Confederate statues have nothing good to teach student journalists

The pedestal at the University of North Carolina where "Silent Sam" once stood. Photo circa December 2018 by Anthony Crider/Flickr.

A statue of a Confederate soldier at the door of a newspaper would immediately call into question the paper’s ability to serve its entire community. Yet for more than a century, student journalists at the University of North Carolina have learned their craft a short distance from a Confederate monument known as “Silent Sam.”

Faculty in UNC’s School of Media and Journalism have not yet joined our colleagues in law, education, history, and other departments on campus in making institutional statements calling for the permanent removal of the statue, which was pulled down by protestors in August and whose fate now sits with the statewide board that governs North Carolina’s public universities. Several of my colleagues in the school have signed campus-wide petitions opposing the statue, one class produced a documentary on it, and the dean has organized discussions about it. But I have until now stayed out of the public debate. In my reporting classes, I teach my students what I was taught—that good journalists learn how to set themselves aside and take a posture of professional detachment. I tell them we must shine light on even the facts that make us uncomfortable and angry, just the way physicians must treat patients who abuse their own bodies.

I still believe all those things. But I’ve let my pursuit of impartiality shackle a voice that journalism needs right now—one that says our field isn’t so callous that it can’t defend basic human freedoms.

ICYMI: Charlottesville one year later

All evidence indicates that Silent Sam was intended to be a monument to white supremacy. At its 1913 dedication, UNC benefactor Julian Carr heralded the statue’s symbolic connection to what he called “the purest strain of the Anglo Saxon race,” and bragged about beating a black woman. Fundraising efforts for the statue were spearheaded by the United Daughters of the Confederacy—a group closely aligned with white supremacist notions—as part of a massive effort to construct Confederate memorials across the state during the Jim Crow era. The journalism of the day didn’t record Carr’s racist words, nor did it note the UDC’s support for the Ku Klux Klan. And it certainly did not give voice to the story of the woman Carr bragged of beating.

The statue has since become a vessel for other damaging myths: in 1992, the Carolina Alumni Review wrote that Silent Sam would only fire his rifle when “a maiden Carolina coed walks by,” and repeated a oft-told story that the soldier carried no cartridge box to demonstrate his reluctance to fight any more. (The same article quotes a member of the Black Student Movement, who says the statue “offends me every time I see it.”) For a world-class journalism education at UNC to have coexisted alongside Silent Sam for so long, we—and I count myself squarely at the center of that collective pronoun—have been willing to devise, accept, and promote alternative narratives about the statue.

In 1953, two small North Carolina newspapers won a Pulitzer Prize for coverage that resulted in ‘the conviction of over one hundred Klansmen and an end to terrorism in their communities.’ Today, that gold medal and its story of journalistic courage greets visitors to the UNC School of Media and Journalism as a symbol of the highest ideals to which we ask our students to aspire.

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UNC is not the only journalism school to reckon this year with racism on its doorstep. Last fall, faculty at the University of Mississippi’s School of Journalism and New Media took quick action to distance their institution from Ed Meek, then the school’s namesake, after Meek published a racially insensitive Facebook post. Leaders at the Ole Miss journalism school called Meek’s post embarrassing and “highly offensive.” A petition calling for the removal of Meek’s name from the school attracted more than 2,500 signatures. The New York Times and HuffPost published op-eds in which two writers argued that the school be named for Ida B. Wells, the investigative journalist who was born into slavery and who reported extensively on lynchings in America. One, written by Wells’s great-granddaughter Michelle Duster, emphasized journalism’s ongoing diversity problems and their historic parallels. “We are living in a time now where the hostility toward the media is starting to be reminiscent of the environment that my great-grandmother lived through in the late 19th and early 20th century,” Duster wrote.

Many of my colleagues in journalism argue that objective reporters can’t afford to take a stand on issues like this. But in an era of historic hostility toward journalists, we must make it very clear that we stand for democratic norms such as racial equality.

Journalists must and do stand up for laws that make it easier for us to do our work, and against laws that make it harder. I oppose the North Carolina law that discourages the removal of Confederate monuments for the same reasons I oppose the 2017 state law that made it harder for the public to obtain data from North Carolina government agencies, and the 2015 state supreme court ruling that required the state to charge for live access to public data about court cases. Each of these laws imperil journalists’ abilities, limiting our access to the raw material of reporting. Barriers between reporters and public records or diverse voices make it harder for us to give a full and fair account of our times.

Journalism is often called the “first rough draft of history,” but that status carries with it an awesome responsibility to revise and elaborate, to provide better context and a more comprehensive historical record. That’s especially true in an era when powerful people whose names are on journalism schools can post directly to Facebook, and when a member of the UNC board that oversees state universities has his own YouTube channel.

Journalism evolves—and, hopefully, stories improve. The local newspaper’s coverage of Silent Sam’s 1913 dedication makes no mention of Carr’s racist words, and it certainly didn’t spend any ink pondering reactions to them. Forty years later, two small North Carolina newspapers won the Pulitzer Prize for “their successful campaign against the Ku Klux Klan, waged on their own doorstep at the risk of economic loss and personal danger, culminating in the conviction of over one hundred Klansmen and an end to terrorism in their communities.” Today, that gold medal and its story of journalistic courage greets visitors to the School of Media and Journalism as a symbol of the highest ideals to which we ask our students to aspire. American journalism is not a monolithic institution, but over the last century it has slowly become better at holding powerful people accountable and shining a light across the full spectrum of society. Still, we have a long way to go, and a monument to white supremacy won’t help us reach our destination.

ICYMI: White-supremacy threat deserves its own beat reporters

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Ryan Thornburg is an associate professor and director of the Reese News Lab at the School of Media and Journalism at UNC-Chapel Hill. He formerly worked for The Washington Post, Congressional Quarterly, and US News & World Report. He is a 1997 graduate of the journalism program at UNC.