Jeff Gauger, the executive editor of the News & Record, a daily newspaper in Greensboro, N.C., apologized for a June 14 blogpost that readers found “highly offensive” to North Carolinians.
Gauger had written a satirical blogpost mocking “hicks” in response to the New York Times‘ July 9 editorial, “The Decline of North Carolina,” which described the “state government” as a “demolition derby, tearing down years of progress in public education, tax policy, racial equality in the courtroom and access to the ballot.” According to the New York Times, “Republicans took control of both the executive and legislative branches for the first time since Reconstruction” this year.
As evidence of this “tearing down,” the Times reported that North Carolina “has the fifth-highest unemployment rate in the country,” and yet the state’s government blamed the joblessness on “generous benefits” and recently decided to stop “federal unemployment benefits for 70,000 residents.” The Times’ editorial went on to list several areas where the Republican-led government has made cutbacks in education, health care and voting.
Gauger described his column as a conversation between “a fictional couple, Vern and Fleta Mae,” in response to the Times‘ editorial. “In their discussion, Fleta Mae was the voice of reasonableness. Vern was a sort of dope, depicted — I thought — with an author’s license to satirize a point of view to help make a point,” Gauger explained.
Throughout the fictional conversation, Fleta Mae is scolding Vern to pay attention to their discussion of the editorial instead of being preoccupied with eating his grits. “Get your face out of your buttery grits this instant,” Fleta Mae said. Vern dismissed the Times editorial because “it was written by a bunch of New York liberals,” which he calls “commie country.” But, he admits to not having read it and only heard about it from friends named Bubba and Mack at a diner.
But, Gauger argued in his apology blogpost that he was really making fun of hicks in general, a “universal hick,” and not specifically North Carolina hicks. “The universal hick is an archetype,” Gauger wrote. “I thought that the manner with which I presented Vern’s speech reflected that archetype, and that readers would see him as a mere device.”
Readers were most upset about the “presentation” of the two characters and North Carolina. As evidence, he cited three readers’ complaints over the way North Carolina and North Carolinians were shown. Gauger told iMediaEthics by email that he received “about 30” complaints.
In his apology, Gauger admitted that he “gave offense” and “came off as a condescending and ignorant newcomer.” According to a news report about Gauger’s 2012 hiring at the News & Record, he last worked in Ohio.
However, Gauger noted to iMediaEthics that even his apology garnered criticism. In response to his column, he said “I heard back … from people accepting my apology, from people saying I shouldn’t have apologized because my first column was spot on, from people saying my apology only offended them more.”
Because of this incident, Gauger told iMediaEthics he will “avoid satire for now.”
“I expected a response based on what I wrote,” Gauger said. “Instead, reader response focused on how I wrote. I got that wrong, of course, which perfectly illustrates my error.”