Newspaper Fires Editorial Writer For Racist Remarks In Private Blog

The Charleston Daily Mail, a 100-year-old newspaper in Charleston, West Virginia, fired a 30-year employee this week for posting racist comments in his personal blog. Don Surber, who was employed as an editorial columnist, wrote in his blog:

“This summer I had an epiphany as I watched packs of racists riot in Ferguson, Missouri, in support of a gigantic thug who was higher than a kite when he attacked Ferguson Police Department Officer Darren Wilson, who unfortunately had to put this animal down.”

Even though Surber wrote this on his own time, and posted it on the internet, in a forum distinct from the newspaper, it was too much for his employer. Worried about their journalistic reputation, they canned him:

“Writing on his own personal blog, Don Surber … selected words that were unfortunate, inflammatory and, in our view, inexcusable. It’s his own blog, but still, he’s known as a Daily Mail editorial columnist and many readers seemed to perceive the views stated to reflect on the Daily Mail’s editorial policy.”

Of course, the Daily Mail doesn’t need to justify hiring or firing its editors and writers. They can employ, or unemploy, anyone they wish and don’t need a good reason or any reason, although in this case they felt a compelling reason.

Brad McElhinny is the editor-publisher of the Charleston Daily Mail. Under his editorial explaining Surber’s dismissal, quoted above, a reader posted this comment:

” … I have worked closely with Brad McElhinny … and I have always admired his … careful decision-making … at the newspaper. … The individual who is no longer employed … forgot that while he is certainly able to do and say whatever he wants on his own time, there are many good people who are equally free to disassociate themselves from his disturbing brand of psychological violence.”

This was followed by a heated discussion other readers who also posted comments, a couple of whom don’t know what the First Amendment says or who it applies to, and others of whom aren’t waiting for the legal process to determine what happened in Ferguson and whose fault it was.

Along those lines, if I may digress briefly, I’ve posted other articles in this blog about how Ferguson, a city run by whites whose residents are overwhelmingly black and poor, pays for municipal amenities by systematically shaking down the residents. Where municipal court fines average over $400 a year per resident, you know something is seriously out of whack. Michael Brown was gunned down for walking away from a jaywalking ticket. While we can’t know for sure what he was thinking, a fair guess is he’d had enough of that oppression. (I’ve walked in residential streets countless times, and never been ticketed for it.) When the people of Ferguson demonstrated (not “rioted”) they weren’t just protesting the unnecessary police shooting of one of their own, but also the entire corrupt rotten city government — its white mayor, its white city council, its white municipal judges and prosecutors, and its white cops — that for generations has exploited the city’s poor black people.

The Charleston Daily Mail is editorially conservative. McElhinny says so in his editorial. That’s their privilege. Surber is a conservative ranter who, in his conservative editor’s eyes, went too far with his rants. There’s much wrong with what Surber wrote. Nothing’s right about it, except this is a free country that ensures people of a right to be a fool, ass, jerk, knave, racist, and/or wrong. Surber is a venal man who has a right to be those things but doesn’t have a right to be listened to, and McElhinny has no obligation to give him legitimacy by allowing him to continue working under the Daily Mail’s masthead. While newspapers are private property, like any business they sell a product to the rest of us — in this case, the product is news and opinion — and like all customers their readers expect a certain quality in the product. The reader who wrote the comment quoted above explained it with these words:

 Journalism at its best answers to a higher standard than does the corner market, and we should all be grateful for that. I know I am.

In other words, we expect more of newspapers, and the people who edit and write them, than we do of the hoi polloi milling about in the “corner market.” I know this ethos well; I grew up in a newspaper family, went to journalism school, and worked for a newspaper myself before I became a lawyer. Thus, I have lifelong roots in journalism and newspaper professions. I know what’s expected of journalists and Surber’s rant doesn’t satisfy any accepted journalistic standard of factual accuracy or social responsibility. I can’t argue with McElhinney’s decision to sack him. I would feel dismayed if he didn’t.

We all say shit at times. When we’re young, before we’ve learned the ways of the world, we may say things that will still haunt us 50 years later. Words can destroy relationships, tear families apart, and even start wars. As there are unforgivable deeds, there are unforgivable words. Which is well to remember, now that we live in a digital age when everything we say in public can be preserved forever and retrieved and used against us at crucial turning points in our lives, e.g. when interviewing for a job.

Michael Brown’s death is a turning point in our nation’s history. Unwittingly he became this decade’s Rodney King, and Ferguson now is this generation’s Selma. By dying he woke us up to the fact we’re still a racist society. By calling him an “animal” Surber reminded us that racialist haters still lurk out there, and we need to watch out for them. He’s a throwback to a historical time we thought was over. But like the side mirrors on some cars, the “objects in mirror are closer than appears.” Although they don’t define the tone of our nation’s culture anymore, they’re still tailgating us.

Of course, setting a cultural tone is exactly what Surber attempted to do with that diatribe. And that being what he was up to, his newspaper employer sacked him, in order to fight against reestablishing that tone in their community. Good for them. Tolerant people have to win this fight, just as the abolitionists had to win the fight against slavery a century-and-a-half ago. We can’t let the Surbers of the world win. We don’t wish to silence them, but we’re not obligated to give them a platform, audience, or microphone. That’s what removing him from the newspaper staff is about. He still has a voice, but no longer a newspaper voice, and shouldn’t have one.

I take issue with a lot of what conservatives say nowadays. More than anything I’m disturbed by their refusal to explain, debate, and defend their beliefs and ideas. America’s public discourse has descended into name-calling, lies, smears, and mudslinging. There’s no conversation about ideas. All we have now is people lining up to throw rocks. There are lots of things I want to debate, if I can find someone to debate them with, because it’s how we learn and discover our mistakes. If newspapers want to be a part of this process, they mustRoger Rabbit icon do what the Charleston Daily Mail just did.




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    I agree with the Daily Mail’s decision to fire Surber. I would’ve done the same thing in their place, regardless of my feelings on Ferguson.

    Whether Surber is a racist is immaterial. What matters is that by his deliberate actions he caused readers of the Daily Mail to question his journalistic integrity. No reasonable person would expect an employer in the news business to overlook a screw-up like that.

    It amazes me that so many people – from school teachers to athletes to journalists – continue to shoot off their mouths in public forums, expecting their jobs to be guaranteed under some kind of fairyland First Amendment protection.

    Don’t people read the news any more? How many times does this story have to repeated until people finally get it?

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