by Steven Yates

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Death
by Journalism? One Teacher's Fateful Encounter With Political Correctness
.
Ashboro, N.C.: Down Home Press, 2002. Pp. 241. $24.95.

Are
today's media, in some sense, evil? No doubt this is a rather general
question, but Death by Journalism? One Teacher's Fateful Encounter
With Political Correctness definitely leaves that kind of impression.
Not only does this book pick up where Bernard Goldberg's Bias
left off, it shows that biased reporting and blatant disregard for
the truth are hardly limited to highly visible media outlets in
New York and Washington, DC.

The
award-winning author, North Carolina native Jerry Bledsoe, is best
known for true-crime bestsellers such as Bitter
Blood
and Blood
Games
. He has also penned Just
Folks: Visitin' With Carolina People
, North
Carolina Curiosities: Guide to Outlandish Things to See and Do in
North Carolina
and Blue
Horizons: Faces and Places From a Bicycle Journey Along the Blue
Ridge Parkway
. His first venture into the treacherous waters
of political correctness is a thoroughly documented account of a
sequence of events that began in late 1998 in north central North
Carolina, in Randolph and Guilford Counties. What happened to one
man and to the small community college where he taught a history
course that fall ought to worry anyone concerned about the power
of the press in an age that has largely dispensed with the concept
of truth.

Rhonda
Winters, director of Randolph Community College's Archdale branch
campus not far from Greensboro, had obtained approval for an adult-education,
community outreach course on North Carolina's role in the War Between
the States. When she went in search of a qualified instructor, her
attention soon focused on a 60-year-old Guilford County native named
Jack Perdue. Perdue already had a track record at the college from
having taught classes in real estate appraisal. Although real estate
was his livelihood, history was his passion. Jack Perdue was in
fact a living, breathing treasure chest of regional history. A historical
preservationist and genealogist, he had written monographs on local
historic sites and brochures on how people could trace their ancestry
to find out if they had ancestors who had fought for the Confederacy.
This and his preservation work had drawn him into the local Sons
of Confederate Veterans camp in 1992, where he eventually became
an officer. Because regional history was a calling, his integrity
as a historian was extremely important to him.

The
course entitled "North Carolina History: Our Role in the War
for Southern Independence" would meet every Thursday for two
and a half hours per session for ten weeks, and be co-sponsored
by the local SCV. The $40-per-student cost would pay for the course;
no "public" money would be involved. Perdue accepted the
offer and went to work with great enthusiasm. He involved a number
of other historians including other SCV members who would guest-lecture
on aspects of a very broad subject ranging from the weaponry employed
by Confederate soldiers to the dresses worn by women of the period
to the hardships they faced in the war's aftermath. Everything presented
in class would be referenced, preferably with original written sources
from the period. No one was to express personal views or get into
politics. This was the way Jack Perdue wanted it. There was the
standard publicity, including an entirely neutral article in the
High Point Enterprise. Eleven students signed up. As the
course began, there was nothing to indicate that on the eve of its
completion, a controversy would erupt that would nearly tear the
rural community college apart and destroy Jack Perdue's life.

Enter
young reporter Ethan Feinsilver, stage left. Feinsilver worked for
the Greensboro-based News & Record, covering Randolph
County south of Greensboro. He entered the room late and remained,
taking notes and later requesting course materials despite not having
signed up and paid to take the course or obtaining permission to
sit in (something Jack Perdue would likely have granted, had Feinsilver
bothered to ask). It is clear from ensuing events that Feinsilver
was on the prowl for a controversy, and if he couldn't find one
he was going to create one.

Jerry
Bledsoe reports that during the break that first night, he was heard
asking Jack Perdue, "Why are you being allowed to teach such
a controversial course?" Jack was dumbfounded. There was no
controversy here. Anyone who wanted information about the course
could readily obtain it. At first, Perdue had seemed pleased that
a reporter was present, thinking this might win favorable publicity
for a course he hoped would become a permanent offering at RCC.
Feinsilver did not return the following week. But during that session
which featured Confederate re-enactors, a photographer appeared
in his stead. The man's manner made Perdue uneasy. He was angling
his photos to make the Confederate flags used by the re-enactors
as prominent as possible.

Feinsilver
kept reappearing, and began to badger students in the course with
leading questions designed to provoke a response. Eventually several
complained. Feinsilver phoned guest lecturer Herman White at his
home. White had dealt with slavery in the fifth session and provided
written evidence that at least some North Carolina slaveowners had
been kind to their slaves instead of brutalizing them, as the stereotype
maintains. He reported how investigation into his own family history
turned up documentation showing how the wife of one of his ancestors
had taught the family's slaves to read and write – even though this
was against the law – as if preparing them for freedom.

Many
North Carolinians of the period opposed slavery, after all, and
were convinced it was doomed whatever happened between North and
South. Moreover, there were many free blacks in the South, relations
between them and whites were better here than in the North, and
some – no one knew for sure how many – joined the Confederate Army when
the war broke out. Be this as it may, the lecture was over, and
Feinsilver had missed it. White grew impatient, telling Feinsilver
that he wasn't about to repeat the entire thing over the phone,
had no fax machine to send him materials, and that he should have
signed up for the course.

The
next event was the appearance of a county NAACP representative,
obviously at Feinsilver's instigation, at the planned second to
last session of the course. Although suspicious of a set-up, Jack
Perdue welcomed the man. The NAACP representative would say afterwards – at
first, anyway – that he'd been treated with respect and had heard
nothing racially offensive. But Feinsilver wasn't through. Not by
a long shot. He was a man with a mission.

That
Sunday, November 15, 1998, a scathing article appeared in the Greensboro
News & Record with the title, "Course reopens war's
old wounds." It was about Jack Perdue's course, and its author
was none other than Ethan Feinsilver. A lengthy subhead referred
to the course's "pro-Confederate slant," stated that it
had "anger[ed] black leaders" and was part of the "larger
clash between Southern heritage and civil rights groups." Feinsilver
focused on the one session that had dealt with slavery. White's
report that at least some slaves had been treated with kindness
and that some free blacks had joined the Confederate Army was transformed
into the very different claim that "most black people were
happy under slavery and that tens of thousands of blacks fought
for the Confederacy because they believed in the Southern cause."

Feinsilver
invoked unnamed "Southern history experts" denouncing
the course as "pseudo-history" and "pro-Confederate
propaganda." The article went on to claim that the state NAACP
and the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights were considering lodging
a formal complaint against Randolph Community College. Feinsilver
left the insinuation that Jack Perdue's course was a part of the
regular curriculum and paid for with state money, as opposed to
what it was: a community-outreach course, self-supported and paid
for solely by its participants.

Had
anyone said, at any time, that most black people were happy under
slavery? There was no evidence anything of the sort was said. The
course sessions had been videotaped, and the videotapes should have
proved this. Herman White had said some things likely to raise the
brows of today's academic historians who insist that the sole cause
of the War for Southern Independence was slavery, but that slaves
were happy under slavery was not one of them.

Jack
Perdue, moreover, had insisted that there was no documentation about
specific numbers of blacks fighting for the Confederacy. He had
been very explicit about this. Finally, Ethan Feinsilver had not
even attended the session that covered slavery and the role of blacks
in the war. This did not keep him from writing an article suggesting
otherwise; it did not keep his editors at the News & Record
from backing him publicly and defending the story's accuracy; and
it did not keep Associated Press from picking up the story and distributing
it all over the world.

In
other words, within 24 hours Jack Perdue and his course, along with
Randolph Community College, were thrust into a national and even
international spotlight. The thought police descended on these unsuspecting
people like packs of wolves, and their wrath even spilled onto other
students who innocently said how much they enjoyed the course and
how much they were getting out of it. With further articles by Feinsilver
referring to the "firestorm of media attention," Randolph
Community College faced a public relations nightmare. College officials
struggled with damage control, particularly with national civil
rights groups breathing down their throats and allegations of a
course about "happy slaves" taught by SCV members at RCC
appearing in newspapers all over the country. Under enormous pressure,
caught in the middle, and with his own career in jeopardy, RCC's
president Larry Linker finally cancelled the last session of the
course.

None
of this could compare to what Jack Perdue was going through – especially
given the personality that emerges from Bledsoe's narrative. Apparently
Perdue, somewhat shy by nature, was one of those people who bottled
up negative emotions. He had sought only to teach the history he
cared about. He was not a celebrity, and had not sought publicity.
This very public assault on his integrity was unlike anything in
his worst imaginings. Virtually every news media outlet was accepting
the validity of the Feinsilver article; follow-up op-eds by nationally
syndicated columnists such as Leonard Pitts (of the Miami Herald)
were appearing and taking Feinsilver's version of events for granted.

Pitts,
a first-rate writer capable of using words like rapier-thrusts,
wrote of the course's "offensive thesis: that the overwhelming
majority of blacks were happy in slavery." Pitts went on (I
recall the column): "you look at the people pushing a fraudulent,
morally bankrupt version of those horrific days and you wonder about
them. Are they evil? Are they stupid? Or are they, like the slaveholders
of old, merely embracing a delusion they must believe in order to
continue believing in themselves?" Jack Perdue found himself
publicly denounced, demonized, branded a pseudo-historian and a
pro-Confederate propagandist, called names ("crank," "cracker,"
etc.), accused of romanticizing slavery, of teaching lies and "morally
bankrupt" history, of espousing hatred towards blacks, "Yankees,"
Indians and Jews (Feinsilver was Jewish), and even compared to neo-Nazis
saying the Holocaust didn't happen. Even other students in the course
were being attacked as closet racists.

Through
it all, Perdue mostly held his temper and maintained his dignity.
He refused to participate in the media circus. This was used against
him. He must be hiding something, the Ethan Feinsilvers of the newspaper
world reasoned – even though he was cooperating fully with the college
by sharing whatever documentation was asked for and preparing public
statements describing what his course had been about. He and others
at the college outlined, point by point, specific falsehoods in
Feinsilver's article ranging from relatively trivial ones (e.g.,
he reported the course as lasting nine weeks instead of ten weeks)
to the really damaging ones about happy slaves. He had put words
in people's mouths, attributing to both the course's students and
RCC administrators things they had never said. This was all ignored
by the press.

Defenses
of Jack Perdue's integrity by his students and others who knew him
were also ignored. He was helpless before media supremacy. Eventually
the toll on his health began to show. It is generally accepted that
extreme, chronic stress can kill you. Perdue spent weeks that winter
with what seemed to be a bad cold. Finally, on the morning of February
10, 1999, at around 5 a.m., Jack Perdue had a fatal heart attack – on
his and his wife Annie Laura's 37th wedding anniversary.
She and other family members who had suffered through his ordeal
with him, the students who had taken his course, and others who
had known Jack Perdue all their lives, were convinced that the events
beginning with Ethan Feinsilver's article were responsible for his
death. This was, in other words, literally a death by journalism.
To insult his memory further, his death was not reported except
as a paid-for obituary. The News & Record editors did
not consider it sufficiently newsworthy.

Jerry
Bledsoe reports that Feinsilver repeatedly refused to be interviewed
for this book (as did his editors at the News & Record).
That leaves us largely in the dark as to his real motives. We can't
say for a fact that Feinsilver himself believed what he had written.
He'd seen that a rural, community college was offering a history
course that was vulnerable to being portrayed as representing a
"Confederate point of view." Members of the SCV were co-sponsoring;
Confederate battle flags had been photographed. These days it is
easy to speak of "pro-Confederate hate groups" without
bothering to investigate them or getting to know the people in them.
Perhaps Feinsilver just smelled the possibility of writing the kind
of article that establishes careers, given the brand of attack-dog
journalism that began to thrive in the politically correct 1990s.
We just don't know.

What
do we know? We know that based on other articles Feinsilver wrote
and from reports by others in the Greensboro News & Record
newsroom, he apparently regarded Randolph County, North Carolina,
as a "redneck backwater." He had already alienated the
people of Asheboro with hostile, negative reporting about their
community. We know that there was no controversy surrounding Jack
Pardue's course until Feinsilver put it there. Not even the county
NAACP had batted an eyelash. If anyone needs to see a textbook case
of media creating "news" instead of reporting it, look
no further. We also know that despite his editors' continued public
statements supporting the accuracy of the November 15 article, Feinsilver
was put on six-months probation following the explosion he had created.
And finally, we know that at the end of that six-month period, Feinsilver
left the News & Record. It is easy to infer, with Bledsoe,
that he was offered a choice between resigning and being fired and
chose to resign, after which he left journalism. Even after moving
to Chapel Hill and enrolling in its education school, Feinsilver
still declined the opportunity to tell Bledsoe his side of the story – if
he had one.

The
News & Record never issued any public retraction or correction
of any kind. Nor did any other paper that had uncritically repeated
and even amplified Feinsilver's charges. Jack Perdue, in one of
his rare displays of anger, had emailed a letter to the editor of
the neighboring Winston-Salem Journal following a particularly
scurrilous editorial (the one comparing him to a Holocaust-denier).
He called the paper's statements "potentially libelous."
His letter was refused publication and referred to the paper's legal
department (no action was ever taken). Of course, suing a newspaper
for libel is very, very hard, even in a case like this; the large
media corporations that now own most city newspapers have huge resources
and the capacity to drag out such litigation for years, causing
even more damage in the long run. This is why the media's responsibility
to report the truth and not invent things
that never happened is so important. Almost to this day, statements
are appearing that take the Feinsilver story at face value. Sometimes
they amplify it with things not even Feinsilver said, e.g., a history
professor at Columbia University commenting that a history course
was offered at Randolph Community College in North Carolina depicting
slaves as "smiling, singing Sambos."

If
you believe all the talk about political correctness is just paranoia
or "right wing" backlash, read Death by Journalism?
Those who know better will find their worst fears about today's
news media confirmed. But don't read this book before you go to
bed at night, and I don't recommend it to anyone with high blood
pressure! My initial question was, Are today's media in some
sense evil? I closed Death by Journalism? with a sense
of having encountered something malevolent. One irresponsible and
inflammatory article by one reporter set off a chain of events that
destroyed a man's life. Newspaper editors backed the story, publicly
at least. Associated Press just passed it on, without anyone bothering
to check its accuracy. Other newspapers reprinted and even embellished
the allegations. Nationally syndicated columnists and professional
agitators uncritically held up Jack Pardue's course as "evidence"
of the hotbed of "racism" they want us to believe still
permeates rural, mostly conservative regions – especially in the South!

Today's
cultural climate set the conditions for this journalistic train
wreck. Political correctness has clearly grown more dangerous than
communism ever was, and might yet be this society's downfall. It
nearly controls our most important disseminators of what is supposed
to be truthful information: higher education and the news media.
Seeing truth as a matter of consensus, leftist intellectuals in
universities, cynical ladder-climbers in newsrooms and on editorial
boards, and NAACP agitators with the media at their beck and call,
all see themselves as "ministers of truth" empowered by
warped visions of "morality" and "social justice"
to dictate such things as how history should be taught. In the process,
they rewrite history to further their own power-hungry agendas.
Those who control the past, so to speak, can control the present.

Without
a truthful account of where we came from, we don't know where we
should go, and we are vulnerable to those taking us where they
want us to go. Jerry Bledsoe tells us, in the press release that
accompanied my copy of this book, how Death by Journalism?
is connected to his true crime sagas. This book is "about crimes,
too. Just crimes that can't be prosecuted…. An honorable and innocent
man … had his good reputation destroyed, and many people close to
him believe the stress from that killed him. He certainly thought
that a crime had been committed against him, and death left him
no recourse to it." That explains why Bledsoe wrote this book:
"Truth matters. This book shows just how much it does matter.
Alter truth even slightly, and it can have drastic effect. In this
case, truth was savaged. Journalism isn't supposed to be about lying.
It isn't supposed to be about destroying innocent people. It isn't
supposed to be about depriving people of basic constitutional rights.
All of that happened in this story, and I realized that if I didn't
tell it, nobody would. The lie would live. I felt a deep obligation
to my county, as well as to my profession, to see that didn't happen."

March
16, 2002

Steven
Yates [send him mail]
is a Margaret “Peg” Rowley Fellow at the Ludwig von Mises Institute.
He has a PhD in philosophy, and is the author of Civil
Wrongs: What Went Wrong With Affirmative Action
(ICS Press,
1994), and dozens of articles in both academic and nonacademic
periodicals.

Steven
Yates Archives

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