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THE PEN’S MIGHT: And the local free press writes on

Mark Basquill dicusses the latest on Clyde Edgerton.

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My phone pinged its alert about a second after my Redbox DVD of “Spotlight” started.

“Clyde Edgerton, banned? WTF?” my son texted.

I stopped the movie. I’d seen the Academy Award’s Best Picture in theaters and wanted to see the story of how a few members of the press aligned themselves with the evidence in defiance of the “powers that be.” My initial viewing left me optimistic the Academy regarded this story as Oscar worthy—more importantly, that the pen can sometimes be mightier than the sword. The Fourth Estate, a vibrant reborn free press, is vital to our moral evolution. Left unchecked, the powers that be in business, politics and religion will roll blindly over most things in their path.

I figured my son texted me about Clyde because he was arguing with his brother and needed evidence to support his position on the 1985 Campbell University controversy about Clyde’s first novel, “Raney.” The “‘Raney’ situation” wasn’t exactly a banning, but was as much as I could offer. I texted, “1985. ‘Raney’ controversy. Campbell University.”

“Banned from school grounds in New Hanover County!” he replied.

That ended the text correspondence with my son. I’ve seen him construct and text lengthy evidence-based dissertations on the relative strengths of some sports icon to his friends. The most I usually get is an emoticon.

Believe it or not, it was easy to accept Clyde was banned from New Hanover County Schools property. I met him last May at TheatreNOW during the production of his adapted novel, “Raney.” He struck me as a fine storyteller and a pretty good guitar player, with a streak of hopefulness and an interest in actively working to change things for the better. A gracious, gentle, persistent social activist who may believe the pen can be mightier than the sword is a dangerous person to allow near any student. Worse than that: He’s funny. There is no place for humor anywhere near a school board.

I trusted my son and believed the  school board banned Clyde. At the heart of the kerfuffle: Clyde called out the board and a local elementary school for discrimination against minority students in a Spanish immersion program. Before I got back to the movie, I felt compelled to check out the information. Trusting one source and believing a story that fits with preconceived notions may seem fine in an era where dueling emoticons and social-media slap-fights substitute for gathering evidence and constructing arguments. Perhaps because I was watching “Spotlight,” I rejected it.

Sure enough, the first hit I got was Huffington Post blogger Tom Morris, who had written “Another Big Mistake in North Carolina.” I was relieved to find Clyde’s writing hadn’t been banned, just his person (which provides quite a problem, seeing as he has two children attend NHC schools). The fact the school board didn’t pull Clyde’s works from the shelves is reason to smile in a time when building walls and bashing the press is a way some people intend to make America great again.

More importantly, the blog cited the Wilmington StarNews as a primary source. Local news lives! StarNews reporter Adam Wagner’s “Overwhelmingly White,” which provides an unflattering look at one local school and its principle, is not a title for any community to be proud of. As embarrassing as it was to read about Clyde’s ban, and our little slice of institutionalized racism, I was grateful Mr. Wagner took the time to gather evidence, synthesize it and present an articulate account of his observations. To show my appreciation, I actually signed up for the StarNews. As silly as it sounds, one way to support a free press is to pay for it.

As different in scale of disturbing revelations as the stories are, both “Spotlight” and Adam Wagner’s piece show that, even in an emerging emoticon era, where Tweets substitute long-form investigative reporting, there is a vital social role for solid old-school and decidedly local reporting. The pen can stay silent, align with power, fuel the sword, and create propaganda. But local papers like the Star-News and encore keep a gentle, persistent pressure on powers that be in business, politics and religion. When the pen follows the evidence and refuses to align with the powers that be, it truly can be mightier than the sword.

 

Get to know one of the South’s most celebrated writers in “Becoming Clyde,” which airs Monday, June 13th at 9 p.m. and Thursday, June 16th at 7:30 p.m. on UNC-TV and will be available online immediately following the premiere. For more information about this episode and the Our State series, visit www.unctv.org/content/ourstate.

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