As most folks in my business would probably tell you, the most important parts of a newspaper story are, in roughly this order, the photo (if any), the headline, the lede and the last sentence. More folks will see the photo and read the headline than will read the story. A few more will read the first few graphs, maybe to the jump, and then abandon it. The fewest will read the entire piece, and the last impression you give them in the story (the close) will have an impact.
With that in mind, I offer Anita Kumar’s story today in The Washington Post. There are slights of writing that impact the readers’ perceptions.
In the dead-tree version, the story is in the upper left of page one, a fitting placement. The proclamation by Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell of “Confederate History Month” created a national furor and, of course, it’s a homegrown story.
The headline is “McDonnell admits a ‘major omission.’” That’s pretty accurate. He didn’t apologize for celebrating Confederate History Month, but only that he did not refer to slavery. (Which is like referring to the oppression of the Jews in WWII without mentioning that that oppression was more than hurling epithets.) Note that in the online version the headline is different but also accurate: “Virginia governor amends Confederate history proclamation to include slavery.”
The lede, however, is another issue.
After a barrage of nationwide criticism for excluding slavery [emphasis added] from his Confederate History Month proclamation, Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) on Wednesday conceded that it was "a major omission" and amended the document to acknowledge the state’s complicated past.
The criticism was not just about “excluding slavery” from the proclamation; it was about the proclamation itself. Why do we celebrate traitors to this country? Why do we celebrate a movement that sought to preserve the most despicable of human institutions?
I’ll admit that some of the chatter I saw, heard and read the last two days was a little wishy-washy on this issue. Liberals, especially elected officials, didn’t want to go all the way there for fear of alienating Southerners who continue to cling the notion of the noble confederate. But I think it’s fair to say that many people, especially those who’ve had little contact with the South, are baffled by this sanitized view of the Civil War. Were there other issues besides slavery, for example, states rights? Yes, but they stemmed from the issue of slavery; they were not separate and apart. Why, those folks ask, do Southerners celebrate the Confederacy?
McDonnell and his supporters must be happy with the next two paragraphs as they give his original rationale for omitting slavery and his rectification of the mistake. In fact, the entirety of the story before the jump is favorable to McDonnell—a man taking responsibility for his action and graciously calling two key critics.
After the jump, we see another headline: “Despite apology, criticism of McDonnell continues.” So where’s the evidence that criticism continues (though I’m sure it does)? After a graph that details the changes to the proclamation, we have this curious graph:
But his decision to declare April Confederate History Month continued to cause a firestorm Wednesday, with national media descending on Richmond and Democrats and African Americans accusing the new governor of ignoring the state’s role in slavery.
Was the firestorm before or after McDonnell’s mea culpa? If after, as is the logical interpretation, despite the lede, there is a firestorm over not just the omission of slavery in the proclamation, but the proclamation itself. OK, where’s the evidence in the story?
From the point of the above graph, we have Sheila Johnson’s critical statement—made before McDonnell’s change of heart. State Sen. Don McEachin, as Johnson an African-American, says he accepts McDonnell’s apology
…but said he was disappointed that the state had to undergo the embarrassment and national scrutiny that followed the proclamation. "It’s a black eye," he said.
That doesn’t criticize the proclamation but suggests that if it had included words about slavery it wouldn’t have been scrutinized. Of course, there’s no way of knowing that.
Kumar then gives a little history of the proclamation and includes a statement by former Virginia Gov. and now Democratic Party chairman Tim Kaine that also seems to criticize McDonnell on the basis of the omission not the proclamation itself.
"Governor McDonnell’s decision to designate April as Confederate History Month without condemning, or even acknowledging, the pernicious stain of slavery or its role in the war disregards history, is insensitive to the extraordinary efforts of Americans to eliminate slavery and bind the nation’s wounds, and offends millions of Americans of all races and in all parts of our nation," he said.
So where is the voice to continued criticism?
Kumar then turns over the last five graphs to the Sons of the Confederacy, the group that requested the proclamation.The story ends with a quote that makes the group appear reasonable.
"All we’re looking for is an accurate history, which we don’t get in schools anymore or in the media," [Sons of Confederate Veterans national board member Brag] Bowling said. "The idea is to promote education in Virginia and tourism. Hopefully, we can still do that."
McDonnell and his allies must be pleased. The article and jump headline allude to continued criticism but give no voice to it. Meanwhile, the sons of traitors get to whitewash history and attack the media for not picking up a paint brush with them.
UPDATE: The Post’s Robert McCartney has a thoughtful column on this issue, though I disagree with his conclusion that it’s justified to honor Confederate “heritage” because of Robert E. Lee’s “brilliant generalship.”
Cross posted on Commonwealth Commonsense.