John Drescher

These journalists stayed on the story, even when it wasn’t popular

W. Horace Carter, founder and editor of the weekly Tabor City Tribune, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1953 for a series of stories opposing the Ku Klux Klan.
W. Horace Carter, founder and editor of the weekly Tabor City Tribune, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1953 for a series of stories opposing the Ku Klux Klan. News & Observer file photo

Horace Carter reported on the Ku Klux Klan in southeastern North Carolina in the 1950s, exposing its rallies, recruiting efforts, terrorism and brutality. Carter believed the KKK a dark force of injustice. He wrote repeatedly about the Klan for the Tabor City Tribune — more than 100 stories and editorials over three years.

“My father was a lot more stubborn than he was brave,” Rusty Carter said last week at UNC-Chapel Hill. For Horace Carter’s efforts, the tiny Tribune won the 1953 Pulitzer Prize, as did the nearby Whiteville News Reporter, also for reporting on the Klan.

Six North Carolina newspapers, including The News & Observer, have won a Pulitzer Prize for Public Service (The N&O won in 1996 for its work exposing the health and environmental risks of the hog industry’s waste disposal). The UNC School of Media and Journalism recently gathered representatives of the six papers to talk with students about the legacy of their work.

Unpopular coverage

Among the themes of the discussion: With a large segment of readers, the newspapers’ aggressive coverage was unpopular. In small town North Carolina in the 1950s, Klan members sometimes held positions of leadership in the community. Many white readers objected to the doggedness of Carter at the Tribune and Willard Cole at the News Reporter, resulting in the editors being ostracized. “They suffered a lot of social isolation,” Rusty Carter said.

Advertisers boycotted the papers, as did subscribers, said Les High, now editor of the Whiteville paper and the grandson of Leslie Thompson, the publisher of that paper in the 1950s who backed his crusading editor. “They were very close to losing their livelihood,” High said. “We have lived this business but I don’t think we’ve quite lived it the way they did.”

And yet these journalists persisted, continuing to pursue the story without flinching. Carter, who died in 2009, was twice visited in his office by Thomas Hamilton, the Grand Dragon of the Association of Carolina Klans, who threatened retribution against the Tribune and its advertisers.

The Washington Daily News in northeastern North Carolina showed the same tenacity in reporting stories in 1989 about the contaminated local water supply. Town officials insisted the water was safe to drink. It wasn’t.

Betty Mitchell Gray reported the story and remembers the community pressure to ease up. “The Chamber of Commerce was not my friend,” she told the students in Chapel Hill. The Daily News won the Pulitzer in 1990 (and the Chamber eventually held a reception to honor the paper).

Gray said an important part of the paper’s success was that publisher Ashley Futrell Sr., who was friends with the mayor, never sought to block coverage “and let me run with the story.”

The hot fire

Also recognized at the event were the Winston-Salem Journal and Sentinel, which won in 1971 for their reporting on strip-mining plans in the North Carolina mountains, and The Charlotte Observer, which won in 1981 for its work on cotton dust breathed by textile workers and in 1988 for uncovering misuse of money by the PTL television ministry.

PTL was led by Jim and Tammy Bakker. They had a large, devoted following who often criticized the Observer’s coverage — more than 600 stories in 1987. Rick Thames, editor of The Charlotte Observer, said PTL urged its supporters across the country to cancel their subscription to the Observer and any newspaper owned by the Observer’s parent company. The editor and publisher of the Observer were shadowed by private investigators who aimed microphones at the men and their houses.

Journalists run toward the fire, not away from it, said Susan King, dean of the UNC media school. The journalists who covered these stories ran toward the fire, even when it was large and very, very hot.

John Drescher: 919-829-4515, @john_drescher

Related stories from Raleigh News & Observer