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Opinion

Aftermath

SoVaNow.com / August 26, 2020
Quite a few people were upset with us after a political advertisement appeared in the pages of last week’s The Sun, which just so happened to be a mass mailed edition to kick off our annual subscription campaign. Folks had cause for complaint: the ad lacked a disclaimer stating who paid for it. On page A3 of today’s paper, you’ll find a note with this necessary information, which should have been included in the original run of the ad. It was our mistake — my mistake — and for that, we apologize.

The point of the ad was to encourage people to (1) vote early and (2) vote for the Democratic ticket of Joe Biden for President, Mark Warner for U.S. Senate, and Cameron Webb for Congress in Virginia’s 5th District. (Webb, a Charlottesville physician, is running against Republican nominee Bob Good, a former Campbell County supervisor and Liberty University fundraiser, to succeed incumbent GOP Rep. Denver Riggleman, who was denied renomination by his party in June.) Setting aside the horse race aspects of the matter for now, the ad elicited complaints on a number of grounds. Some people read it and thought it was placed by Mecklenburg County local government (despite no content indicating such), others felt supporters of the Republican ticket were denied equal opportunity to place their own ads, and some felt generally it was all a dirty trick somehow. So let’s address each of these points in turn.

First: Political expression, including political advertising, is open to all in these pages, and while anyone who reads this column can guess where The Sun’s endorsements will land this fall, we do not deny others an opportunity to express different opinions. This is true on both a paid basis (political advertising) and non-paid basis (letters to the editor that appear in our Viewpoint column.) In the case of last week’s mass mailing, an individual purchaser (Jeanne Capello) chose to place the ad, as everyone is free to do. We announced our upcoming mass mailing in a quarter-page ad that ran in the prior week’s edition.

Just to show that we welcome all comers, The Sun has scheduled our next mass mailing for Wednesday, Oct. 21, two weeks before Election Day. Again, all are welcome to participate. So if you’d like to advertise in that edition, just call our office at (434) 374-8152. We’re happy to help.

The press lives and dies on the hill of the First Amendment (our industry is specifically referenced in the Constitution) and we work to uphold the ideals of free expression on a daily basis. That doesn’t mean we place no rules or limits on outside contributors. The Sun reserves the right to reject any political advertising that we deem defamatory or false. We publish as many Viewpoint letters as we can fit in these pages, although we reserve the right to prioritize all content based on what we believe is of greatest interest to readers. Sometimes we ding letters for being defamatory, false, racist or abusive, but I can tell you the single biggest reason a letter may end up in the wastebasket is because it’s too darn long. Some letter writers can maintain an argument over hundreds of words, but many others do not. All letters bump up against space constraints that are a fact of life in the print business. Please keep these factors in mind when you pen your letters, and try to keep them as compact as you can — we’ll do everything possible to make our Viewpoint column a lively space for competing views.

From the feedback we received last week, I can’t quite get a handle on why so many folks felt last week’s ad — a simple appeal for people to vote early — was so transgressive. Was it because early voting in Virginia is new? Absentee voting prior to Election Day has been a political reality since forever, but this will be the first major election in Virginia in which people can cast their ballots before the general election without having to provide an approved justification for voting absentee, such as a work-related scheduling conflict or medical excuse. “No excuses” absentee voting is the same as early voting in all but name, and it’s a much overdue improvement in Virginia’s ridiculously restrictive voting laws. Especially with a deadly pandemic raging across America, there is absolutely no reason to require people to stand in long lines on Election Day just to exercise their right to vote. I plan to cast my ballot early and I hope you do, too. It’ll make life safer for everyone.

Absentee/early voting begins Sept. 18. You must submit an application for an absentee ballot to the Voter Registrar’s office, and they will mail out a ballot form for you to fill out and return with your choices. In recent weeks, there’s been extensive coverage of President Trump’s intentions to stop mail-in voting (he said it, not me), coupled with further reports of dodgy orders by the Postmaster General, Trump donor Louis DeJoy, that threaten to denigrate the ability of the Postal Service to process ballots in time for the general election. Personally, I don’t believe the Trump Administration is competent enough to cheat on such a massive scale, but I understand why people wouldn’t want to test that theory. For that reason and others, early in-person voting at the Registrar’s Office in Boydton is probably your best option, unless you fear getting out altogether (justifiably) or don’t have easy access to Boydton. (The Registrar’s Office is located at 439 Madison Street.) In that case, it would be a good idea to mail in your completed ballots well ahead of the Nov. 3 election. Here at The Sun, we work extensively with our local post offices, and I can assure you the USPS workforce is dedicated to delivering the mail promptly and accurately — no politics involved. But you can make life easier for your postal carrier by mailing in those ballots sooner rather than later.

One more thing: heading into this year, I dreaded the upheaval that 2020 would bring simply by virtue of being a presidential election year. Little did I (and everyone else) know. Without a doubt, 2020 has been one of the most traumatic years in living memory in America, with the coronavirus now responsible for nearly 180,000 dead (that’s the official number of deaths, the actual figure is almost certainly higher due to spotty reporting and yawning gaps in our public health systems). On top of the cruelty of the virus itself, our national response has been pathetic, leading to an economic collapse with tens of millions of people unemployed and thousands of businesses wiped out through no fault of their own. (You would never hear me say this under ordinary circumstances, but we’ll eventually need to bail out the airlines, bars and restaurants, entertainment venues and other sectors of the economy that have been all but destroyed by COVID-19. With strict caps on executive pay, of course.) The immense challenges of combatting the virus have been compounded by the bottomless corruption and incompetence of our current president, which was always a battle that would be fought with this year’s election, if not to this existential degree. Yet having said all this, I understand opinions on Donald Trump and Joe Biden differ. Opinions always differ! What’s so different this time is the thin ice we find ourselves standing on — with everyone on edge, and more than a little fearful. It’s not a great foundation for holding our democracy together. Working through our differences is going to be tough, and somebody’s going to be very unhappy with the outcome, but for the sake of America’s future and our collective sanity, we’ve got to run a clean election process and respect the results it produces. Arguments are never really settled, but they must be properly channeled. Otherwise, the United States of America will become nothing more than the world’s largest banana republic.

Last week we slipped up on this score — making a mistake with a political ad that was unintentional, but a mistake nonetheless. We try to be consciously transparent, but that hardly means we’re going to be perfect. To this end, if you’ve got a problem with what we do, reach out and we’ll respond as soon as we can. We may not always be able to provide satisfaction, but we do listen. It’s the foundation for all things to come.

***

Grief visits us all in due course, and learning how to deal with it is a challenge none of us gets to avoid. Every day brings new endings, and there have been three recently that I want to mention here.

It wasn’t until I read his obituary that I realized Stan Pitts of Clarksville was a former head track coach at the University of Maryland. Once he and wife Janice moved to Clarksville, they both became pillars of the local real estate industry, and tireless boosters for the Town of Clarksville. I should have guessed that Stan would have been an athletic standout as a younger man — in late middle age, when our paths frequently crossed, he still had the fit-and-trim look of a sprinter, or perhaps a pole vaulter. (The most fearless of track and field competitors). He and Janice were always outstanding to do business with, and they’ve made their adoptive town a better place with their hard work and energetic presence. Stan died Aug. 8 at the age of 82. He will be greatly missed.

Bobby Williams of Clover, who died Aug. 17 at age 80, was a dear friend. Many will remember Bobby as the manager of the old Byrd’s Foods in Chase City, later to become Lowe’s Foods, a regional player in a grocery industry that continues to consolidate into bigger and bigger companies. Bobby was a low-key, unassuming sort, and it took me some time to overcome my own cluelessness to discover what a wonderful and warm-hearted person he was. The grocery business is a dog-eat-dog world, not the sort of environment that always brings out the best in a person, yet I never saw Bobby being anything less other courteous and helpful to customers, and kind and respectful overall. Plus he had a quietly excellent sense of humor. Our condolences to Mary Lee, his equally wonderful wife, and Bobby’s entire family.

I could — and maybe will — write an entire column about Jack Hite of Clarksville, who died Sunday night after a long spell of declining health. There’s so much I could say about the former county supervisor and Board Chairman, Boyd Tavern president, health department sanitarian, Virginia Tech booster and stalwart Democrat that it’s hard to know where to even begin (much less end.) So until I have a little more time to compose a better tribute, there’s this: Jack was simply one of the smartest individuals I’ve ever known. Our conversations, and there were many, were always a joy, even when we may have disagreed on the particulars. Jack had a fantastically cutting sense of humor — which didn’t endear him to everyone — but in the vein of it’s only funny because it’s true, Jack was a truthteller extraordinaire. His network of connections in Mecklenburg and around Virginia never ceased to amaze, and I can’t even begin to count all the times I’d learn the news ahead of the pack simply by paying attention to the parts that fit between the cackles and zingers. He could be entertaining as all get out.

Jack also set an example as an eminently fair-minded chairman of the Board of Supervisors. Back when I first started covering the board, in my 20s and 30s, it was a contentious, bruising bunch, with not a lot of effort expended trying to establish a foundation of trust and communication among all factions of the board (sometimes the battle lines were drawn neatly between opposing factions, sometimes not.) Once he became chairman, Jack put great effort into allowing everyone to have their say, which improved the work of the Board immensely. His example was carried forward by future board chairs, from W.P. Hudgins and others to current chair Glenn Barbour, and by and large they, too, have done an excellent job keeping county business on track despite inevitable disagreements among members. Jack Hite paired sharp elbows with an even-keeled inner compass — a balance to strive for, now more than ever.

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