Debate over whether a white teenager’s face was simply covered in soot or if he was wearing blackface at a Donald Trump rally in Newport last weekend has triggered public criticism of WCAX’s coverage of the event and questions inside the newsroom.
The pro-Trump rally began by Gardener Park in the Orleans County city Saturday, and in the days since, photos of the teen’s darkened face have spurred hundreds of comments in Facebook discussions.
Many commenters believed the teenager was wearing blackface — the racist act of darkening one’s face to caricature Black people. Some, including apparent friends of the teen, explained the situation as a misunderstanding about rural life. “The intention was to get a few shots of coal from the diesel to the face because that’s what redneck teenagers do,” one person wrote.
After WCAX’s report about the rally went online Saturday, an editor’s note appeared at the bottom of the story.
“The editorial leadership here at WCAX News learned Sunday that there was a person at that rally in blackface,” the note read. “We also now know that our reporter saw that person and did not include it in the report. It clearly should have been included and we are sorry that it wasn’t.”
The next day, the note had changed: The apology and mention of the reporter were gone.
Instead, the news channel described speaking with the person in question, a 17-year-old boy, who told the outlet that his darkened face was the result of the exhaust pipe in the back of the pickup truck he had been riding in and that he hadn’t known what blackface was.
Amid the online criticism of the incident, a few commenters have focused on what they believe was a purposeful decision by WCAX to not mention the teen in its story.
“That does concern me,” said Newport resident Pam Ladds, who wrote about the incident — and WCAX’s coverage — on a Facebook group for the city’s residents.
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WCAX news director Roger Garrity said Tuesday that the editor’s note, and its subsequent correction, were the result of snap judgments and miscommunications over the weekend.
“I think our initial editor’s note was not an accurate assessment of what had transpired,” he said.
“I sort of felt like we had perhaps reacted rashly by posting that note,” he added. “In the end, I think that our reporting on the rally was fair, it was accurate and I think my reporter made a reasonable judgment.”
Garrity said the reporter, Kiernan Brisson, went to Newport to cover the pro-Trump rally. Rallygoers had gathered by Gardener Park, according to Newport Police Sgt. Nicholas Rivers, where Brisson interviewed several attendees.
After finishing his interviews and shooting footage, the reporter went to his vehicle to put together the story, Garrity said. As he was doing so, the reporter saw the pickup trucks leave and later return. The pickup with the teen in the back featured a smokestack in the bed belching exhaust, the reporter told Garrity, and the teen’s face, shoulders and arms were covered in soot.
The reporter found the scene strange, but thought nothing of it and continued finishing the story inside his vehicle, Garrity said.
“It wasn’t as if someone was walking around in blackface for two hours at an event and he ignored it,” the news director said of his reporter.
Garrity said he didn’t know whether the reporter should have made a connection between what he saw and blackface, which has a long history as a racist act originating with performers in the 1800s.
“He was just trying to get his story done and come back,” the news director said.
After the report went online, readers reached out to WCAX about the teen with the blackened face, whose photo had been circulating on social media. Garrity and other top newsroom leaders were unavailable, he said, and staff at the time decided to add the editor’s note after seeing social media posts describing the incident as blackface.
In the photo circulating online, the youth’s face is completely covered with a black substance as he smiles, arms raised, in the back of a pickup truck.
The image drew outrage from commenters across several popular Facebook posts. “I was offended as all hell as my child is biracial and this is along one of those lines you just don’t cross,” one observer wrote.
Staff made the decision in order to get ahead of any criticism coming WCAX’s way, Garrity said.
When Garrity returned from a trip on Sunday, he said he talked with the reporter and heard the conclusion that the teenager had been covered in soot from the truck stack.
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Video footage posted online — shot by another person riding in the truck — showed the teen kneeling in front of the smokestack, calling something out and allowing a blast of black smoke to burst into his face.
The news channel, as well as the local Newport Daily Express, spoke with the teenager, who apologized for his actions and said he had only intended to be funny, not don blackface. The teen told the local paper he supports the Black Lives Matter movement. He did not respond to a request for an interview via Facebook.
After conversations with the reporter, the teen and other newsroom leaders, Garrity said he decided to remove mention of the reporter and the apology from the editor’s note.
“I felt leaving that part of the note up no longer made sense,” he said.
He believed the initial note had jumped to conclusions about what the teen was doing — and that it had unfairly characterized the reporter’s actions.
“The lesson learned here,” he said, “is don’t act too quickly.”