Good News and Bad News at the N&O

The News & Observer recently did one thing I liked – and one thing I didn’t.

I liked an online readers’ roundtable the paper hosted with its state-politics reporters. I was impressed by the reporters and by the paper’s commitment to covering state government.

I didn’t like how the N&O covered the N&O’s coverage of Soul City in the 1970s. Today’s paper wasn’t fair to yesterday’s paper.

 

The Roundtable

Some two dozen readers – the N&O called us “community supporters” – joined the political roundtable a week ago. I actually wasn’t invited; a friend forwarded me the notice. But they let me in and let me ask a question about voter-suppression bills.

The hour-long session was hosted by Executive Editor Robyn Tomlin and Managing Editor Sharif Durhams. The reporters were NC Insider Editor Colin Campbell, Danielle Battaglia, Will Doran, Dawn Baumgartner Vaughan and Adam Wagner.

Highlights:

  • Partisan hostilities are muted now in the legislature, likely because members have come together on Covid relief.
  • But legislators probably will chop away at Governor Roy Cooper’s emergency Covid powers. The reporters also expect partisan fights over the budget and redistricting and, likely, voter-suppression bills.
  • Medicaid expansion has no chance, because Senate President Pro-Tem Phil Berger’s “rigid” ideology leaves him unmoved by “political tides.”
  • On voter-suppression, the panel said legislative leaders may hold off until late in the session. Sometime this fall, a bill might pop up on a Monday, be rushed through the House and Senate and be on Governor Cooper’s desk by Friday.

It was good to see the paper’s commitment to covering Raleigh, despite the daunting challenges the media faces today.

Soul City

But I was disappointed by the N&O’s Soul City coverage.

A few weeks back, the paper reported on a new book by Thomas Healy, “Soul City: Race, Equality, and the Lost Dream of an American Utopia.” Healy blamed Soul City’s demise, in part, on the late N&O Editor Claude Sitton and retired investigative reporter Pat Stith.

The other culprit, Healy says, was North Carolina’s Senator Jesse Helms, normally a sworn enemy of the N&O.

Healy’s book was the subject of three pieces in the N&O – an interview with the author, an excerpt from the book and an editorial column. All three gave Healy his say. But none gave the other side of the story.

Sitton can’t defend himself; he’s no longer living. Pat Stith is; he’s still hiking the Appalachian Trial at age 78. But the N&O didn’t talk to him.

Pat Stith

Last weekend, the paper belatedly ran a response from Stith (link below). It was persuasive.

Stith noted that Healy’s book itself described many of the problems at Soul City that had nothing to do with Helms or the N&O: the developers’ inexperience, poor location, no infrastructure, an economic downturn, “grossly inadequate” capitalization and, with President Nixon’s resignation in 1974, a loss of political influence in Washington.

Reading Healy’s criticism of the N&O’s coverage, Stith wrote, “I wondered if he had read his own book.”

He added, “Healy left some interesting facts out of his book and I wonder if that was because they didn’t fit the new narrative.” Among those “inconvenient facts:”

  • Federal officials “cooked the books” to keep Soul City from failing in 1976, two and a half years before the federal government gave up.
  • “Soul City achieved less than 10 percent of its five-year goals – a lot less,” including only 1.6% of its job goals.
  • Yes, the project was opposed by Senator Helms – in Stith’s words, “a conservative who was also a bigot.” But Healy didn’t point out that Senator Robert Morgan, a Democrat, withdrew his support for the project.

Stith did something the N&O didn’t do: He gave Healy a chance to respond. Healey said he was “comfortable” with his book and that it didn’t include everything that happened, only those things that were “relevant” or “important.”

Full disclosure: I was at the N&O during some of the Soul City coverage, though I don’t recall having any part in it. I did work with Stith on other stories.

Later, when I worked for Governor Jim Hunt, I sometimes fielded calls from Stith about various scandals and scoundrels in the administration. He was always fair. He always got the facts right. And he always gave you a chance to tell your side.

Both Sitton and Stith won Pulitzer Prizes at the N&O. They made it a great paper. They deserved better.

So do readers.

Link to Pat Stith’s response: “I reported on Soul City in the 1970s. What the N&O said then is still true now.”

https://www.newsobserver.com/opinion/article249728563.html

 

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