of write different pieces that were particularly about our own feelings and reactions to the event, and those things got woven into the politics column that we ran on Monday. Now, in writing that column, we knew that we wanted to talk to somebody that had been on the scene, and I noticed on Facebook actually that Pat Jarrett, who had shot photographs for us before, had posted on Facebook that he was about 10 feet away when the car rammed into the group of counter-protesters.

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We don’t have the money at this stage in the game to send a photographer and a reporter to every event like this around the South, because not every one of them is going to turn into a story for us ... and so we were fortunate that no one had laid claim to Pat’s pictures. And essentially what we decided to do was to take the photographs and simply to pair them with his first-person account, because we felt like that was probably the best thing we could do for our readers was to put them on the ground there and to hear directly from a first-person source who witnessed it all. That’s what became Tuesday’s story.

And then, on Sunday, one of the benefits you get from The Bitter Southerner is that we keep a closed Facebook group for members ... So in that group I wrote to everyone on Sunday night and told them what our plans were, what we would have coming up on Monday and Tuesday. And I know from the experience we’ve had with the Folklore Project section of our site — these reader essays — that the people we have as members write pretty well. And I asked them:

We would like members of The Bitter Southerner Family to send us their thoughts. You can write a single sentence or a thousand words, but we want the rest of the South and the world to know what is in your hearts and minds. Please be as reasoned as you can be, although we know and understand perfectly why many of you want to shout. We do not yet know what we will do with your submissions. We may run some in their entirety and excerpts from others; we cannot be sure until we see them.

So Tuesday afternoon Tim and I started digging through that, and about two dozen people sent things in. And that’s what came together as the six-piece package that we ran on our Folklore Project yesterday. It was five essays that stood alone and then excerpts from 17 other people and kind of a roundup piece that was also part of that package. Also, the music column is something I take turns writing that with Dr. George Lynn Wilson, who teaches hip-hop culture ... And she changed gears on her column — which usually focuses on hip-hop music and culture — and wrote the piece that you saw today. And that’s kind of how it all came together.

I wish I could say that we had a master plan for this before Saturday, but we did not. We just did the best we could with what we could gather ... And as a result of everything that I’ve described to you unfolding over the last six days, I’m really, really tired now.

Yeah, I bet. I think we all kind of are, in one way or another.

Yes, we are. I kind of joked — I tweeted the other night that I can’t believe that I’ve spent the last few days writing and/or editing about 20,000 words because of Nazis, you know? The hashtag I put on it is #MyDaddyKilledNazis because he was in World War II.

That’s one of the things about it. Tim and I are the same age — we’re both 56 — and he had an uncle, Buddy, who served in the war and my dad served in the war, too ... we knew instantly how his uncle, Buddy, and my daddy, Clarence, would’ve felt about this. And I was glad Tim was able to write about that so directly in the column we published Monday.

We’ve heard a lot from the readers. They were grateful for it, you know? It helped them.

If I remember right, y’all have covered events like this in the past, such as the Charleston church shooting. How do you view The Bitter Southerner’s role in writing about these things?

We started the whole thing with the belief that there wasn’t a magazine out there that covered the South as it actually it is, you know? That most media properties that are in the national eye, you get one of two versions of the South — you get either well-dressed, affluent people at a garden party or you get something that looks like "Duck Dynasty.” We came out and said we’re going to cover the South as it is, but when one of our stories crosses paths with the history of this place, we’re not going to shy away from digging into the ugly side of the region’s past.

And we’ve never tried to be overtly partisan, but we did say in the beginning that there were a couple of values that we would stick to. One is to acknowledge the fact that, for a century, school students in the South had been taught essentially an alternate version of the history of the Civil War. I remember being really struck after the Dylann Roof shooting; I can’t remember the headline, but Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote a piece in The Atlantic in which he quoted excerpts from many, if not all, of the Confederate states’ secession declarations. And I remember being amazed at the fact that you only had to read a paragraph to see that the war was not fought because of a philosophical conflict over the rights of states — the war was fought over the ability to maintain the unequal institution of slavery.

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So we told people right from the beginning that we would bring no lost-cause, myth versions of the South’s past. And the other thing that we said was that we would not make anyone happy who believes that certain people are not equal to them based on the color of their skin, who they want to love or who they are as people. And so things have gotten a lot different since that time four years ago, and we have to respond when things like this happen in the best way that we can.

The Bitter Southerner is all about shedding a new light on the South. What do you think the events in Charlottesville mean for that mission and the South in general?

That’s an awfully big question to answer after a week like this. One thing that has been very heartening to me all along — well before Charlottesville — was how people your age, how young people have responded to what we do, you know? 18-24 (year-olds) remains our smallest demographic, but the fans that we’ve got who’re 18-24 are really, really passionate about what we do. So I know there are a lot of young people out there who are no longer willing to sit idly by in gatherings of family or friends and sort of shrug off the sort of things that those of us who grew up in the South and who are White have typically shrugged off in the past.

My hope when I wrote this on Monday was that the time for the benevolent, silent southerner is over now. And that’s what I was feeling very strongly this week, particularly as those submissions from readers were coming in. Because that was like either a primary or at least an underlying thing of almost everything we got from readers, which was that, ‘I’ve been silent, and I can’t be silent anymore. Because silence begets the kind of horror that we saw unfolding in Charlottesville.’

It’s a hard week to remain hopeful for this region, but every time we go into a week like that it seems that our readers, one way or another, wind up leaving me more hopeful than when it began, you know? Our folks are kind of like a community, in a way. Sometimes we call them readers, but typically we call them family.

What’s the importance of Southern voices in covering stories about things like White supremacy and racism?

Again, that’s a fairly complicated question. I’m sitting here and I’m looking at Brad Willis, who wrote one of the essays that ran yesterday called “Daddy's Too Quiet.” ... And when he posted it on Facebook after we published it, he wrote:

I teach my children to try to listen more than they talk. I try to follow the same axiom. But after what happened in Charlottesville, Virginia, I listened and what I heard was this: that it’s time for people like me to talk.

I think there’s a much greater consciousness on the part of White southerners who — even after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 — who maybe don’t have direct memory of Whites-only bathrooms, but they know it’s there and they try not to think about it. I think you’re going to see more White people in the South who feel like the actions of groups like Vanguard America, and all these others that you find on the SPLC’s Hate Watch, people are more willing to speak up about it. At least that’s the hope; that’s the behavior we tried to model for our readers, and they gave it right back to us this week when we asked them to.

What do you think is missing from national publications’ coverage of Charlottesville?

None of us have been looking for additional sources about what happened in Charlottesville. It was covered very well from a variety of angles. What Vice did was great, The New York Times’ coverage was great, there was great coverage of the event from all over the place. But I think that — I mean, we see this all the time — when a national or global news organization wants to come and cover something that’s about the South as a region, they don’t typically send southerners to do it, you know?

It’s important that people steeped in what it’s like to grow up in this region be among the voices who cover it at this time. I think that’s a really important thing, because we understand stuff about this that other people don’t. You can’t grasp the complexity of this region in a three or four-day visit to it. There’s no way for journalists who don’t understand some of this contextual information to report on what’s going on now as fully as those who are steeped in this might be able to. And I think we got done, in our own little way, a part in moving in that direction.

Correction: An earlier version of this story said Reece was at his mother's house when the violence in Charlottesville broke out. He was at his mother-in-law's house.

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