Charlottesville One Year Later

A violent white supremacist rally reshaped a city’s idea of itself. Has the local press changed?

In August 2017, Jason Kessler, a self-proclaimed “pro-white activist,” prepared to host what would become a massive, fatal white supremacist rally. Kessler, who described opponents of fascism as “the anti-white KKK,” lived in Charlottesville, Virginia, where city council members had recently voted to remove two monuments raised during the era of Jim Crow. His event, Unite the Right, would be based at one of those monuments—a statue of Robert E. Lee, a Confederate general. 

On the eve of Kessler’s event, a torch-lit procession of hundreds of white men stormed the grounds of the University of Virginia. They chanted anti-Semitic slurs and attacked counterprotesters, ultimately sending one, Tyler Magill, to the hospital. The next morning, clergy gathered near the Lee statue, offering hymns and prayers for peace. But there would be none: in the streets nearby, white supremacists attacked residents and activists who opposed them. DeAndre Harris, a young black man, was surrounded and beaten; a man drove his car into the anti-Nazi crowd, injuring more than a dozen people and killing Heather Heyer, a local activist.

Throughout the weekend, journalists functioned as emergency responders in a roving crisis, providing updates that helped residents counter the violence. Alexis Gravely, the associate news editor of The Cavalier Daily, the student newspaper of the University of Virginia, tracked white supremacists who marched through campus. Near midnight on Friday, MSNBC’s Chris Hayes asked on Twitter about the experiences of students of color there. Gravely, one of the few black journalists on the scene, replied, “Reporting on it. Following the marchers to show the world what I’m seeing at my school.” On Saturday, participants in the rally tossed bottles and urine-filled balloons at reporters; some activists and journalists struggled to breathe as pepper spray from demonstrators and law enforcement filled the air. Ézé Amos, a Nigerian-born freelance photographer whose photos vivified a detailed 10-page timeline in C-VILLE, Charlottesville’s alt-weekly, was assaulted by a man wearing a Hitler shirt.

Charlottesville has a long history of white supremacy as well as opposition to it. Still, for many people in the city, the events of the weekend catalyzed a newfound commitment to racial justice. Residents began to fill auditoriums to hear activists speak. City council and school board meetings transformed. Talk of resistance started to feel promising.

For the local press, however, the rally and its aftermath have not led to a reckoning. There are virtually no black reporters from the area working in Charlottesville’s newsrooms, which, like those in much of the rest of the country, are staffed largely by white people. At times, Charlottesville’s news outlets have provided platforms for white supremacist messages, knowing full well what harm they have wrought. Journalists describe their work as reactive—few express a keen motivation to tell stories of systemic racism. One editor told me, “We just cover the local news.”

August 12, 2017—a vivid display of racist terror—could have been a turning point for how well Charlottesville media might be expected to confront racism endemic to the community. But since then, lapses in coverage have revealed how much work needs to be done in order for local newsrooms to serve their audiences with care and with credibility.

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In an image from August 12, a Charlottesville protester hurls a blue metal box through the air. The box holds copies of C-VILLE, where I worked for years as a reporter and editor. That week’s feature, “Voices of Hate,” included short profiles of Unite the Right attendees that were oddly light in tone. In the protest image, the cover— a large photo of Kessler—has been flipped so it cannot be seen. “A lot of people had turned the covers over,” Samantha Baars, a C-VILLE reporter, says. “I assume people didn’t want to see Jason’s face.” The paper’s profiles—of Kessler, Richard Spencer, and others involved in Unite the Right—were intended, staff members recall, to inform residents who might demonstrate against white supremacists during their rally. “I don’t think any of us thought the feature was scary,” Baars says. Yet the coverage offended many readers.

In October 2017, Spencer returned to Charlottesville. NBC29, the local TV affiliate, referred to Spencer and his torch-wielding mob on Twitter as “white activists.” The station would later correct itself, in a subsequent tweet, by using the term “white nationalists.” NBC29 then aired what it touted as a “rare interview” with Spencer, even though he had been far from press-shy. Spencer used the segment to portray himself as a victim, and to describe the torches, props in his theater of racial terror, as “beautiful, magical, and mystical.”

David Foky, NBC29’s news director, tells CJR that the station “intentionally cut out the hateful and racist comments he made during that interview,” which, he says, would have given Spencer an even greater platform. Nevertheless, viewers on Facebook called the segment “disgusting” and urged advertisers to stop doing business with NBC29. “We have not interviewed Spencer since,” Foky adds, “and have no plans to do so in the future.”

Charlottesville residents refer to NBC29’s interview with Spencer as a low point in post Unite the Right coverage. Other examples of questionable reporting have come most often from The Daily Progress, the city’s newspaper of record since the late 19th century.

Problematic coverage of race in the Progress has a long history. In 1921, the paper reported on the launch of a local Ku Klux Klan chapter in triumphant terms. Weeks before Unite the Right, the Progress re-published excerpts from that story, which refers to a membership that included “hundreds of Charlottesville’s leading business and professional men.”

The Progress “has responsibility for creating the conditions that we live in,” John Edwin Mason, a UVA professor of African history and the former vice-chair of Charlottesville’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Race, Memorials, and Public Spaces, says. “It was an enthusiastic supporter of segregation,” he adds. “It was an enthusiastic propagator of white supremacist ideas about the natural inferiority of African Americans. That showed up in their pages well into the period after World War II.”

In conversations with Charlottesville residents, two particularly egregious items published by the Progress in the past year come up time and again. The first is an unsigned editorial that appeared two days before the Unite the Right rally. In it, the paper blames Dr. Wes Bellamy, then the lone black member of the Charlottesville City Council, for stoking racial unrest, claiming that Bellamy “attracted the attention of a now-dedicated foe”—Kessler. At the time, the Progress editorial board included Andrea Douglas, the executive director of the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center. Douglas calls her tenure on the editorial board “interesting,” “very difficult,” and work she “had to stop doing.” Her term lasted six months, then she was done. Of the editorial, Douglas says, “If it wasn’t calculated, then it surely showed a lack of sensitivity to where you were in the moment, and surely showed a lack of understanding of the power of your press in that moment.” 

Jalane Schmidt gives tours of Charlottesville’s history to journalists from around the world.

The second item concerns Nikuyah Walker, who grew up in Charlottesville and in January became the city’s first black woman to be named mayor. Days before she entered office, an anonymous City Hall source encouraged the Progress to scrutinize emails that Walker had sent to city officials. The messages, the paper found, touched on Walker’s “concerns about policy decisions, councilors’ comments and issues related to racial inequality and wealth disparity in the community”—all matters that a local politician would be expected to discuss. But the story, which includes a photograph of Walker, characterizes her emails as “incendiary,” “highly critical,” and “often confrontational.” In its headline, the Progress—which did not analyze the tone of emails from other councilors or candidates—describes her as “unabashedly aggressive.” Perceptive readers could not help but see a racist slant to the article.

Since then, Walker, who often communicates with constituents via social media, has given hardly any extended interviews to the local press. An exception, and the most revealing coverage of her to date, appeared in January in Vinegar Hill Magazine—a mostly digital publication with a quarterly print run of roughly 3,000 copies, a fraction of what the Progress prints. “I know what it is like to be black in America, I have seen what it is like,” Walker told Vinegar Hill. “It cannot be ignored. I did not create it, and until people stop perpetuating it, I will focus on it, proudly.”

Named for a black community in Charlottesville that was razed in the name of urban renewal, Vinegar Hill is run by a 62-year-old named Eddie Harris. Harris has little to say about other media—“That’s their lane,” he tells me. But when I speak to another local journalist about Walker and mention that I haven’t seen an interview with her comparable to the one in Vinegar Hill, he replies, “Yeah, and you’re not going to.”

The breakdown in trust between readers and the local press may come from what Lisa Woolfork, an associate professor of English at UVA and an organizer with Black Lives Matter, calls “an assumption of whiteness.” In July, nearly 100 Charlottesville residents took part in a six-day civil rights pilgrimage to Montgomery, Alabama, where they delivered soil from the lynching site of John Henry James to the Equal Justice Initiative’s Legacy Museum. The event received coverage from most media outlets in Charlottesville; both C-VILLE and the Progress ran several photos of residents as part of their online coverage. In print, however, each paper ran only photos of white men. Woolfork shared an image of the Progress’s front-page story on social media. “Why this photo?” she wrote. “People of color were quoted in the article, so why this photo?”

The framing revealed a bias that surfaces in Charlottesville journalism. “It doesn’t matter what the story is about,” Woolfork tells CJR. “If it’s something of note or of record or of value, and it’s perceived in a positive way, a white person has to be recognized or acknowledged for it. It just doesn’t make sense to me. You have two black woman organizers to honor a lynched black man, and the two photos you choose are of two white men.”

Attempts to speak with current and former Progress journalists and publishers for this story were largely rebuffed. Rob Jiranek, who served as publisher of the Progress for two years and left the paper in May, told CJR that he had “zero interest” in speaking. Reached by phone, Peter Yates, the current publisher, also declined.

“If the newspaper is institutionally capable, I would love to see The Daily Progress look at itself,” Mason, who worked with National Geographic on its assessment of its own racist history (published as a special issue, in April), says. “I understand how understaffed the Progress is. I know some of the reporters and I wouldn’t want to put this burden on them, because they’re already working 30-hour days.” But reflection, he explains, “is a very useful role journalism could play.”

Charlottesville’s legacy newsrooms aren’t entirely blind to racial inequity in their city. When the Ku Klux Klan rallied there a month before Unite the Right, Val Thompson, the news director of CBS19, led newscasts with a message explaining to viewers why the station would not air interviews with Klan members. In December, C-VILLE published a detailed history of gentrification and displacement in the city’s 10th and Page neighborhood. Recently, when I checked in with local journalists, they told me about their ongoing commitment to covering law enforcement’s unfair treatment of minorities, income inequality, and a longstanding affordable housing shortage. One described her efforts to center black voices in stories; another said that lately she’d been aiming to correct a tendency to most often interview white women. The Cavalier Daily conducts an annual survey of staff to assess how well it represents the UVA student body. This year, editors found that the newsroom “could use considerable improvements.”

Among Progress contributors, however, the only person willing to speak with CJR was Ryan Kelly, whose picture of the car attack on protesters during Unite the Right received the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News Photography—an honor that the Progress notes on its front page. “Race is a defining factor for the city of Charlottesville as it is in tons of cities across the country,” Kelly, who was a staff photographer until 2017, says. “I don’t think there’s any way to extricate yourself from that history. And ignoring it and burying your head in the sand isn’t going to do anybody any good.”

History is unevenly layered at Court Square Park—selectively recorded and only partly excavated. The park, beside a county court building frequented by Thomas Jefferson, had once been McKee Row, a black community whose residents were uprooted in 1914 to make way for an all-white school. When plans for the school fell through, a wealthy white stockbroker bought the land and, in 1919, gave it to the city on the condition that it become a permanent home for a monument to Stonewall Jackson. A small marker, set into the sidewalk near the court building, reads, in part: “On this site slaves were bought and sold.”

This is where Jalane Schmidt, an associate professor of religious studies at UVA and community organizer, begins her local history tour, which she’s led for journalists from Deutsche Welle, The Guardian, and HuffPost, among other outlets. For reporters covering Charlottesville, Schmidt’s tour feels like required reading in a new course. “I don’t know if I’m revising history so much as revealing it,” she told Hawes Spencer, a longtime local reporter, for his book Summer of Hate: Charlottesville USA. 

On the day I take Schmidt’s tour, it’s August 6, less than a week before the first anniversary of Unite the Right. We’re joined by Mimi Arbeit—a former community organizer with Charlottesville’s Showing Up for Racial Justice chapter and an assistant professor of psychology at Suffolk University. As we make our way from the Jackson statue to Lee, Schmidt explains that Arbeit founded Charlottesville Anti-Racist Media Liaisons (CARML), a group that facilitates conversation between local activists and the press. CARML, Arbeit says, is “an important part of activist infrastructure in Charlottesville,” where a barrier to effective coverage “is the fact that white journalists are steeped in white supremacist culture and journalists may not seek out people directly negatively impacted by white supremacy.” 

Activists like those with CARML serve as a counterpoint to the city’s legacy press. Another group, Solidarity Cville, which launched in early 2017, has published a timeline of events linked to the Unite the Right rally, news roundups and analysis of local and national coverage, and frequent Twitter updates. Solidarity, which operates as an anonymous collective, also produced a short documentary. “White supremacy still lives here,” the film concludes. “What will you do to dismantle it over the next six months and beyond?”

Molly, a Charlottesville resident, covers city government meetings via her Twitter handle, @socialistdogmom, which has about 13,000 followers, including at least a dozen local journalists. For her work, Molly nets $1,400 in monthly donations—a sum that approaches the salary of some reporters. “I think that the time for both sides has passed,” she says. “This isn’t a time to stand in the middle and hear both sides, because one of those sides is murderous Nazis.” Molly, who asked that CJR not identify her beyond the information available on Twitter, lacks institutional safeguards that some newsrooms use to protect their staff, and the risks she takes are clear: in July, Christopher Cantwell—a white supremacist whose violent threats were featured in Vice’s Charlottesville documentary— published a blog post in which he referred to her with an anti-semitic slur and pleaded that someone “dox” her.

On the tour, we make our way toward the Lee statue, which had been shrouded from the days after Unite the Right until late February. As we approach it, Schmidt points out a sticker bearing the insignias of white nationalist groups and the words “evil has many faces.” Then she gestures toward a building across the park, donated by the same man who gave Charlottesville its Lee statue. It’s the local historical society, she says. Ahead of Unite the Right, Schmidt had sought access to the society’s collection of Ku Klux Klan robes for research on the Klan’s local presence, but had been rebuffed. She sent emails to reporters, encouraging them to make the same request, and took Lisa Provence, C-VILLE’s news editor, with her to the society building to make the ask in person. “It wasn’t until I got journalists involved that I broke the dam,” Schmidt recalls. The historical society ultimately coordinated a closed viewing of two robes for Schmidt and for a number of reporters. 

As we wrap up, the temperature rises to nearly 90 degrees. Schmidt and Arbeit decide to get water. Before we leave, Schmidt directs our attention to a telephone pole that overlooks the park and the Lee statue. She points out a new camera, installed ahead of the Unite the Right anniversary. It’s a symbol of continuing distrust in the community—this time, between residents and the police. “That wasn’t there a few days ago,” she says.

The Charlottesville City Council’s final meeting before the first Unite the Right anniversary lasts nearly seven hours. Throughout, there is little agreement between the city government and residents about what the risks are, or how to prepare. 

The gallery is packed. Most of the crowd sits quietly through the Pledge of Allegiance. Someone near the council dais holds a sign: “Punish Nazis, not residents.” One resident has brought three copies of White Fragility, a book out this year by Robin DiAngelo, for the city’s three white council members.

Ahead of the meeting, the city shared plans that it had deemed “essential for the safety of persons and property” during the anniversary weekend. Officials were making arrangements to close city streets, alter public transportation routes, and reduce access to park facilities. They would also restrict parking around Friendship Court—a subsidized housing development mostly populated by black people—and amass more than 1,000 law enforcement officials in the city.

Residents, having reviewed the plans, are unhappy. They want to know whether the city has received any credible threats for which these plans are preparing; officials won’t say. Moreover, people are concerned about a surge in police who, a year ago, showed little willingness to help them.

And so, for hours, residents approach the dais. They give their names and, in many cases, their addresses—a point of order that, after a terrorist attack, doubles as a feat of bravery. They decry the city’s plans. A few criticize the local press—for the Richard Spencer interview, for the Progress’s “hit job” on Walker. At one point, Walker discusses her use of social media to directly address constituents—recently, she’s been criticized for that by the Progress. “How information is conveyed to the community is important for me,” she says. “Not everybody comes into these rooms.” The meeting feels charged with the same energy that powered Charlottesville’s opposition to white supremacy a year earlier. 

The next day, however, coverage of the meeting feels restrained. A debate over the hiring of an interim city manager, a crucial component of city preparations for the weekend, is framed mostly as a debate between councilors, rather than an existential matter for residents. Local TV stations describe the meeting as “heated,” as does the Progress in its front-page headline. There’s considerably less attention paid to the specific concerns of residents who, for hours, voiced their anger and fear and grief. It’s as though the same event that transformed civic engagement in Charlottesville skipped over some of the city’s reporters—as though, still,  daily opposition to white supremacy defies  journalistic language.

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Brendan Fitzgerald is a senior editor at CJR.

TOP IMAGE: Photographer: Jason Lappa