The owner of radio station WKRK 1320 AM in Cherokee County addressed on Facebook how the saga had rocked the little mountain town:
This week, citizens of our community became upset because of an issue between the local newspaper and sheriff’s office regarding privacy rights vs public record. Social media ‘blew up’ with protests, threats and pronouncements of a boycott.
The Cherokee Scout isn’t the first American newspaper to find itself in the crosshairs for its handling of public information about individual gun owners. In December, The Journal News in White Plains, New York faced a scorching backlash from gun owners after it published names and addresses of residents who had gun permits. The public outcry was so toxic armed guards had to protect the paper’s headquarters.
“After the backlash over the same issue in the state of New York, these idiots should have known what the citizens’ reactions would be,” wrote a commenter, about the Scout, in an online forum for North Carolina gun owners.
And last week, the state legislature in Maine voted to make gun permit data temporarily exempt from the state’s right-to-know law, reacting to the Bangor Daily News’s since-abandoned public records request for information on concealed-weapons permit holders.
There is additional context for this story in this part of the country, though, that also bears repeating here: the rocky relationship between media and county sheriffs.
Cecil Bothwell is an ex-reporter for the Mountain Xpress, an alt-weekly paper in Western North Carolina, who aggressively reported on his county sheriff, Bobby Medford, for years. A judge in 2008 sentenced the sheriff to 15 years in prison on public corruption and extortion charges. In North Carolina, Bothwell says, county sheriffs can be the most powerful elected officials in an area and are virtually beholden to no upper authority.
Now an Asheville city councilman, Bothwell says intimidation and threats were common during his reporting on the sheriff. Vans with dark windows would park outside the houses of newspaper staffers at night. Two deputies had told Bothwell off the record the sheriff said he was going to “take care” of him. He took to wearing somewhat of a disguise when reporting in the field, and borrowing a friend’s car.
“Nothing ever came of it,” Bothwell told me. “It was scary for a while.”
Margaret Williams, news editor of the Mountain Xpress, told me this about the Cherokee Scout and the national criticism it has drawn:
I doubt it’s fair for fellow journalists to judge Cherokee Scout publisher David Brown so harshly. Few people likely know the whole story, and…this is not a case that’s limited to the Deep South. Even in this day and age, Cherokee County and the Murphy/Andrews area is a fairly remote, insulated rural area. More worrisome is what the sheriff’s reaction says about the state of law enforcement and the understanding about public-records law.
Last May, CBS News ran a 60 Minutes broadcast about the dangers one local newspaper faced in reporting on its sheriff’s office in the rural American South.
“When two small-town newspaper reporters in Kentucky began investigating the corrupt local sheriff, they not only got headline stories,” reported CBS’s Byron Pitts, “they also got death threats.”
North Carolina’s concealed weapons permitting program has been covered in other state and national media—offering more context for reporters, commentators or anyone following this story.
According to Raleigh TV news station WRAL, “Roughly 3 percent of North Carolina’s 9.6 million residents hold a concealed weapons permit, a number that is small but on the rise,” with rural areas of the state leading in numbers of permit holders.
In late December The New York Times examined North Carolina’s concealed carry program. Per the Times:
More than 2,400 permit holders were convicted of felonies or misdemeanors, excluding traffic-related crimes, over the five-year period, The Times found when it compared databases of recent criminal court cases and licensees. While the figure represents a small percentage of those with permits, more than 200 were convicted of felonies, including at least 10 who committed murder or manslaughter. All but two of the killers used a gun.
The Cherokee Scout is a small, western North Carolina newspaper. But the Scout’s story is larger than that, part of a saga about guns and newspapers and public records that is not likely to end soon.
Follow @USProjectCJR for more posts from this author and the rest of the United States Project team.