Berkshire Eagle becomes part of the national conversation about race

Some communities talk about talking about race. But in the Berkshires, powerful conversations about race matters have been going on for several years, especially since the Berkshire County NAACP revived its local chapter in 2012.

The Berkshire Eagle has amplified those conversations with the publication last month of an opinion piece by Steven Nikitas, a local “conservative activist” and Berkshire County Republican Association member.

In 2013, a group of area conservatives sought a regular forum for their views and approached the newspaper, which agreed to provide an op-ed slot every other week, which has been titled “Right from the Berkshires.” Jim Bronson, the chairman of the Berkshire County Republican Association, explained in his introductory column that the pieces would  provide a voice for the approximately 20,000 “righties” (as Bronson called them) in the overwhelmingly lefty region.

“As you get to know us, we trust you will find our opinions reasoned, informed, and thoughtful,” Bronson wrote.

There’s general agreement in the Berkshires that that goal failed spectacularly with the Nikitas column. In his piece, titled “Here’s the solution for black America,” Nikitas urged African Americans to “reform their culture from top to bottom” among other things by “returning to their churches…avoiding violence and debased rap music…and pulling up their pants.” He also urged blacks to turn away from “charlatans like Al Sharpton.”

As Nikitas lobbed a fistful of tired generalizations and stereotypes at a monolithic “black America” and assigned Sharpton a status more lofty than the one he actually holds, the column did not immediately spark a huge backlash.

The backlash came after the massacre at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, on June 17. That’s when “the furor really erupted,” Bill Everhart, the Berkshire Eagle’s editorial page editor, told CommonWealth. “The thing I found most startling was [the conclusion by some readers] that we chose to run this column after the events in Charleston, South Carolina, when in fact it ran a week before,” Everhart said.

Some of the most outraged readers were outside Massachusetts. People who weren’t familiar with the Berkshire Eagle’s reputation as a progressive paper were the most upset. It “shook us a little bit that so many things were attributed to the Eagle versus the columnist,” Everhart added.

The controversy has attracted the attention of the Boston GlobeMass Live, and national media outlets such as Talking Points Memo.

Berkshire Eagle editor Kevin Moran published an explanation of the paper’s decision to run the column on June 26.  Moran’s column sums up the newsroom’s view, says Everhart. The newspaper’s roughly 15-member staff includes one African American reporter.

Media analysts such as Northeastern University’s Dan Kennedy, who disagreed with the decision to publish, described his reaction this way:  “A community paper like the Eagleshould provide a public forum… But it should also have standards for what it chooses to publish, and that’s where I think the Eagle blew it.”

Bronson, the Berkshire County Republican chairman, backed up Nikitas and told MassLive that the message was obscured by “inartful” language and criticized the Eaglefor “gotcha journalism” in its response to the controversy.

Some readers came down on the paper for letting the column’s “non-facts” stand without a countervailing point of view, and at least one commenter would have sent the piece back for substantial revisions.

The Eagle also got support for its decision to publish. One Berkshire County NAACP member told Everhart that the paper had done a public service. (When he talked to CommonWealth, Everhart said he had not heard from the local NAACP branch officials.) Lee Williamson, a member of the Massachusetts Democratic State Committee, wrote to say that he was “proud of the paper.”

Everhart has “no problem” with people being upset about the column.  “It was important to put in the light of day ideas like these that many of us find appalling,” he said. “It serves no purpose to let them fester underneath the surface.”

Going forward, the Eagle plans to include more information about an author in the “tag lines” at the end of opinion pieces so it is clear that the person’s views are his or hers alone and do not represent the paper’s editorial position. Everhart says that the paper will also re-evaluate how the Berkshire County Republicans and the “Right from the Berkshires” column can best counterbalance the paper’s liberal-leaning editorial page.

As for the impact of the Berkshire Eagle controversy on the wider media world, Everhart noted that if an outlet believes it is in the right to publish a controversial opinion, then editors have to “trust their instincts” and be ready to “take the heat.” But they also have to be ready to confront cyberspace-generated outrage beyond their home turf. “Clarity is really important today when so many things go flying around the Internet link-to-link-to-link and the original context is lost of a newspaper trying to provide an opinion that is dramatically different from its own,” Everhart said.




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