Putting the INDY Press Club on Probation

Editor’s Note: Patrick O’Hannigan is an award-winning public speaker, a hobbyist photographer, and a two-time judge for STC Regional Competitions. He has also written incisive essays for the publishing arms of think tanks like The American Spectator (Arlington, VA), The Federalist (Washington, D.C.), and The Civitas Institute (Raleigh, NC).


Like other American metropolitan areas, North Carolina’s Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill axis, the Triangle, sustains a progressive weekly paper fueled by advertisements. Earlier this year, Indy Week launched a campaign to secure a more predictable revenue stream by touting the benefits of membership in the INDY Press Club. For a modest monetary contribution, readers can support independent local journalism, which is described in an “own goal” kind of way as a combination of “fearless watchdog reporting” and “essential arts and culture coverage.” The case for the second thing is much stronger than the case for the first thing.

Indy has been honest about valuing transparency more than objectivity. What is not as well known is that its standard gambit is to court or create controversy. Social justice warriors are not happy people, so every teapot they can find is gifted with a tempest. Did you know, for example, that “Nine Out of Ten Tabletop Games Are Made By White Men”? A cover story in February left readers with the impression that this is a problem. But whether it’s a bigger problem than voter suppression efforts, alleged tolerance for white supremacy on UNC’s flagship campus, or the way men dominate stand-up comedy, remains to be seen.

Indy engineers agitprop, which in this case is thumb-on-the-scale advocacy designed to move policy in a progressive direction at any cost. Why simply report on what you can rail against?

Profiling Raleigh restaurateur Ashley Christensen on the occasion of her being named Outstanding Chef at this year’s James Beard Awards, the Indy wanted to know how being a gay woman has “changed the way that you run your restaurants.” Christensen answered the question thoughtfully, but because she and her interviewer made similar assumptions, neither wondered whether the self-acceptance that undergirds confidence might be bigger than sexuality.

In this instance as in many others, reflexive reverence for diversity seems a defect of the imagination comparable to thinking that the best part of waking up is Folgers in your cup. By highlighting “marginalized” voices who dominate pop culture, Indy wallows in stereotypes that it wants the rest of us to be free from. “Victim Bingo” is an unforgiving pastime. Why would a gay chef be asked about how sexuality influences her cooking? Straight chefs don’t get questions like that, and it’s not as though peer-reviewed studies have shown that gay chefs use cilantro or turmeric more readily than their straight counterparts.

What counts more than reporting news “without fear or favor” among people made nervous by the First Amendment’s “free exercise of religion” clause is the idea that honest work involves “sticking it to the Man.” For example, a recent Indy story touted the benefits of drinking “natural” wine, not least among them the chance to “rebel against the wine-industrial complex.” The story extolled natural wine as a byproduct of a “sacred hands-off (meaning chemical-free) approach” that depends on grapes being organically or biodynamically farmed, harvested by hand, and fermented without additives.

A wine importer from Durham responded to that story with a letter to the editor featured in a subsequent “Backtalk” column (Yes, they really call it that, as though readers were mouthy teenagers). He challenged the premise of “natural”wine, saying “After reading your article, I am wondering if you are not exposing a non-issue.” More particularly, he said, “It is unclear to me — and to the producers to whom I have shown your article — what meaningful difference, except drinkability or excellence, there really is between your so-called natural wines and organic ones.”

“Last year,” the impassioned reader continued, “it rained a lot in the spring, even in Provence, and the ones who saved the year are the ones who managed to pull out the tractor and spray the ‘Bouillie bordelaise’ — copper– as often as needed because that stuff gets washed away by rainfall. But without it, the vine gets mildew, and then there is no harvest.” Came then the haymaker: “The premise of your article rests on the fantasy that people use chemicals for the kick they get out of it, or something like that, while such use is actually born out of pure necessity, at least for the good winemakers.”

The correspondent’s logic was unassailable, and Indy knew it. Except that the tabloid wasn’t looking to shed light on good wines; it wanted to showcase virtuous wines. To progressives, there is a difference, akin to the distinction between “the truth” (possibly suspect) and “my truth”(reputable because authentic).

When he took over the top job in 2015, editor Jeffrey C. Billman wrote that he and Indy Week publisher Susan Harper both defined success in terms of how “impactful” the paper could be. But objectivity goes out the window when impact is your goal. You start believing falsehoods like the idea that if you work for a newspaper and write about something that bothers you, alchemy in your job title turns your complaint into an instance of speaking truth to power.

It would be more accurate to say that ideology warps even support for change, because any change agent not on Indy’s “approved” list doesn’t get the benefit of doubt. “Impeach Donald Trump,” Billman wrote in an editorial May 1st (i.e., after the Mueller Report had exonerated the president of anything like an impeachable offense). The bright red pull quote in the print version of that essay shed light on the animus involved by saying, “The question isn’t whether Trump deserves it.”

Challenge progressive mania for score keeping, and you’ll be accused of ignorance or disrespect. The examples above make that clear, as does coverage of an art exhibit a few years back that opened with the assertion that, “One of the greatest advantages of being white in America is having the luxury of not thinking about race all the time.”

That the most famous civil rights activist in the United States was a black man with a compelling vision of a colorblind society for all races puts the lie to that thinly-veiled grab for perpetual victimhood, but never mind. Indy didn’t.

In other words, while Indy has no corporate oversight to worry about, it’s hostage to its own “woke” philosophy. Art critic Roger Kimball, writing for New Criterion, observed that the central tenets of the woke philosophy are “feigned fragility” and “angry intolerance,” which together create “that curious and malevolent hybrid, the crybully.”

Kimball’s thesis explains why Indy promotes even genteel feature stories combatively. The table of contents in the May 22 issue summarized a story about a Raleigh mayoral candidate by saying “The day after Donald Trump was elected president, Caroline Sullivan learned she had breast cancer.” (Correlation or causation? You be the judge. But if you think those things have as much to do with each other as saying, “The day after the Notre Dame Cathedral fire, I went to the dentist,” then Indy will gladly assist with your re-education, comrade).

Writing for the same issue, Jeff Billman decried Alabama’s abortion ban in a dumpster fire of an editorial headlined “Welcome to Gilead.” The essay conscripted every straw man and fever dream of handmaids it could find while giving full vent to sarcasm (“it’s not like the anti-choice crew have ever been sticklers for science,” Billman snorted. He was not alone in his disdain among progressives. He might as well have stood up to sing “I am the very model of a modern major general”).

Press Club members pay for tripe like that, or would, if Indy makes good on its new business model. I wish the tabloid well, but not for the sake of healthy independent journalism. In print or in pixel, as long as Indy hits Triangle news racks every Wednesday, it offers an instructive window into what happens when you make everything political. Pass the popcorn!

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