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Five years later: student journalists recount months leading up to Aug. 11 and 12, 2017

Former staffers discuss how The Cavalier Daily covered controversy leading up to the “Unite the Right” rally

This article is the first of a two-part series examining the experiences of student journalists throughout the summer of 2017. You can view the second part here

I sat down with Tim on a Friday afternoon in April around 4 p.m. We drove out to Mudhouse in Crozet, where he ordered a slice of coffee cake and I purchased an iced latte. Though we probably would have been able to better hear one another inside, we opted to snag a table outdoors for two reasons — firstly, it was one of the first days of true spring weather in Virginia, so we wanted to enjoy the sun. More importantly, however, this was an important conversation.

Tim is someone you learn about pretty quickly after getting started at The Cavalier Daily. Though I joined the paper six months after his term as editor-in-chief ended, I quickly learned his name after needing to reference his reporting frequently.

Tim first got involved with our staff as a first year in 2015, when he joined the news and social media teams. Later in his University career, Tim served as news editor, managing editor and, eventually, editor-in-chief before moving to Bristol to pursue professional journalism. Today, Tim is a rising second-year Law student at the University.

Tim’s time as a staffer — and eventually, as editor-in-chief — was marked by several moments that, today, staffers are taught as significant stories in the history of not only The Cavalier Daily, but the University itself. Mere days after Tim became news editor in January 2016, University student Otto Warmbier was detained by the North Korean government after being accused of stealing a travel poster. Warmbier was later released to the U.S. in an unresponsive state before passing away

When I asked him about the other “big-ticket” stories on Grounds during his first two years at the University, Tim also described covering what the University called “bias-motivated incidents.” This included racist, anti-semetic, and islamaphobic messaging being posted publicly around Grounds.

Tim also recalled covering several ongoing lawsuits, including the civil suit filed against Virginia ABC by Martese Johnson, a student brutalized by University Police Department officers, the criminal trial surrounding the abduction and murder of then second-year College student Hannah Graham and the defamation lawsuit filed by former Associate Dean of Students Nicole Eramo surrounding the writing and publication of Rolling Stone’s “A Rape on Campus.” 

“The University was going from crisis to crisis,” Tim told me. 

None, however, were quite so defining as what took place on Grounds and in Charlottesville in August 2017. 

For Tim, however, the seeds of Aug. 11 and 12, 2017 were not planted that summer. Rather, he pointed to three separate “threads” as what he considers as the beginning of what became “Unite the Right,” starting with the election of former president Donald Trump in November 2016. 

This election was also cited by Alexis Gravely. I know Alexis best as the president of The Cavalier Daily Alumni Association. Throughout the last six months, she has supported me in making financial and business decisions for the paper, as well as connecting current students with alumni through mentoring and programming. While on staff, however, Alexis was a news senior associate editor and, later, assistant managing editor. 

Alexis and I connected for this article on a phone interview that I took from my childhood bedroom during the middle of finals. Though she laughed about having been interviewed on this subject dozens of times, I could still hear an inkling of apprehension in her voice as we eased into the flow of conversation.

More than five years later, both Alexis and Tim could still recall the feeling on Grounds following the former president’s election in November 2016. Alexis remembered being assigned to cover a solidarity event the night following Trump's election organized by the Minority Rights Coalition, United for Undergraduate Socioeconomic Diversity, DREAMers on Grounds and a few other groups. During the open-mic style event, dozens of students and community members shared their anxieties, fears and hopes for the future.

Alexis sat beside Dani Bernstein, former editor-in-chief and Class of 2017 alumna, and Kayla Eanes, former managing editor and Class of 2017 alumna, who repeatedly told her that if the event was too difficult for her to cover, she could leave. Alexis refused.

“The fact that someone felt the need to organize that [and] that [it] was very well attended really speaks to the mood on Grounds after he was elected,” Gravely said. “Everyone was very sad and uncertain about what the future would hold — and I think a little scared too.”

Tim agreed.

“It felt like someone had died,” Tim said. “Like a funeral had happened across Grounds.”

When it came to the former president and the organizers of “Unite the Right,” both Tim and Alexis agreed that they think Trump's rhetoric emboldened the right-wing and white supremacists who descended on Charlottesville some nine months later. Even more, Alexis reported on what she viewed as a very plausible link between the “bias-motivated” incidents Tim and I had discussed and Trump’s election.

“His rhetoric played a lot into how these people felt that they really needed to take something back,” Gravely said. 

Throughout fall 2016, Gravely had also been covering the work of the Blue Ribbon Commission on Race, Memorials and Public Spaces, a group created by City Council in May 2016 to review the City’s Confederate monuments. The group’s final report — issued in December 2016 — suggested removal or recontextualization of both the Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson statues located in downtown Charlottesville. Funded by Paul Goodloe McIntire, the Lee and Jackson statues were commissioned and constructed in 1921 and 1924, respectively.

“I think some of their recommendations were sort of the start of this battle, this outrage from people on the right who thought these things did not need to be contextualized,” Alexis said.

That same year, then-high school student Zyahna Bryant circulated a petition to remove the Robert E. Lee statue from Market Street Park, formerly named Lee Park. Charlottesville residents, faculty, students and City Councilors began calling for the statue’s removal, marking the start of what would become a very long and public debate surrounding the physical landscape of Charlottesville.

Tim said he thinks the media — particularly mainstream, white-led news organizations, including The Cavalier Daily — poorly framed these debates. 

“The terms of the debate were largely set by the opponents of removal,” Tim said. “The people that were so opposed to rethinking our historic landscape and wanted to see Confederate monuments taken out of our public spaces, they often set the terms of the debate by saying ‘Oh, these efforts are going to erase history’ or ‘this is censorship.’”

Importantly, Tim noted that The Cavalier Daily wasn’t pursuing coverage of the debate over Charlottesville’s historical landscape independently. Rather, as these debates became a regular part of City Council coverage, reporters simply ended up writing about the statues as a part of the weekly beat system.

“I wish that the news coverage had been more nuanced, had dug a little deeper into the history of these Confederate monuments [and] didn’t really fall for the ‘erasing history frame’ that opponents were using,” Dodson said. “A lot of what we were doing was reporting on events as they happened, and we weren’t really out there leading anything.”

A November 2016 article by The Cavalier Daily describes the Lee statue as having been “donated to the city by Paul McIntire, a prominent Charlottesville-born businessman, in 1924” — failing to note McIntire’s funding for the construction of the Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson statue, his purchase of the two parks that would house the Lee and Jackson statues and his current connection to the University through it’s McIntire Department of Art, McIntire School of Commerce and McIntire Amphitheater.

Tim added that he also felt it was incorrect to present the lead-up to “Unite the Right” as largely defined by the controversy over the Lee and Jackson statues, as this left out the more insidious and pervasive history of racism, white supremacy and inequality in Charlottesville and at the University.

“I just think it’s too simplistic to boil it down to ‘the statues provoked this,’” Tim said. 

Part of this problem, Tim hypothesized, was the widespread perception on Grounds that what was happening at the University and what was happening in Charlottesville were distinctly separate — an observation Alexis agreed with.

“I don’t think anyone — including myself — was really thinking critically about what was happening around us,” Alexis told me. “I’m not sure if we realized that what was happening wasn’t just the news of the day — it was more than that.”

One example we discussed at length was how the paper went about covering Jason Kessler, a Class of 2009 alumnus and one of the main organizers of the “Unite the Right” rally. As student journalists, Dodson said The Cavalier Daily typically looked to the example of other local newspapers in covering Kessler as he built a following and began organizing the rally.

Early coverage by The Cavalier Daily of Kessler alternates between describing him as a “local blogger” and a “right-wing blogger.” In contrast, coverage following “Unite the Right” refers to Kessler and the others who protested in Charlottesville exclusively as white nationalists or white supremacists, a move made in line with guidance released by the Associated Press following the events of Aug. 11 and 12, 2017.

“I don’t think that we — being the media — felt comfortable saying that this dude was a white supremacist,” Tim said. “That hadn’t really entered the vocabulary of mainstream media, and so we ended up using these terms like ‘far-right blogger.’ If you take a step back, what does that really mean?” 

For Alexis, part of this problem stemmed from a related belief among staffers on The Cavalier Daily that it was necessary to follow the “status-quo” of journalism, such as feigning impartiality in the name of objectivity.

“We were really caught up in trying not to be biased or trying to be neutral, and we were neutral to the detriment,” Alexis said. 

The first time both Tim and Alexis recalled hearing from Kessler was when he began sending out emails to news organizations about City Council, which landed in the email inboxes of The Cavalier Daily. These emails drew attention to a series of offensive tweets posted by Wes Bellamy, a member of City Council at the time. 

Tim noted that it was a struggle to relay Kesller’s behavior. 

“It was really hard to describe accurately what he was doing,” Tim said. 

Initially, Tim said he perceived Kessler as a sort of “provocateur” who was urging news outlets to pay attention to problematic tweets posted by Bellamy, who at the time was the only member of color on City Council.

“[Kessler] wanted to talk about Bellamy’s views on race,” Tim said. “But I thought the more newsworthy thing was actually that Bellamy had tweeted some sexist and homophobic stuff. I also don't want to play into what Kessler was trying to promote, and by covering Bellamy’s tweets, I do wonder if we inadvertently did that.” 

Ultimately, The Cavalier Daily did end up looking into Bellamy’s posts and writing about sexist and homophobic tweets. Bellamy later resigned from his teaching position at Albemarle High School and his seat on the Virginia State Board of Education. 

Today, Alexis said she looks back on those articles and thinks they could have been handled differently.

“I think we were putting his tweets on the same level as the criticism coming from Jason Kessler and in retrospect, that just sounds ridiculous,” Alexis told me. “But I think prior to Trump's election, a lot of people still thought that we were in that post-racial society that came from Barack Obama's election, and I think that really impacted how we covered all these events leading up to [the rally] — they definitely weren't critical​​.”

Tim agreed that the paper’s initial coverage of Kessler — including the Bellamy controversy — left room for improvement.

“As a paper, I wish we had covered this kind of stuff a little more sensitively,” Tim said.  “It was really hard for us to wrap our heads around who this guy was and what he was doing.”

Tim also regretted missing the intentional organization and planning that went into the “Unite the Right'' rally, most of which happened on platforms outside of Facebook and Twitter. Much of this planning would later be compared to the organization behind the insurrection on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021 — an event that participants and organizers of the “Unite the Right” rally were also linked to.

Still, Dodson said there were anti-racist activists who were tracking this, citing Emily Gorcenski's work documenting these efforts by people like Kessler. Following the weekend of August 11 and 12, Gorcenski built the website First Vigil to track hundreds of criminal cases associated with the rally.

“[Kessler] was building a coalition of right-wing people behind the scenes — he was finding allies like Richard Spencer who were out there and willing to work with him,” Tim reminded me. “That’s a part of the story that a lot of journalists miss — the right-wing organizing that was happening in the lead-up to “Unite the Right” — because a lot of it was happening outside of Facebook and Twitter.” 

If one thing was clear in the lead up to “Unite the Right,” it was that these student journalists had no idea what was coming.  

“I think that we really underestimated what “Unite the Right” would be,” Alexis said. “And I think that’s a testament to the way we were approaching this story.”

Tim Dodson served as editor-in-chief of The Cavalier Daily during its 130th term. He is a current Law and Architecture student and is a Class of 2019 alumnus.

Alexis Gravely is the current president of The Cavalier Daily Alumni Association and former assistant managing editor. She is a Class of 2019 alumna.

Eva Surovell is the Editor-in-Chief of The Cavalier Daily and a rising fourth-year College student.

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