Valley volley: Observer staffers cry foul


By Bill Ramsey and Kimberly Liu

The saga of last month's exodus that shook the Shenandoah Valley Observer continues. The three employees who walked out have detailed their version of the departure and have revealed that a former Reagan Administration cabinet member and ex-president of the Christian Coalition has been backing the paper.

The 15-month-old weekly operated by Main Street Media, which also publishes The Observer in Charlottesville, suffered an apparent blow in late June when the paper's editor, staff writer, and an ad rep resigned only days before the paper was to go to press.

In a front-page column of a pared-down edition of the Valley paper, Observer publisher Jeffrey M. Peyton called the walkout a "shock" and accused the trio of abandoning the trust of the readers. Worse, he blistered the husband-and-wife editorial staff, Chris and Crystal Graham, for leaving the paper without "stories, photos, or apologies," forcing the Charlottesville staff to scramble to pick-up the pieces and publish a slimmer-than-usual Valley edition.

"There was a disagreement about who was the publisher," Peyton told The Hook in early July. But that's not how the Grahams and account executive Tracy Gonzales, the third departing staff member, see it.

"It was never about who was publisher," says Graham. "We tried to get him involved in the community. It was his choice not to be involved, and he rarely made an effort to visit."

Instead, Graham says her boss was a micromanager prone to sending angry "out-of-the-blue" emails– and was slowly forcing her to resign.

Chris Graham, the indefatigable reporter whose byline had littered the pages of both Observers for the past two years, also suffered his share of Peyton emails, including admonitions for a dress-code violation and misuse of the paper's digital camera– and for soliciting advertising.

The proverbial last straw was yet another Peyton email, this one charging Crystal Graham with confusing her marital relationship with her responsibilities as editor. The message emphasized that any further failures to follow Peyton's dictates would be the last.

After receiving this email, Graham faxed her resignation to Peyton and then cleared her desk. Her husband quit the next day.

 Although their departure was hasty, the couple says Peyton's allegation that they left the paper without stories or photos is untrue.

The lead news story and photo on the cover of the "walkout" edition of the Valley Observer, as well as other stories included in the paper, were the work of Chris Graham. Peyton, he says, simply removed Graham's bylines.

Graham's decision to leave triggered Gonzales' equally speedy departure. Having worked briefly for the Observer a year ago, she says, she re-joined the paper only because she believed in the Grahams' commitment to the community. "I thought I could just work with the Grahams and forget about Jeff," she says.

The departing staffers cleared up one question that Peyton has never mentioned in his self-specific weekly column. His newspaper receives financial backing from Donald Hodel, a Colorado energy tycoon who was secretary of both the Interior and Energy departments under President Ronald Reagan as well as former president of the Christian Coalition.

Peyton worked as communications director for the Christian Coalition before becoming president and CEO of Suffolk-based Main Street Media, which purchased the Charlottesville Observer two years ago.

According to Larry Sabato's 1996 book, Dirty Little Secrets, the Christian Coalition misused its non-profit status and alleged non-partisan stance by engaging in overt electioneering.

Well-known Charlottesvillian Kay Peaslee, who founded the Observer in 1978 and sold it a decade later, says she had a hunch that a politico was backing the paper.

"I wasn't surprised at all," says Peaslee. "I just didn't know who it was."

Peaslee says she regrets that the paper had been transformed into "a mouthpiece for a certain pressure group."

"I'm very glad that this has finally come out," she says. [People] should know who's behind the news that they're getting."

Neither Peyton nor Hodel responded to interview requests for this story.