By: LARRY TIMBS
THE PRESS SECRETARY to the speaker of the House in North Carolina, recently fired after he acknowledged to a reporter that he used a racial slur in what he thought was a private conversation, says the rules of journalism have dramatically changed from when he worked as a reporter.
Don Follmer, 56, adds that in the wake of his firing as spokesman for one of the most powerful people in North Carolina, he’s had “about enough moral outrage [from the news media] to last all my life.”
Follmer and his boss, Republican House Speaker Harold Brubaker of Asheboro, N.C., became subjects of intense media scrutiny in the Tarheel State as the result of a story published on April 24, in the Raleigh, N.C., News & Observer.
That story, written by Joseph Neff of the 154,000-circulation News & Observer, reported that Follmer had admitted calling a predominantly black group of protesting University of North Carolina housekeepers and students “niggers and wormy kids.”
Follmer, paid about $54,000 a year as press secretary, was questioned by Neff, who received a tip that Follmer had uttered a racial slur to characterize the estimated 100 protesters at the North Carolina General Assembly building on April 10.
The housekeepers and their supporters, gathered outside and inside the legislative building that day, asserted that a plan to privatize housekeeping services would reduce their already-low pay and erode their state benefits.
Follmer, a former reporter, acknowledged to Neff that he used the racial slur in what he described as a private conversation that day with Associated Press reporter Dennis Patterson in an office near the main pressroom.
Follmer made the “N” word comment to Patterson when Patterson asked the press secretary what the commotion was about.
Patterson, a respected, 10-year reporter of state government for the AP, apparently didn’t think Follmer’s comment was newsworthy because he didn’t write a story about it.
Nor did Adam Hochberg, a National Public Radio reporter, deem Follmer’s utterance newsworthy, opting not to write a story about it for the airwaves.
Hochberg, a few feet away from Follmer and Patterson, overheard the conversation and asked Follmer if he had indeed said what Hochberg thought he heard him say. Follmer didn’t deny making the statement.
Bill Sandifer, a cameraman for WTVD (television station) in Durham, also heard about the comment and mentioned it to veteran WTVD reporter Dave Boelik. However, the eyebrow-raising comment went nowhere with WTVD.
There the scenario may have ended, were it not for the tip reporter Neff received 10 or 12 days later.
That tip and Neff’s aggressive reporting about what happened in the legislative building on April 10 resulted in front-page stories in North Carolina’s most prominent newspapers.
House Speaker Brubaker initially stood by his trusted press secretary, announcing that everyone on his staff is colorblind and that while Follmer shouldn’t have said what he did, he was entitled to a mistake and should stay on the job.
The press, however, continued to focus on the story, sparking some readers to blast Follmer for degrading blacks in North Carolina, and fueling accusations from Brubaker’s opponents that the House speaker, by the company he kept, condoned racism.
On April 26, the besieged Brubaker fired Follmer, who had earlier offered to resign. Changing his tune from the earlier comments of support, Brubaker said his longtime press secretary should have known when he crossed the line.
Brubaker, now stressing that everyone on his staff is accountable to the public, also emphasized that what Follmer said in the conversation overheard on April 10 was completely inappropriate.
Follmer said in a phone interview in May from his home in Brevard, N.C., that while he shouldn’t have made the perjurious comment about the protesters, he was surprised that it found its way into print.
As a journalist who worked for the High Point (N.C.) Enterprise in the 1960s, for a county weekly paper in Leesburg, Va., for several years, and for a magazine, Follmer said he thought he understood the “rules of journalism.”
Many times during his years in journalism, he said, he heard things in private conversations that, had he reported them, could have hurt people.
“But since they were said in private, I never reported them,” Follmer, known for his loud, vibrant voice, said. “But obviously, I got caught in a rules change . . . . What I said is inappropriate, but I’ve done a lot of inappropriate things in private settings that had nothing to do with my job . . . . I was in a private office blowing off steam. Someone was lurking around and he got interested.”
When Follmer was asked by the News & Observer about the comment, he admitted making it.
The former press secretary noted that his record of racial tolerance is spotless, pointing to his tenure as a reporter for the High Point Enterprise when he covered the KKK, and, on the advice of the FBI, carried a pistol for three years.
News coverage of Follmer’s firing inspired columns or op-ed pieces in the Charlotte Observer and the News & Observer, severely condemning public officials and others in power in North Carolina who use racially derogatory language.
Jack Betts, an Observer associate editor, wrote in an April 28 column that journalists, including himself, have tolerated racial slurs far too long as evidenced by those in the media who knew of Follmer’s April 10 comment and did not report it.
“No more,” Betts wrote. “Let the word go forth: Say the ‘N’ word to me again, pal, and I’m gonna make you famous.”
Mary Newsome, an Observer editorial writer, vowed in her “Urban Outlook” column published on April 26 to be more vigilant about spotlighting racially offensive language.
Newsome, endorsing the firing of Follmer, wrote that “racism in public or private is no longer acceptable and I’m going to speak up a lot more. For one thing, if this country truly wants to rid itself of racism, white people have to be a lot more courageous about policing ourselves.”
News & Observer columnist Barry Saunders wrote a scathing, satirical piece (published on April 25) reconstructing the Follmer-Patterson conversation in which he uses the acronym “NAWKs” to encapsulate “Niggers And Wormy Kids.”
Saunders wrote that while he himself has never been perfect, even when he was at his worst, “I never would have allowed a public official to bend my ear with such racial crap. At least not off the record. The way I figure it, a person has two choices when someone starts spewing verbal poison. You can smile weakly and hope he stops, or tell him from the get go that you don’t appreciate such language. Unless you do.”
A media “feeding frenzy” is how Follmer characterizes the journalistic backlash focusing on his “N” word comment to Patterson.
The news media, he said, have engaged in a kind of self-righteous moral outrage competition with each other.
“I think they were trying to outdo each other and show how pure they were,” said Follmer, noting that after 12 years, including a stint as a cabinet level press secretary in the administration of former North Carolina Gov. Jim Martin, he won’t work any longer in the “fishbowl existence” of politics.
“I’ve had about enough moral outrage to last all my life,” he said.
He described the media coverage of his situation as an opportunity for the press to establish, “Who’s going to be more morally outraged? I just think it’s sort of a holier-than-thou attitude [on the part of the press] and ‘we’re going to show you how pure we are.’ “
Patterson, contacted by phone, declined to be interviewed. He said he wished he could talk about
Ex-journalist, now spokesman for N.C. politician, is fired after using racial slur in private talk with reporter the situation but was adhering to AP policy by not commenting.
Ambrose Dudley, the Associated Press bureau chief for North Carolina, declined to comment, according to Sue Wilson, news editor of the AP in Raleigh. However, Wilson said that Dudley’s comments in a April 27 story in the News & Observer still represent his position on this matter. In that April 27 article, Dudley called Follmer’s “N” word comment newsworthy and noted that Patterson should have reported it. Dudley also cited the distance that reader-conscious journalists should keep from those they are covering.
Hochberg of NPR, who overheard Follmer’s comment on April 10 but didn’t broadcast it, said he doesn’t see himself in a position to pass judgment on anyone, adding that he would have to decide whether to report racially offensive language on a case-by-case basis.
“When the News & Observer called me and asked me what I had heard, I told them,” Hochberg said.
The News & Observer’s Neff, who broke the story for publication, declined to say who tipped him about Follmer’s comment. However, he says that the person was in the legislative building, heard the comment and was highly offended.
Upon getting the tip, Neff said he knew he had a story.
“I’d hate to speak for anyone else on that,” Neff said. “I just know for me, it sounded like a story. You have the person who is the spokesman for the person who I’d say, arguably, is the second most powerful person in the state. It’s not just his spokesman but [someone with] a lot of influence on tactics, strategy and policy.”
Neff doesn’t buy the idea that a private conversation should have shielded Follmer’s comment from publication.
“A public official, on public payroll and public time while he’s on the clock, walks in the middle of one of the most public places in the state and announces something to the world,” Neff said. “There’s no question being off the record or whatever didn’t enter into this.”
Neff, strongly supported by his editors in pursuing the story, said that the News & Observer’s editorial positions, which frequently are more sympathetic to Democrats than Republicans, shouldn’t be confused with the newspaper’s news coverage.
He said party affiliation didn’t play into the paper’s aggressive coverage of Follmer and Brubaker, both Republicans.
“We routinely jam things in the ears of Republicans and Democrats,” Neff said. “The governor is a Democrat. If his spokeswoman would have said the same thing, we would have done it the same way.
“And if it’s someone who is the official spokesman for the second most powerful person in the state, we’re going to jump on that, and especially when it involves a comment made about citizens exercising their rights to protest and to take part in democracy.”
?(A tip and Raleigh News & Observer reporter Joseph Neff’s aggressive reporting about what happened in the legislative building on April 10 resulted in front-page stories in North Carolina’s most prominent newspapers.) [Photo & Caption]
?(Timbs teaches journalism at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, S.C.) [Caption]
?(“A public official, on public payroll and public time while he’s on the clock, walks in the middle of one of the most public places in the state and announces something to the world. There’s no question being off the record or whatever didn’t enter into this.”) [Caption]
?(-Joseph Neff, News & Observer reporter) [Photo & Caption]