Racism, Wheeling, and a Small-Town Newspaper, 1968 and 2008
Walter G. Moss is a professor emeritus of history at Eastern Michigan University. For a list of his recent books and online publications, click here. He has previously written on mass culture, along with other topics, in his “An Age of Progress? Clashing Twentieth-Century Global Forces” (Anthem Press, 2008).
In a recent opinion piece (“How Racist Are We? Ask Google”) on The New York Times “Campaign Stops” blog by Harvard Ph.D. candidate Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, he writes of his use of Google Insights to determine “racially charged search rates ... in different parts of the United States.” Two “media markets” he compared were Denver, which had one of the lowest such rates, and Wheeling, West Virginia, which had one of the highest.
Based on the presidential votes John Kerry received in 2004 plus the average gain made by Democratic congressional candidates in 2008, he concluded that “Mr. Obama should have received about 57 percent of votes in both Denver and Wheeling.” In fact, however, while winning 57 percent in the Denver area, Obama obtained less than 48 percent of the Wheeling vote. The discrepancy, Stephens-Davidowitz believes, is mainly due to racism.
Because of a personal experience four decades earlier, his conclusion came as no surprise to me.
Beginning in the summer of 1967, wife Nancy, I, and our growing family lived in Wheeling for three years, where I taught history at Wheeling College (now Wheeling Jesuit University). Following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King in April 1968, some of us in the town formed a human rights council. Through it I and Nancy became involved in Wheeling civil rights activities, including helping a few blacks obtain scholarships to Wheeling College, which in 1967 had zero black students.
On a warm summer evening in August of that year I was one of the speakers at a downtown rally, which the combined local newspaper (The Intelligencer /Wheeling News-Register) described as a “Negro ‘Solidarity’ Rally,” sponsored by a “Negro civic group, which calls itself ‘WE’ (‘We Exist’).”
As a white man who had grown up in Cincinnati (across the Ohio River from Kentucky) in the 1940s and 1950s, and then lived in Oklahoma, Washington, D.C., and Arlington, Virginia in the early and mid 1960s, I was quite familiar with white racism and the racist myths that many whites held regarding African Americans. Even in a suburb of our nation’s capital (in northern Virginia) as late as the early 1960s, some of us found it necessary to picket a movie theater still discriminating against blacks. Because of this background, I chose to speak of white “myths” about black people.
The day after the rally the local newspaper attacked my speech in an editorial entitled “‘Sour Note’ in ‘We’ Rally.” Perhaps because it was easier and would seem less racist to assault me, the only white speaker at the rally, than to criticize any of the black speakers, that is exactly what the paper did.
It maintained that “locally, the relationship between the races always has been most cordial.” But then it accused me of seeking to “arouse racial antagonism” by speaking of “Black Power,” and it strongly suggested that I was advocating that black people resort to violence in order to obtain justice.
On the front page there was also an article entitled “Vandalism Follows Negro Plaza Rally,” which tied a broken store window, damage to an automobile, and a false fire alarm to my remarks, which its editorial linked with actions typical of “white zealots who encourage civil disobedience and riots.”
Upset at such accusations, I phoned a local attorney who was part of our human rights council to see what legal action could be taken against the paper. He counseled me not to take the editorial and the piece on vandalism too seriously. Good and fair-minded people, he said, knew not to trust anything the paper said.
Indeed, within the next week, such people wrote letters to the editor protesting its “unfair” and “biased reporting.” One woman wrote that I made it “quite clear” that I did not favor violence, but stated that “those people who deplore acts of violence during the racial riot the loudest are usually the ones who accept violence in other areas of our society without qualms -- for instance in Vietnam or in the form of capital punishment. These people say that such forms of violence are in the interest of a ‘just cause.’ By that token they should also be able to understand racial violence, since it is caused by a just and righteous concern.” She was sure that I would agree “that it would be far superior to avoid violence in all its forms by eliminating its underlying causes.”
She was correct. In speaking of violence, I was not defending it or agitating for it, but pointing to the hypocrisy and double standard that many white people of the time manifested toward violence. The words I spoke were: “As a nation we are not against violence. ... Our country was born in violence; violence is being perpetrated today in Vietnam ... [but] I’m more sympathetic to the non-violence of a true Christian like Martin Luther King than I am to anyone who off-handedly dismisses the killing of an innocent whether ... white, black, or yellow.”
This same woman and another letter writer critical of “biased reporting” objected to implying that there was any casual connection between any rally activity and the few vandalism incidents that took place “a good five hours” after the rally ended. As both writers noted, there was no evidence presented that demonstrated any such connection.
Two years after that tumultuous year, which also witnessed the assassination of Robert Kennedy, for whom I had offered to work in West Virginia, I resigned from my college position in opposition to what I believed was a violation of a fellow faculty member’s academic freedom. The Jesuit president of the college was Frank Haig, brother of General Alexander Haig, who later served as White House Chief of Staff under Richard Nixon and then Gerald Ford in 1973-74. Like his brother, the Jesuit Fr. Haig was quite conservative, and before I left the college a majority of the student body and faculty petitioned the college’s Board of Trustees to replace him as president. He resigned, however, only in 1972, and by then most of us “troublemakers” among the young faculty had already gone elsewhere.
Since 1970, I have only been back to the college (now university) once and know little of what has occurred at the school or in the town of Wheeling in recent decades. Yet, as I mentioned above, Stephens-Davidowitz’s opinion piece about clear indications of racism in the Wheeling media market during the 2008 election does not surprise me.
Just a little online research reveals that the same combined newspaper, The Intelligencer/Wheeling News-Register, still dominates the Wheeling area printed news. Although centered on the city of Wheeling (population in 2010 equaled 28,486), it also serves West Virginia’s Northern Panhandle and five counties in Ohio. And it manages to squeeze in as one of West Virginia’s 10 largest newspapers. It is also one of about 40 daily newspapers in about a dozen states run by Ogden Newspapers, Inc., which is a diversified media corporation that publishes mainly in small towns. According to its web site, the “company has been headquartered in Wheeling, West Virginia, since September 22, 1890.” Its present-day CEO, Robert Nutting, is also the principle owner of the Pittsburgh Pirates baseball team.
Judging from a few random samples, it is still a conservative newspaper. In 2006 a resident of Wheeling wrote:
Last week President Bush visited my hometown of Wheeling, West Virginia for a town hall meeting. The local publisher, Ogden Newspapers, proudly listed itself as a ‘sponsor’ of the visit, along with the local Chamber of Commerce and some other businesses. The papers [The Intelligencer/Wheeling News-Register] ... had numerous articles over the course of about a week before and after the visit, as well as several editorials. I would characterize the coverage as supportive of the President to the point of giddiness. I have to say that I was surprised by this—not so much by the editorializing, as the editorial pages of the Ogden papers have always been quite conservative—but by the papers’ sponsorship of the visit and the cheerleading news articles.
In April 2010, after another Ogden newspaper in Minnesota printed a piece which stated that ACORN (Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now) was “a front for liberal politicians,” a reader responded that “this ‘editorial’ is not an editorial at all. What we have here is pure racist propaganda. Nothing more. This racist propaganda has been distributed to several ‘news’ outlets, all of which are owned by Ogden Newspapers, Inc.”
In April 2012, another web site reported that Jonah Goldberg, the conservative editor-at-large of National Review Online, “wowed a packed house ... in Wheeling.” The titles of a few of his books -- Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left, From Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning and The Tyranny of Clichés: How Liberals Cheat in the War of Ideas -- indicate his political stance. He told his enthusiastic audience that we had a “sitting president who has no accomplishments to run on.” The web site also reported that among the enthusiastic audience was “Robert Nutting, CEO of Ogden Newspapers, which runs Goldberg’s twice weekly syndicated column.”
Finally, two The Intelligencer/Wheeling News-Register editorials just this month proclaimed: “EPA’s Arrogant Bias Against Coal Shown” and “Obama Policies Killing W.Va. Jobs.”
Let me state clearly: I am not charging The Intelligencer/Wheeling News-Register with racism in 2012 or in 2008. More research would be necessary to determine whether such was the case. Even in 1968 I was reluctant to make such a charge. But back then and during the 2008 campaign considerable racist attitudes did exist in Wheeling, and the dominant combined local newspaper, run by the Ogden Newspapers, fostered such a climate in 1968. Whether the paper did so in 2008, I cannot be sure, but there is good reason to doubt that it was a beacon of light in helping overcome racist bias toward candidate Obama.
This Wheeling case illustrates a larger point: Conservative newspapers still have influence in American small towns. Combined with the popularity of Fox News in such towns, they present a significant cultural barrier to overcoming lingering bias toward our first black president.
We are all greatly influenced by the media and friends around us. If they feed and reinforce red-state and small-town prejudice toward President Obama -- Harvard-educated and former Chicago community organizer and law-school professor that he is -- it will remain difficult to overcome such bias.
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