On this edition of CoastLine, it's a Political Reporter Round Table. We’re tackling the issues that will shape your decisions this November – as well as the unorthodox election season and how that’s playing out in local and state races.
Tim Buckland, Senior Political Reporter, Local Government Editor, StarNews
Rachel Lewis Hilburn: From a reporter’s point of view, what is different about this election cycle compared to any other election cycle that you’ve covered?
Tim Buckland: I think it’s the showmanship at the top of the ticket. We’ve got a reality star and businessman in Donald Trump, leading the Republican ticket, whereas an incredibly famous former Secretary of State, Senator, and First Lady in Hillary Clinton. These are two well-known, well-vetted people. For example, when Barack Obama ran in 2008, there was a hint of the unknown, you know, who is this person, but these are already very famous people. They’ve had twenty or thirty years in the limelight, so it’s drawn a lot of attention to the race, I think.
RLH: Vicky Janowski, of course you see this through the lens of the business community and how the economic issues will play out. Is this different for you, or is it par for the course? What’s it like?
Vicky Janowksi: Well, it’s been interesting to watch how this very different national election and the rhetoric that’s been focused on for so many months, whether or not that has or has not trickled down to the state and local elections. I think we’ve seen some glimpses of it in terms of responses, particularly around the HB2 issue, maybe not as much down to the local, county level. But it has been interesting to see whether people decide to incorporate that national level of rhetoric, the out-of-the-box sayings that will get a lot of coverage, whether they’ve made a conscientious choice to do that or to not do that locally.
RLH: The political coverage of this campaign has been evolving from the moment that it started. We’ve heard pundits and analysts say, “Wow, I’ve never been through a season where I’ve been wrong on every prediction that I’ve made.” And we’ve watched major news organizations undergo more public soul searching about how they’re covering this election than we’ve perhaps seen in the past. Tim Buckland, is that filtering down to the local level for you, or is that soul searching as a journalist always going on?
Tim Buckland: Both. For one, you might remember that I wrote a column a long time ago that said, “Donald Trump Will Not Be the Republican Nominee.” And then I had to follow it up with one where I ate a bunch of crow. He’s a completely unconventional candidate, and he’s winning with it. So, the result is what the result is. But do you always wonder, you know, “Am I making sure that I’m being fair?” If you’re not, then you should leave the business, I think.
RLH: That’s an ongoing exercise.
Tim Buckland: Sure, yeah.
Vicky Janowksi: You shouldn’t feel too bad about that. FiveThirtyEight said the exact same thing, and they have all the statistics and analysts with it. You could see it first hand. Tim and I were both at the Donald Trump rally, which was his first visit here. So all the stuff that you’ve seen on a national level, to see it there firsthand, to see his supporters there, to see which comments did or did not get picked up in the coverage of it— It was interesting to see that kind of event that we’ve been seeing going on all around the county come to Wilmington and how it was covered. Obviously, he made the comment that made national headlines—probably even before he finished talking—about the Second Amendment and Hillary Clinton. So, you can see it in real-time, how it unfolds, that phenomenon that we’ve been seeing since the beginning of the year.
RLH: Well, you raise an issue— Tim, this directly affected you because you, as Vicky said, covered that event. There was a headline the next day, and the Star News received some backlash. Can you tell us that story?
Tim Buckland: Well, we reported it just like every major news organization, but we are your local paper. So, did I get 25-50 calls about it and voicemails and angry emails, you bet.
RLH: And what were people upset about?
Tim Buckland: They were claiming that we had some sort of bias against Mr. Trump because we had a headline that said he suggested taking up arms if Clinton wins. Well, I mean the man said, “Maybe the Second Amendment people could do something, I don’t know.” This is something that he does at speeches, especially when he has no teleprompter, which is his style. He’ll throw something out there and see how it sticks to the wall. I think that’s how he operates. He did it just a couple of days ago when he said African Americans are in the worst shape they’ve ever been, seeming to ignore issues like slavery and institutional segregation. So, he speaks off the cuff, and it’s a style that both works for him and causes a lot of negative publicity for him.
RLH: Vicky Janowski, you mentioned being there and paying attention to the comments that got picked up. Are you talking about by the national media, by the local media, or both? Was there anything said that you thought should have been covered but just wasn’t as incendiary as the Second Amendment remark?
Vicky Janowksi: Well, we come from a slightly different viewpoint and readership than a general audience or a general newspaper. Business Journals are more of a B2B (business-to-business) type media. His visit came during a week when both candidates were unveiling their economic policy and making a big push on that part of their platforms. For our coverage, that was the focus of it, in terms of focusing on the business claims and the economic portions of it, and then also what Hillary Clinton’s campaign had also been pointing out and responding to Trump’s in terms of that area. And so, it’s a little bit different than covering it in the pool coverage for the reporters that cover him for speech after speech. Both candidates say the same things all the time, or even for, where Tim’s coming from, to write about the speech from the general audience perspective whereas we are just focusing on the business comments, the economic development comments, and trying to link to and give people the rest of the speech. That’s not just this story, but any story you do, any event you cover as a reporter. You know, if someone speaks for an hour, it’s not a transcription. Journalism is not transcribing. It’s putting things in context and highlighting what’s most important or newsworthy. So, for one audience that might be a different newsworthy section than for another audience.
RLH: Do you think that makes it a little clearer and easier for you because you have this mandate to look at it through the filter of economic impact and impact on the business community. Does that make it easier as a journalist than for someone like Tim Buckland, who is tasked with summing up the speech?
Vicky Janowksi: In a way it does, but when you look at business coverage and the way we cover this business community, on one hand, it does because you are a business beat and you have a specific focus, but on the other hand, you have to start picking and choosing because the umbrella of business and economic development is not solely just companies and private investors and how the banks are doing. It touches on education, workforce development, quality of life issues. All of that plays into economic development, so sometimes, it can be a very broad stroke, but yes, we do have a niche focus, so that’s what we can devote our resources to.
Jim (email): Who is running against David Rouzer in North Carolina’s 7th Congressional district this year?
Tim Buckland: J. Wesley Casteen. He has run before as a libertarian/independent type of candidate, and he is running as a Democrat against David Rouzer.
RLH: We regularly get emails from Jim, so I would consider him relatively well-informed. So why does he not know who is running against David Rouzer at this point? What’s happening with that campaign?
Tim Buckland: There are a multitude of factors. One is something I covered pretty well in depth, and that’s how the district is drawn. Unfortunately for Mr. Casteen, it is a strongly Republican district. Congressman Rouzer has very high name recognition in this area. Mr. Casteen is facing an incredibly uphill battle not only to compete with Mr. Rouzer but also to try to raise money. His campaign finance reports have shown limited fundraising, which results in limited add time, which results in limited people knowing who he is.
Jim (email): I’m so sick and tired of receiving Michael Lee’s attack mailings against Andrew Barnhill.
RLH: Tim Buckland, you also covered the party boy Barnhill story. Can you tell us what the essence of that allegation is?
Tim Buckland: First, it was an ad paid for by the North Carolina Republican Party. Michael Lee didn’t have any direct involvement or any involvement that I’ve been able to find at this point. He essentially alleges that when Mr. Barnhill took a trip with Furman University over to South Africa, he didn’t spend quality time at a charity mission and instead went to a casino. This is something that Mr. Barnhill has refuted.
RLH: You had a hard time corroborating some of those allegations. Can you tell us what you were able to find about how true these allegations may or may not be?
Tim Buckland: Well, the allegation was that, while a student at Furman University, Andrew Barnhill took a charity trip to South Africa as part of a mission to build villages, schools, that kind of thing. The allegation is that he spent extremely little time actually at the charity mission and instead was partying at a casino. I spoke to Mr. Barnhill about it, and what he told me was that he was in the village for a significant period of time. He sent me photos of him, and he didn’t highlight this, but I noticed in the photos that he was wearing different clothing and he certainly wasn’t at any casino. But I wasn’t going to go on his word alone, and I found a classmate of his who is now a physician in St. Louis and interviewed him on the record, with his name being used. He said that he was with Andrew the entire time, and they were at the resort for one day in order to stay in a hotel before getting on an airplane and coming back home. So, that’s what I went with, but the allegations are out there. You can believe them or not believe them, but you also have to ask yourself, “How much does that matter today in this race?”
Amy (email): Over the past couple of months, I’ve received six or so mailings from the NC Republican party attacking Andrew Barnhill. These mailings have been less than subtle and can only be referred to as attack ads, highlighting words such as “extreme manipulator,” “lack of regard for the children suffering,” “he lied to you,” and “unfit for public office.” How can Mike Lee can claim to not be party of this—particularly since I’ve received material from Lee’s direct campaign highlighting his exceptional character?
Vicky Janowski: Attack ads are nothing new in politics. Politics have always been dirty. But we’ve obviously seen it ratchet up ever since Citizens United. We’ve seen a lot more of third-party inclusion in these type of attack ads. When it comes up in a local issue, whether it’s from a super PAC or not, it does make you question if the candidate is having any concerted effort in it. I don’t know what role Senator Lee is or is not playing in any of the criticisms of it, but I do know I don’t really recall having seen him do similar attack ads in his previous campaigns. You have to think it has a balance effect against him as well, to where, like this reader is suggesting, it puts some doubt into their minds. Sometimes that’s one of the criticisms of having so much money infused into third-party attack ads for both sides, both candidates.
RLH: So, you’re taking a risk when you choose that strategy.
Vicky Janowski: Right, or even if you’re a candidate that had nothing to do with the strategy, it can sometimes hijack your overall campaign message.
RLH: Which is, I think, something that the Star News wrote an editorial about. This may have some negative implications for Michael Lee.
Tim Buckland: Sure. Let’s remember that, most people, all they do when they see these mailings is glance at it and throw it away. What if the only thing that they’re seeing is “Andrew Barnhill”? One effect it does have is boost the name identification of your opponent. A lot of candidates don’t like it when third-party negative attacks happen to their opponent because it makes people more aware of who their opponent is, and if you’re somebody who is on the fence, you might be thinking to yourself, “Gosh, I don’t like the fact that this other candidate is beating up on this guy. It doesn’t seem right.” So, I don’t know the efficacy of attack ads. I have seen research on both sides of it, but they’re going to happen. It’s as simple as that. They just happen.
RLH: It’s just part of the landscape when we get into election season.
Tim Buckland: Sure, and sometimes they do work, as we saw with Beth Dawson in the primary. She had a stream of attack ads come at her, and she ended up coming in fourth in a three-horse race.
RLH: Now that was an unusual circumstance because Beth Dawson, of course, is a Republican and the current chair of the New Hanover County Commission. She delivered the State of the County speech, and there was a response from a fellow Republican incumbent that was essentially a campaign video. Can you speak to that?
Vicky Janowski: Right, it was a three-person, coordinated response. That was of note because that type of ad and that type of response ad is a little bit unusual in local politics. It’s not that local politics isn’t as competitive or you’re not going to have attack ads or criticisms against your opponents, but that caught people’s eye because that type of campaign and video was something that’s more atypical in our level of local politics than what you might be used to seeing in the state and legislative races.
RLH: Especially because we’re talking about fellow Republicans, people in the same party.
Vicky Janowski: Yes, and it ended up being a very close race in the primary. Beth Dawson has—instead of voting strictly party line on some pretty key decisions, even going all the way back to the special use permit—crossed party lines, and I’m sure that alienated her from some of the members of the county Republican political base.
Darcel (caller): I’m a part of Leland Ladies for Legislative Leadership. First of all, when a candidate runs or has run in the past and has monies, what happens to that kind money because it is restricted? Can you explain how are those monies utilized once the candidate is no longer formidable, or like McIntyre who didn’t help Barfield out in his campaign. Secondly, it is not in the constitution that you only have a two-party debate. This coming Monday is going to be only the two major parties, and I feel the coverage for the third-party candidates is not fair.
RLH: Tim Buckland, let’s talk first about what happens to leftover money in a campaign.
Tim Buckland: Any number of things. It could be that the campaign decides to pay back loans that the candidate has made to himself. It can be kept in those bank accounts and used to support other candidates, other political causes. The caller is right that it is restricted. You can’t just go out and have yourself a nice time in Vegas with it. But candidates can do any number of things. They can keep it in the bank account for a future run. It’s up to the individual candidate committee, what to do with those funds.
RLH: Her point about the fact that third-party candidates aren’t going to be part of this upcoming presidential debate on Monday, September 26. Vicky Janowski, was there a bar set for that? How is that decision arrived at?
Vicky Janowski: Typically, the rules they go by for the presidential debates is based on polling numbers, in terms of who is invited. I’ll take the arrow on that one too because the Business Journal is going to have a gubernatorial appearance with the two candidates, where they’ll be discussing on stage and taking questions from the audience next Friday.
RLH: That’s September 30.
Vicky Janowski: Yes. Those are the two primary party candidates: Governor McCrory and Attorney General Roy Cooper. So, we’ve gotten that question—not that many, to be honest. It’s not been an onslaught of questions or criticisms about it, but there has been a question of why we didn’t invite the libertarian candidate.
RLH: So what’s the answer to that?
Vicky Janowski: I know that not everyone is going to agree with this, and I can’t speak for the national level of debates, but I think when you have a finite time to hear from the two candidates that are most likely going to be vying for the votes, to have an informed electorate, it is important to hear where their differences and their positions are. And if you know they are the two viable candidates that are going to be in contention, to be able to inform the public as best you can on how they differ is a good use of our time.
RLH: And the key word there is viable. On the last CoastLine, I was taken to task by a caller, who said, “Don’t tell people that they’re throwing away their vote if they vote for a third-party candidate,” and a political scientist who was part of that discussion essentially said, “There’s a mathematical reality.” You know, there’s voting your conscience and then there’s taking into account that mathematical reality, which just is.
Vicky Janowski: Right, and it’s not like they’ve always been ignored in every election cycle, especially on the national level. I mean, you had Ross Perot, who made a definitive impact in that presidential race. It will be interesting to see, as we move forward and more and more of campaigning moves to social media and more grassroots movements occur, the candidates do have other channels to get attention and momentum.
Betty (caller): I have a question about the state senatorial campaign. Why is Michael Lee so interested in breaching the rock wall in the Cape Fear River? Does this have something to do with a potential port for Southport? If this is the case, Michael Lee represents Wilmington. Isn’t he eventually taking business away from Wilmington?
RLH: None of this has actually been corroborated. That question has been raised before, and it’s been raised in the news media, but I’m not sure that we’ve gotten a definitive answer on this.
Vicky Janowski: I think what she’s referring to is some funding that came up in the budget last year, which took some people by surprise, about removing the rocks down there in the inlet. The international port, which is something that we’ve covered throughout the years, it was a very big deal and it seemed like it would become a reality, or at least there was support for it to be built down in the Southport area years and years ago, and then it has kind of dropped off the radar. There’s a lot of opposition from some groups.
RLH: There was. The beach communities that are right there.
Vicky Janowski: And then there are others who have always supported the idea that say it would be a major economic boost to the area. The issue itself, and I think that’s why it came up, especially last year, is just the appearance of some of the funding about those rocks and what’s the motivation behind it, and does that mean there’s momentum again to put the international port idea back on the table or not.
RLH: And you’re saying that’s essentially ebbed for the moment? Or we don’t know?
Tim Buckland: Well, it didn’t come up in the most recent legislative session. I was one of those who had to look it up. Senator Lee wasn’t the sole sponsor. Bill Rabon was one of the sponsors, and he does represent that area. But, as far as I’ve heard, the issue is just not coming up, at least in this race.
Lucy (email): I have received at least four mailers attacking Andrew Barnhill, and I think only one positive mailer from his opponent. It’s disgraceful. I’ve always thought Michael Lee was a decent guy and don’t understand why he isn’t running a positive campaign.
RLH: This goes to your point, Vicky Janowski, that this effort is not necessarily coming from Michael Lee’s campaign.
Vicky Janowski: Right, like we were talking about earlier, it’s interesting. When people see these mailers, this is obviously what they’re holding onto, but his campaign may have had nothing to do with it, but that’s what people are remembering. So that’s just something that, politically, he has to overcome and get past that message.
Tim Buckland: To turn it around, if I may, Andrew Barnhill’s campaign has directly sent out mailers attacking Senator Lee. They hit your mailboxes over the last week or two. [The mailers] essentially tie Michael Lee to offshore drilling with pictures of an oil-slicked beach and all of that. So, it’ll be interesting to see how that plays out because Mr. Barnhill has endured some attacks, so perhaps this is his way of responding.
RLH: We also have some local issues that have become centerpieces for some of the local races, and I’m wondering if those issues are necessarily translating into defining issues for voters or whether so many of the things we’re talking about remain in the realm of campaign strategists and politicians. For instance, I’m thinking of the New Hanover County tax increase that was passed this June. It’s something that both sides have discussed, the politicians have discussed. Are you hearing, anecdotally, as you make your way around the community, that this is something voters are actually concerned about?
Tim Buckland: No, not really. I’ve seen it come up once in a brief post that a county commissioner candidate, Nelson Beaulieu— In fact, he likes to joke that no one can pronounce his name correctly.
RLH: Yes, I had to be schooled on that.
Tim Buckland: He posted his bill, which itemized that the tax increase was to pay strictly for debt that the voters have approved. That’s the only mention I’ve seen so far, but that’s just me. Vicky may have a different answer.
RLH: From the business community, are people talking about the tax increase? Does it matter? Are they concerned?
Vicky Janowski: In general, you would think that property tax increases would be more of a campaign issue and more of a test of how the previous politician voted while in office. I think during the primaries in Brunswick County, which also has commissioner races going on, the candidates did speak to that, whether they would support it or not support it. So, a lot of times, that is one of your basic, fundamental election questions. But like Tim was saying, there’s not been a lot of outcry or focus on it this election cycle in New Hanover County. We were talking earlier, and what you guys have been hearing all week from the candidates, the primary issue, at least from the business community standpoint, has really been the future of the special use permit and where the candidates stand on that. It’s a very common litmus type question about where you stand on county property taxes and whether you will or won’t support an increase while in office. And it seems like this year, at least right now, the question is, Will you or will you not support a revision to the special use permit? If so, what kind? It’s interesting that that, at least right now, has been, for our readership, a really big discussion point.
RLH: I have to second that. We’ve gotten so many emailed questions for candidates about the special use permit. That does seem to be a defining issue for a lot of the voters. We’ve seen some shifting in positions on the SUP recently.
Vicky Janowski: The special use permit, it’s interesting that it’s just zoning changes. The special use permit governs where cell phone towers are placed, but it also has a large role to play in what we’re telling industrial recruiters about what our process is for industrial projects and how we’re going to approach them. It’s interesting that it’s becoming a campaign issue now. It’s been slowly worked on ever since 2014 when they had the 2-2 vote on it and didn’t make any changes. Along the way, the Chamber had a policy statement saying they were going to push for it to be updated. All the different groups who have different opinions about it, a common thread for many of them is that it needs more clarity for different reasons. Some people say it needs more clarity so that prospective companies know what they’re dealing with and we can be more competitive in recruiting, and that it’s hindering us now, at least that’s what the Garner Report said.
RLH: That’s partly why it’s such an emotional issue because it really is a lightning rod.
Vicky Janowski: Right, so the special use permit—besides the fact that whatever ends up getting decided is going to be what’s pointed to in how industrial companies can or can not come here—so besides just what it says on the paper, I think the reason that it’s gaining traction or because there’s been opinionated stances on it is because it basically is a vehicle for a larger issue, which is: How do we as a county want to approach industrial recruitment? What kinds of industry do we want to see or not see in this are? And people have very strong opinions about that. You can go back to the time when Titan was coming up, which was when the debate came to a head several years ago. You saw how invested, almost emotionally, people were in that, in terms of whether or not certain companies should be allowed to build here or not.
RLH: One of the current Democratic candidates actually told us that she thinks the Titan issue is not over.
Vicky Janowski: I think that is the concern for some of the folks who do want the special use permit constructed in a certain way that has, you know, what they see as environmental and health protections because— Titan, as you were saying before, they were still going through the regulatory process, but they voluntarily backed away on their own based on market conditions. That issue, for now, was resolved on its own without us ever having to make a final decision about where we see ourselves as a community. So, I think when people say the Titan issue isn’t over, what is still lingering on the table goes back to the overall discussion of what the county and its ordinances, what kind of companies they want to allow and what kind of process— I mean, that’s part of it too, is how much input and how that process is going to work when these types of projects come up, so people are clear from the get-go, in terms of public hearings that are held or in terms of how much input the Planning Board gets. So that, should a project come up next time, people know what to expect. So there is a lot of strong emotion about that, not just because it is a word-by-word zoning change, but because it speaks to a larger question of how we’re going to move forward.
RLH: The future of this whole region.
James (caller): I’m calling to speak to the Andrew Barnhill discussion that was taking place earlier. I’m actually an independently registered voter. I voted for both Democrats and Republicans in recent elections. When I started receiving these mailers from the Republicans about Barnhill, I actually looked into Barnhill and got more interested in this particular race and have ended up volunteering for Barnhill and now fully support him because of just the ridiculousness of what’s happening with the way they’re phrasing things and the reach that they’re making for these negative accusations.
RLH: So you’re one of those voters for whom this negative campaigning has backfired for the Lee campaign.
James (caller): Absolutely. Completely backfired. I was not even really aware of this race. I haven’t been particularly active as far as the state legislature. I actually have a background in English and communications, and just looking at the way the thing was worded, it was written with such weasel words and with such language that was intended to take a tiny little thing and create this picture that didn’t really ever say anything but gave the impression that there was this horrible thing that happened, when really there’s this small thing that happened in school, that evidently people that don’t like him are bringing up from his past—
RLH: What is the defining issue in the New Hanover County School Board race?
Tim Buckland: It’s neighborhood schools followed by neighborhood schools followed by neighborhood schools. With the construction of Porter’s Neck Elementary, the school board will have to undertake some form of redistricting. When one of our reporters, Cammie Bellamy, found a memo that Dr. Tim Markley, the superintendent of schools, had sent to the Board of Education that essentially said that the neighborhood schools concept has created a situation where— He didn’t say it quite this strongly, but where it’s de facto segregation, where there’s higher concentrations of minority children in some schools and higher concentrations of white kids in suburban area schools.
RLH: And he said that the high-poverty schools, which are also high-minority, are being negatively impacted by that.
Tim Buckland: That’s correct. So it’s going to thrust this issue into the limelight for most of 2017, and that’s why Cammie has undertaken this particular topic and made it something that we think is incredibly important to fully examine both sides of the issue and ask, Is there a perfect answer to any of this? Each side will give you their viewpoints, and in fact, it’s one of the many questions we asked of all of our candidates in a voter guide that we’ll put out on October 20th that will help you determine for yourself how these candidates answered numerous questions we posed to them, not only for school board, but for races in Pender, Brunswick, and all of New Hanover County.
RLH: What about some of the other state races for this area? Susi Hamilton versus Gerry Benton. That’s an outlier in that the incumbent is a Democrat. She’s enjoyed a lot of support around this area, bipartisan support. How is this likely to go? What are you both hearing when you’re out there about this race? Does her challenger, Gerry Benton, the Republican have a shot?
Tim Buckland: Everyone has a shot, but even Gerry Benton will tell you he knew what he was getting into. This is the one district that the state legislature carved out in our area that is heavily, heavily, heavily Democrat based on voter patterns. So, Susi enjoys a significant advantage just in registered voters, but you never know. A few years ago, the majority leader of the U.S. House, Eric Cantor, people would have said he wouldn’t have a shot at losing to a guy named David Brat, but he did. Ultimately, until November 8th happens, we’re not going to know.
RLH: There was a letter to the editor. This was published in the Star News in 2006 that asked news organizations to vet political ads before publishing or airing them. And of course, we have television ads that say, “My name is so-and-so, and I approve this message.” Will there ever be a day when news organizations do take more responsibility for some of those ads and maybe refuse to print or air ads that are either wildly hyperbolic or factually incorrect, blatantly false? Is that their role? How do you see this evolving?
Vicky Janowski: For political ads? That gets into dangerous territory of encroaching on First Amendment rights, and there’s lots of case law that outlines what is and is not allowed in political ads. So, to make the TV stations— I guess this is primarily where this pops up, although I’m surprised at how much the campaign mailers are still having an effect in this modern day and era, but clearly they’re still an effective tool. So that’s well established in what is legally protected under political Free Speech rights. I don’t think it would our role as journalists to start monitoring or gatekeeping that.
Tim Buckland: The only role I see, and it’s a role I’ve undertaken in my whole career, is when you see a particularly effective or large ad, you can use the paper’s editorial pages to ask who is behind it and how much of it is true, kind of like what I did when I researched who put out the ads against Beth Dawson back in March and when I did a story about the ads against Mr. Barnhill a couple of months ago.
RLH: Remind us about the ads put out against Beth Dawson. Those were full-page ads in the Star News.
Tim Buckland: Like everybody else in Wilmington, the first time I saw it was when I opened up my paper, and there it was, in bright yellow or red: “Beth Dawson votes with Democrats.” I was as surprised as anyone, and I can tell you that throughout my twenty-year career, there’s never been a single time when our ad department has come up and said, “Do you approve this ad?” We consider them to be one side of the church and state and us to be the other side, and I want nothing to do with that department.
RLH: There’s an important firewall there.
Tim Buckland: There’s literally barriers in our building.
Vicky Janowski: But what I do think has been a good movement in terms of journalism has been the rise in the past decade or so of PolitiFact or fact-checking departments. When you talk about hyperbolic speech and claims, there’s been more resources devoted to letting readers know the background behind some of those claims and where the facts may or may not lie. So that’s been a good move forward for political reporting.
RLH: It’s very complicated too for political reporters, especially if they’re stuck in a circumstance, like you often are, Tim Buckland, when there’s an event happening like the Trump rally and you need to get your report online and out there as soon as possible, or when there is a live broadcast situation, and a candidate makes a certain claim or lobs an allegation. It’s very hard for political reporters to check that stuff on the fly because it’s so often deeply nuanced. How do you deal with that when you’re covering breaking political news?
Tim Buckland: The advent of online publishing gives us an opportunity to say, “Here’s what happened.” Then I eat some lunch, get back to the office, and there’s an opportunity to continue checking and asking questions. For example, in just about every newspaper publication, you’ll see some reports that say, “Updated at X Time.” And you’ll see a paragraph in there, “The campaign later clarified the statement by saying—” And that was a journalist reaching out and saying, “Well, hold on a minute. Did he mean this fact the way he said it?” So, it does happen.
RLH: Let’s talk about HB2. This is an issue that we’ve heard the business community talk about the hemorrhaging of dollars from the state. Vicky Janowski, what are you hearing from the business community locally on this point?
Vicky Janowski: Sure, and we had been checking in with them along the way ever since HB2 got passed. It has not had the direct impacts that Charlotte and Raleigh have shown in terms of where you can quantify it, like PayPal cancelling their plans to open an expansion in Charlotte. Now, the film studios that were shooting pilots here expressed concern on paper, and we’ve asked a number of major employers, and most of them locally have taken kind of the stance that Duke Energy took, for example, saying they were monitoring it and they have their own policies but they weren’t weighing in on the state legislation. But in terms of a major company that’s taken a public stance on it, it’s really been Brett Martin at Castle Branch who is very against the legislation and held forums about it. There was a conference that got cancelled specifically because of that, but then after that, it gets harder to measure. You know, did it impact tourism this year? Were there other people who were going to have conferences here but didn’t? So it’s a little bit different than Raleigh or other cities that made quantifiable reports about how it impacted them, or those cities that were going to have NCAA or ACA events.
RLH: Right, you can count cancellations, but you can’t count just with site selectors. It’s impossible to qualify whether you’ve fallen off of a list because of that.
Vicky Janowski: Right, and that being said, it’s been a big topic of discussion here, just like it has been across the state.