Auburn Plainsman staff find editorial where editor asks KKK for help, places info online

Auburn Plainsman Managing Editor Mikayla Burns was perusing through a regularly delivered physical newspaper to their newsroom, The Democrat-Reporter, Monday, Feb. 18, when she came upon a potentially politically-charged editorial headline, “Klan needs to ride again.”

This small local newspaper doesn’t have an online presence so Burns and Auburn Plainsman Editor-in-Chief Chip Brownlee decided to share its contents in the cyber sphere called Twitter. From there the story has exploded with national coverage and the backlash continues against its editor.

By Hannah Lester, SizingUpTheSouth.com reporter, Auburn University

Since Burns and Brownlee tweeted about this editorial, the Alabama Press Association has censured Goodloe Sutton, The Democrat-Reporter’s publisher on Tuesday evening, Feb. 19, and the Auburn University Journalism Advisory Council voted unanimously to strip Sutton from a distinguished community journalist award he won in 2009. The University of Southern Mississippi has also removed Sutton from its USM Hall of Fame. Two Alabama lawmakers have asked Sutton to resign as a journalist.

Auburn Plainsman Editor-in-Chief Chip Brownlee and Managing Editor Mikayla Burns, decided to share the contents of a politically-charged editorial online that Mikayla found in the Democrat- Reporter newspaper. Photo by Hannah Lester

Interviewed by USA Today, Brownlee stated, “Granted, I’m the editor of a student newspaper, but all newspapers should be held to the highest ethical and moral standards. Editorials should be about new ideas, constructive criticism and opinion backed up by facts. To call for the return of domestic terrorism – no matter its form – is counterproductive and wrong. It’s important to welcome and encourage differing opinions, but violence is never right.”

The Democrat-Reporter serves Linden, Ala., and is 100 miles west of Montgomery, Ala.

Auburn Plainsman Managing Editor Mikayla Burns  LinkedIn photo

Burns said she sees the Sutton’s editorial as ridiculous and often sees the articles from The Democrat-Reporter as laughable. “I was just like really shocked and surprised and that’s why I kind of freaked out and was like ‘everyone you have to come see this.’” she said. They rarely take the publication seriously, said Burns.

“I guess that we really should’ve taken it seriously because in that moment we realized that, you know, something like that is — could like enrage, you know, [a] marginalized community,” Burns said. “And especially with calling out like the KKK to come back — that’s incredibly racist, that’s incredibly horrible, she said.

The Auburn Plainsman Editor-in-Chief Chip Brownlee.  LinkedIn photo

It is not something that you see published in a newspaper in 2019 “something so blatantly racist and offensive,” said Brownlee. Within 24 hours, the story had been picked up the by The Washington Post, The New York Times and NPR, CNN.com, AL.com, and CBS News about this editorial.

“I think it’s good that it blew up because people shouldn’t be able to publish things like that and get away with it.”

Chip Brownlee, editor-in-chief Auburn Plainsman

“This newspaper doesn’t have an online presence, it’s not on social media so I think it kind of flew under the radar with some of the things that it was publishing,” he said. It’s unlikely that Linden is the only city to publish things of this nature in Alabama, said Brownlee.

“It doesn’t surprise me at all they [The Plainman staff] reacted the way they did and knew what a great injustice that it was,” said Alec Harvey, The Plainman advisor.

Adam Powell, a Society of Professional Journalist member in Alabama, and reporter for the Selma Times Journal, said that a retraction by Sutton is not sufficient in this situation, nor an apology.

“Resignation is the least we should be able to expect,” Powell said. “I don’t think he has any place calling himself a professional journalist and like so many things, it makes our state look so much worse, you know.”

“It’s hard to fight the national image that the South is this backwards place when you have newspaper editors writing and publishing content of this nature.”

Adam Powell, Selma Times Journal reporter, SPJ member

Linden, Alabama, is a historically-discriminating community with a reputation for racism, Powell said.

“There’s no room for racism in professional journalism, period,” he said. “… hate of that nature has no place in any publication, of — that has even a semblance of decency.”

Hannah Lester is the 2019 SPJ Region 3 spring intern and reporter for SizingUpTheSouth.com. She will be graduating from Auburn University this spring with a major in journalism. hannah.lester.spj@gmail.com