Cabin retreats are opening for the summer, and a new season of music at Tanglewood begins this weekend, but the talk of the Berkshires is about an inflammatory racial commentary penned by a local Republican official — and a newspaper’s decision to print it.
The uproar has brought a contentious national discussion about race relations, sparked by events in Charleston, S.C., Baltimore, and Ferguson, Mo., to a typically tranquil community where vacationers go to escape real-world concerns.
“It’s surely been a bigger debate than we anticipated,” said Bill Everhart, editorial page editor of The Berkshire Eagle, the Pittsfield daily that published the commentary.
The debate began with a column that ran under the headline “Here’s the solution for black America” on June 13, four days before a white supremacist, Dylann Storm Roof, shot and killed nine people at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston.
The timing added fuel to what probably would have been a controversial item anyway, drawing attention from readers and media bloggers far outside of the Eagle’s circulation area, many of whom added the column to a growing list of exhibits revealing the undying existence of racism in America.
The column’s author, Steven Nikitas, is a member of the Berkshire County Republican Association, which submits opinion pieces every other week in a series called “Right from the Berkshires.” Nikitas argued against what he called “endless media hand-wringing that somehow ‘we’ must all do something more to help black America.”
“And ‘we’ means white people, taxpayers, businesses, the criminal justice system, the universities and the government,” Nikitas continued. “But blacks must now pull themselves up.”
He went on to write that black people should “reform their culture from top to bottom by respecting marriage and the family and the law, returning to their churches, embracing education and hard work, avoiding violence and debased rap music, speaking clearly, shunning drugs and profanity, and pulling up their pants.”
Online comments and letters to the editor poured in and continue to do so.
A few have applauded Nikitas: “Conservatives are realists who risk stating the TRUTH and consequently being labeled a racist.”
Most have lampooned him: “This is a terrible piece of writing that isn’t even worth debating.”
And some comments, much to the Eagle’s consternation, are based on the mistaken belief that Nikitas is a staff writer at the newspaper and that the paper endorses his views.
The confusion prompted the Eagle’s editor, Kevin Moran, to print a lengthy explanation of the paper’s decision to publish Nikitas’s column last Friday. Declaring the Eagle’s opinion page to be “among the most progressive in the country,” Moran stressed that Nikitas is not an employee and that the paper’s editorial board disagrees with his views.
“Views and opinions — whether they be considered by some, most or all people to be ignorant or brilliant or somewhere in between — tell us a lot about the community in which we live,” Moran wrote.
“Such knowledge can spark a community discussion or debate and enact change, but it should never be held a secret.”
Efforts to reach Nikitas by e-mail and phone were unsuccessful.
Dan Valenti, an adjunct professor of journalism at Berkshire Community College, said the Eagle made “absolutely the right call” when it chose to print the Nikitas column. If anything should have been withheld, it was Moran’s defense, which Valenti contended was unnecessary.
“The Eagle had a duty to publish it to start this very debate that has followed,” said Valenti, who runs a news and commentary blog called Planet Valenti. “We have to decide in this case whether we believe in the First Amendment or we don’t.”
Everhart, the editorial page editor, said he felt confident that most regular readers of the Eagle, familiar with its left-leaning editorial stance, understood that the paper was merely honoring its agreement to publish submissions of the Berkshire County Republican Association as a sort of counterweight. The Eagle, which has a print and digital circulation of about 30,000, has printed “Right from the Berkshires” since 2013 and plans to run the next installment this weekend.
But Everhart acknowledged the potential for confusion among nonlocal readers who might have been directed to Nikitas’s column from other news sites, blogs, or social media. A slight majority of mobile traffic on the column has come from outside of Massachusetts, according to the newspaper, and desktop traffic has been split almost evenly between in-state and out-of-state readers.
Everhart said the paper might introduce additional disclaimers to maker clearer which opinion pieces represent the Eagle and which come from third parties.