Post-racial bigotry

Published 9:40 pm Thursday, November 6, 2008

Scarcely had our office opened on Wednesday than the phone calls started. Most of the newsroom staff had put in an extra-long night on Tuesday, working into the following morning to get the paper out on time with the freshest possible election news.

We were pleased — if not completely satisfied — with our efforts: For months, we’d exhaustively covered a historic race for the first popularly elected mayor of Suffolk, capping that coverage on Tuesday night with a photo of the celebrating, jubilant winner and a brief interview in which she outlined the lessons of the campaign and her plans for moving ahead.

In what I considered to be a happy coincidence, results from one of Suffolk’s largest precincts held up completion of Wednesday’s news pages until after major news networks had begun to call the presidential race in favor of Sen. Barack Obama. That delay allowed us to acknowledge his historic win in a photo that ran in the top right corner of the front page. It was, I believed, an appropriate compromise between the need to salute the historical moment and the requirement to publish our community newspaper in a timely fashion.

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Clearly, there are those who disagreed with that choice.

As a community newspaper, the Suffolk News-Herald has a different focus than do the New York Times, The Washington Post or even The Virginian-Pilot. We tend to ignore national issues, except as they relate to Suffolk. Surely Obama’s election was important to people in Suffolk, and it was a historic event. But covering the election of the city’s first directly elected mayor was our top priority on election night.

Importantly, the priorities would have been the same if John McCain and Dwight Nixon had won election to their respective posts. In that alternate-universe election, McCain’s photo would have appeared in the top corner of a page dominated by a photo and article about an exuberant Mayor-Elect Dwight Nixon.

Would we have been accused of bigotry then, with a large photo of the winning (black) mayoral candidate and a small one of the winning (white) presidential candidate? Of course not, and that makes my point: We made our choices based on a commitment to our role as the local newspaper. We don’t expect you to get your national news from our pages; conversely, you won’t find out more about Suffolk than you can right here in the Suffolk News-Herald.

That said, I recognized Tuesday night that there was an important local angle to the Obama election story that we could pursue the following day for Thursday’s paper. The resulting piece on the reaction of some prominent local leaders was an interesting bit of reporting by staff writers Allison Williams and Tracy Agnew, and it had been assigned before we got the first complaint on Wednesday.

Given the fact that we don’t subscribe to a national news source such as the Associated Press, that solution was the only way to do justice to the important Obama story. I’m not sorry we handled it that way, but I am sorry some readers reflexively assumed we are bigoted because they didn’t like the colors that showed up on Wednesday’s front page. I thought Barack Obama was supposed to be the post-racial candidate.