During the somewhat less frantic months of the presidential campaign season—between the primaries and the nominating conventions—the Swing States Project will feature occasional profiles of people we’re calling, for lack of a better phrase, discourse leaders. These are people in the press—TV or radio hosts, newspaper columnists, people with important online presences—in battleground states who in one way or another help to lead substantive and civil political conversation.
First up is Fannie Flono, an editorial page columnist at the Charlotte Observer who “writes on news, politics, and life in The Carolinas,” and who sat down Monday with Andria Krewson, the Swing State Project’s North Carolina correspondent, to talk about her role as, in her words, a “convener of conversation” in the community hosting the Democratic National Convention later this year.
NORTH CAROLINA — In 1984, 32-year-old Fannie Flono accepted a job at the Charlotte Observer as assistant state editor.
To Flono, Charlotte seemed to be progressive, with a new black mayor elected the previous year. Flono, originally from Augusta, Georgia, and a graduate of Clark College in Atlanta (now Clark Atlanta University), had worked as a reporter and editor at smaller papers in Florida, Georgia and South Carolina. Charlotte seemed to offer opportunity for those who worked hard, including African Americans like Flono.
But she soon felt the weight of the past.
“The first thing Mary Newsom (then the Observer’s state editor) had me do was go to Statesville, where they were having a Klan rally,” Flono said during an interview at an uptown Charlotte coffee shop on Monday. Statesville, about 40 miles due north of Charlotte on I-77, is outside of the urban and suburban Piedmont corridor of North Carolina. The experience was a bit of a shock for the new editor expecting a broad-minded North Carolina. But that first lesson gave Flono perspective on a state filled with residents from divergent backgrounds—an “inelastic” state, per Nate Silver at the New York Times’s FiveThirtyEight blog (meaning, one without a lot of “persuadable voters.”)
During the next 28 years at the Observer, as a city editor, state editor, government editor, “public editor” (a sort of ombudsman) and as an associate editor on the editorial board starting in 1993, Flono faced external critics who labeled her that “sassy black woman,” and much worse. Through it all, she has maintained a focus on civility, returning emails and phone calls from fans and critics alike.
Now, as Charlotte prepares to host the Democratic National Convention in September, Flono, 60, writes columns, contributes to editorials, and “hosts,” at the editorial department’s O-pinion blog, “conversations about issues affecting our city, region, and country,” as the blog’s tag line has it. For example, Flono this week kicked off online discussion about Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s win in Wisconsin’s recall election, and what it “say[s] about the fate of public-sector unions and about the November presidential elections.” Among Flono’s questions: “[W]hether Walker’s success will embolden Republican legislatures like ours in North Carolina to move as aggressively on austerity measures and on trying to dilute the power of professional organizations?”
During her rise at the paper, she also squeezed in multiple fellowships, including a Nieman Fellowship at Harvard in 1998, made a 2005 trip to China through the East-West Center, accrued awards too numerous to list, and authored a book, “Thriving in the Shadows: The Black Experience in Charlotte and Mecklenburg County.”
Her collective experience has brought Flono perspective, a unique and strong voice (in a December column, as one small example, she called Newt Gingrich’s stance against child labor laws “intellectually feeble and flatulent”), and a facility with handling angry critics.
Her first boss—the person who hired her—at the Observer, then-state editor Mary Newsom, particularly admires Flono’s ability to stay cool when under attack.
“All of us journalists have had to put up with invective arriving via phone calls, letters, emails and online comments,” wrote Newsom to me via email. Newsom, who now works at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte’s Urban Institute (and for whom I do contract work there) continued:
But what she (and other African American journalists) has been hit with for years is exponentially crueler and meaner and more hateful. It can be so racist that it is eye-opening to white people who just don’t hear that nasty side of humanity all that often.
But Flono has handled it graciously, Newsom confirmed.
“Watching how she has dealt with that anger taught me much,” Newsom wrote. “By staying calm and not allowing herself to be drawn in to the nasty sniping, I think she has been a wonderful example of how a journalist can exemplify grace and equanimity.”
Flono pushes back gently when I suggest that she is a “discourse leader” in her community.