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Raging sensationalism, Schilling's odds and Eightyone gets 86ed

Raging sensationalism?: Should critics study Journalism 101?
By Lisa Provence and Hawes Spencer
lisa@readthehook.com

Charlottesville's media have been attacked recently as "inflammatory," "sensational," and "misleading." Among the accusers are Charlottesville High School students -- including a group handpicked by principal Bobby Thompson and trotted out for the cameras.

The only problem? If the villain is the Daily Progress, which seems to be the implication-- the stories it has published just don't fit National Enquirer standards of sensationalism.

After several white and Asian UVA students were brutalized by bands of local youths in a series of allegedly unprovoked attacks, police said in a January 29 Progress story the attackers had called out racial slurs to three white victims. The paper also reported that one victim was called "preppy UVA boy."

On February 2, City Police Lieutenant J.W. Gibson sent out a press release revealing the alleged racial angle. And the Progress quoted Gibson in a story that appeared on February 3: "Assailants did say the victims were chosen on the basis of race."

Should the Progress have buried these statements about black and white from a man in blue?

By February 21, Progress remorse seems to have kicked in. Under the headline, "Students condemn coverage of attacks," the Progress ran a story airing student criticisms of the claims of a racial angle.

The Progress followed up the next day with an editorial denouncing "sensationalism" in reporting. Just what sensationalism, the editorial didn't say, but some Progress reporters took it personally.

Reliable sources say that the normally tranquil Progress newsroom is up in arms over the implication of sensational coverage; they believe the paper is cowering under community and governmental pressure to put a smiley face on an ugly situation.

That most of the alleged assailants are black CHS students, including football star Gordon Lathan Fields, is troubling enough. That former KKK leader David Duke's outfit, the European-American Unity and Rights Organization, has called for prosecution of the assaults as "hate crimes" hasn't helped calm the locals.

As early as February 8, the issue had become so heated that City officials called a news conference to play down the idea that the attacks had been racially motivated. Police Chief Tim Longo stressed that it was "premature" to discuss motive.

While an investigation is in process, Longo claims, "I don't think intent or motive is ever appropriately discussed outside investigative circles."

Although the information came from his own department, Longo offers this surprising assessment: "I don't think that should have been reported at all."

And initial news reports about the arrests notwithstanding, Longo says subsequent stories should wait until Commonwealth's Attorney Dave Chapman files charges. "Every day for a while," complains Longo, "there was something in the local print media. It sent shockwaves through this community."

Some of that coverage, however, resulted from conflicting numbers-- of attacks, victims, and alleged perps-- coming from the police department. On March 4, police revealed there were only nine arrests instead of 10, with one name having been counted twice.

Principal Thompson said CHS students were upset by portrayals in the Progress and on WVIR Channel 29. Thompson has told The Hook that students were concerned about the way the media had depicted the high school-- "that we have mobs running up and down the halls jumping on kids and robbing them." The Hook was unable to find such descriptions in any media reports, however.

So what is sensational coverage? Mayor Blake Caravati says he considers "the Neil Boortzes of the world" to be the "despicable" purveyors of sensationalism. (Boortz is a conservative radio talk-show host heard locally on WINA.)

Caravati says he enjoyed the Progress editorial on sensationalism so much that he called the editor to compliment her-- even though, he says, "I think it [the editorial] probably caused a lot of ire for the people that write those stories."

The Hook asked editorial page editor Anita Shelburne for specifics on allegedly sensational coverage. "Our policy is we don't cast blame in that area," answers Shelburne. She says the Progress' coverage of the attacks was not sensational, and as for whom the editorial was directed to, she says only, "We don't criticize other media."

Well, not specifically.

Meanwhile, the community is left to ponder the implications of these blanket complaints about media coverage. Should the press ignore outside groups-- most recently, the Anti-Defamation League-- demanding action on a local issue? Should the media strike references to the school attended by any alleged assailants? And is the press responsible for writing a positive story about any institution whose members are accused of misdeeds? Most importantly, does the First Amendment require that news coverage soften facts in a story to protect the sensibilities of a community?

Perhaps this passage from the Progress editorial answers the question. "Reporting on issues of public and social concern is what the media do, and rightly so."

Eightyone getting 86ed: Valley may lose alternative paper

For over three years, Deona Houff has edited the Shenandoah Valley's only alternative paper. A twice-monthly tabloid, Eightyone, like the interstate, covers Harrisonburg and Staunton, with easy access to nearby Waynesboro.

In a letter in its current issue, Houff tells readers that March 19 may be the last issue of Eightyone-- unless someone with jingle comes to the rescue.

"We are, simply put," Houff writes, "out of money." A Valley native and veteran of Style Weekly in Richmond, editor and publisher Houff says she has never paid herself a salary or seen a profit, and is faced with an ever-growing load of personal debt.

Eightyone has a circulation of 10,000, and for one Valley reader, "It makes me feel like I'm not weird." Another calls it "an alternative to the right-wing, fundamentalist drivel that I usually have to read around here." Houff thinks its departure will leave a huge void: "People will really miss us," she says.

Almost all of Eightyone's advertisers are small businesses, and Houff says revenue was down because of the recession. "Sometimes I've said that if the advertisers were as smart as the readers, Eightyone would be fine," Houff adds in her letter.

Houff says the Charlottesville-based Observer's recently started Waynesboro/Staunton edition did not contribute to her paper's current woes.

After March 19, Houff will finish paying the bills and wait to see what happens. At its biggest, her staff consisted of four full-time employees. Now she's telling her remaining staff member and freelancers not to count on publishing past the 19th.

As Houff stares at the possible extinction of her paper, she calls herself "sad, but hopeful-- maybe something will happen."

Schilling's odds: Republicans float City Council candidate

He has long hair, uses public transportation, and lives in a pink house-- not your average Republican. "Most people assume," says Rob Schilling, "I'm a Democrat."

In City Council races, 100 percent won by Democrats for over a decade, such confusion could be helpful.

Schilling, 40, declared his candidacy mere days before the March 5 filing deadline, a last-minute act that came, he says, largely as a result of attending the Democratic nominating convention.

"I'd been thinking about it for a while," says Schilling. "When I watched the process at the Democratic convention, I realized there would be three to four hundred people who'd decide the race for the city, and that didn't seem right."

For five years, Schilling taught elementary school in California, and that experience has made education a major plank in his platform, specifically the need for an elected school board. "Virginia has 105 elected school boards and 30 that are still appointed," he says. "We're behind the curve here."

Schilling sees an elected school board as a bipartisan issue, and he joined Kevin Cox in collecting signatures for an elected school board at the Democratic convention.

"It's interesting that 10 people [Council members and the candidates] are all thinking the same way-- they don't want to turn power back to the people. None would sign the petition," he says.

A realtor and property manager, Schilling calls himself "the common sense candidate." He believes his degree in business and his experience managing a business will appeal to the electorate-- for instance, having a councilor who can decipher the city's budget.

"We have the highest tax rate in the area," he says. "I refuse to believe that the city is operating at 90 percent or even 80 percent efficiency. I'm very good at that."

With his firsthand experience actually using public transportation, Schilling has suggestions for improving the system. For example, after noticing that buses are never more than 25 percent full during the day, and usually only 10 percent full, he proposes using smaller buses or vans when ridership is low.

In Schilling's Greenbrier neighborhood, CTS Link is available, a program in which you call the city which dispatches a taxi that takes you to a downtown transfer point and provides a transfer from there. He'd like to use it more often, but he finds the four-hour lead-time daunting.

"We're a one-car family by choice," say Schilling, who calls the City's focus on traffic-calming an expensive failure and instead advocates concentrating on traffic flow.

Like many area residents, Schilling came to Charlottesville looking for a beautiful, clean place with a low crime rate. Four years ago, Schilling and his wife put everything they owned in a moving van in California and flew to Charlottesville with no jobs and no house. "We landed on our feet," he declares.

And now, running for City Council, how do his flowing tresses go over with traditionally staid Republicans? "I've gotten a wonderful response to my image," he says.

Schilling believes he offers voters a clear choice. As a licensed realtor, he's familiar with housing issues, and as a professional musician (he's choir director at St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church), he has an arts background in an artsy city.

So how does he rate his chances against the Democratic candidates, Mayor Blake Caravati and Alexandria Searls? "There are three candidates and two open seats," answers Schilling. "My odds are pretty good."


 
© Copyright 2002 The HooK.   Last update: 03.07.2002; 7:47:57 PM.