I’d like to offer you a peek behind the curtain in local journalism, circa early November, 2020. It’s a high-wire act, and I think maybe it helps to share.
This relates to the front-page story we ran on Tuesday about the interaction between pro-Biden demonstrators at Triangle Park and a pro-Trump procession of cars that passed by on Sunday afternoon.
First things first: Nobody told us that either event was happening. Organizers of both put items announcing their plans on Facebook on short notice, after news networks on Saturday called the presidential election in favor of Biden. And the algorithms that determine what each of us see on Facebook evidently didn’t serve that up for me to see, and not our other editors, either.
So we didn’t have a reporter at the demonstration or the procession. It was a Sunday afternoon, and, frankly, we were all probably taking a breather after a pretty rough week. Mahomes was on the tube, stumbling around a bit more than usual but still figuring out a way to beat the Panthers. You know, life goes on.
Anyway, on Monday at about noon, I saw that The Mercury was tagged in a Facebook thread by a couple of people asking why we weren’t exposing the racist behavior of the local Trumpies, etc. etc. These people were obviously part of the pro-Biden crowd on Sunday and were questioning either our motives or our competence since we didn’t cover the event. The post included photos of what appeared to be Trump supporters driving past the Triangle Park demonstration, two of whom appeared to be flipping the bird in the direction of the park. The narrative also described people in the pro-Trump procession calling people in the Biden crowd the N-word.
I told our news editor, Bryan Richardson, that we needed to look into it to determine if it was worth a story in the paper. He assigned a reporter, Hailey Dixon, to check it out. She got hold of a couple of the organizers of the pro-Biden demonstration and interviewed them at some length about what they saw and heard. They described hearing racist comments directed at them by people in the pro-Trump procession.
That material was ready in time Tuesday morning for our executive editor, Megan Moser, to edit for that evening’s print newspaper. She attempted to find people who organized or participated in the pro-Trump procession, without any success.
So, by Tuesday at our deadline, what we had was a report on what the pro-Biden demonstrators said had occurred. We did not have the other perspective. And, to get back to the beginning of this discussion, we were not there. We had to rely on second-hand information.
It was my judgment to publish a version of that story after Megan and I edited it heavily right on deadline. I took out a bunch of quotes from some of the pro-Biden organizers, yammering on about love and hate and so forth. I have no doubt that they were earnest in making those comments, but the reality is that I didn’t entirely trust their version of events; I didn’t want to let them go too far in characterizing the Trumpies as racist hate-mongers.
But we did have photos of some people flipping the bird toward Triangle Park, and we had evidence from various public records that there was in fact some sort of interaction of the two groups. All of that amounts to a local version of the events and feelings that are roiling our country right now. That strikes me as worth reporting in a local newspaper. It was, as Bob Woodward puts it, the best obtainable version of the truth at that moment in time.
By Tuesday evening, of course, we were getting slammed on social media by the conservatives for getting it all wrong. “More fake news,” one of them said. Others said it was the Biden supporters who were instigators. This was all entirely predictable; in fact, I told Megan, Bryan and Hailey exactly what would happen once we published the story.
So why go ahead? Because, as I said, it’s clear that there was a highly charged interaction between two groups the day after the presidential election was called, and you have accusations of racist language being thrown around in public discussions about the event. We also had credible first-hand accounts of what happened.
I also told our journalists that we needed to continue to reach out to the pro-Trump side to attempt to report to our readers that perspective on the same events. One benefit of all the social-media backlash: We did initiate a discussion with some people who claim to have been there on that side, and so we hope to have that soon.