LUMBERTON — A group of African American pastors called for a boycott of the The Robesonian on Friday for what they said was biased and degrading coverage of Robeson County sheriff candidate Ronnie Patterson.
About 50 people gathered at a press conference outside the Lumber River Missionary Baptist Association in Lumberton to take part in a free-flowing conversation that included accusations of racism against The Robesonian, calls to boycott the newspaper and to make changes in the county by voting.
In its April 26 edition, The Robesonian documented that Patterson had lied under oath during an investigation 10 years ago of a charge of sexual harassment of a female officer whom he supervised while serving as captain of the Red Springs Police Department. Patterson, who is African American and is currently the chief of the Red Springs Police Department, is in a five-way race for sheriff with James Jones, George Kenworthy, Randy Graham and Burnis Wilkins.
“We make change with votes,” said John Campbell, a pastor and candidate for the North Carolina Senate.
Campbell currently is on the Public Schools of Robeson County Board of Education.
“This is the most important election in a long time, where we can make changes for sheriff, district attorney and senator,” Campbell said. “Let’s boycott and talk. But the important thing is to vote. Let’s turn over every stone to get out the vote.”
“The bottom line is we want justice and fairness. We want them to stop smearing one candidate and dig up some things on the other candidates,” the Rev. Tyrone Watson said.
The Rev. Thurman Everette, moderator of the Lumber River Missionary Baptist Association, presided over the press conference.
“It has been brought to our attention that there has been a disparity in the reporting in The Robesonian,” Everette said. “We cannot tell The Robesonian what to write, but when we discover biased reporting that demeans and belittles one’s character, we will address it publicly.
“Be wise who you spend your money with. If you enjoy biased reporting, buy The Robesonian.”
Watson took it one step further.
“We will not support the businesses that advertise with The Robesonian,” he said.
Denise Ward, the publisher of The Robesonian, said the paper didn’t dig up anything on Patterson, but was delivered a package on Monday. An inch-thick file, which includes an admission by Patterson that he lied to investigators, was in it, as well as a two-page letter from a Department of Justice official. The letter said the town’s punishment of Patterson was not stiff enough and his working as a police officer put the town at a liability risk. Patterson admitted to the affair with the subordinate, but an internal investigation said harassment was “unsubstantiated.”
“We had an obligation to share the information with the public and for them to use as they please,” Ward said. “We have said that if there is similar information that we become aware of with other candidates, then we will publish it.”
Moultrie said a look into history will reveal that “in all of us, you will find something in our background.” He mentioned drugs stolen and the beatings of people arrested as issues for other candidates.
The reference apparently was to Burnis Wilkins, a candidate who worked for the Sheriff’s Office in the 1980s when drugs went missing from a locker. Wilkins reportedly was one of three people with a key, and was never charged with a crime. Two people went to prison in that case.
Wilkins went on to work as a federal U.S. marshal, which requires an extensive background check.
The Robesonian is unaware of any accusations of police beatings against Wilkins or the other candidates. Patterson himself was the target of a wrongful death lawsuit regarding the death of young black man while in Patterson’s custody. Patterson was cleared on any wrongdoing when the investigation revealed the man choked while swallowing a packet of cocaine.
The Robesonian elected not to do a story on it because Patterson was cleared.
“If we become aware of any of the candidates who were found culpable for excessive force or a beating, we will report that,” Ward said.
Referring to a recent editorial in The Robesonian that was critical of the practice of hauling voters to the polls, Moultrie said voters who are exercising their rights as citizens have been “dehumanized.”
Moultrie said The Robesonian is guilty of “voter intimidation,” and asked the newspaper to stop using its influence in this the election.
Ward said the newspaper has editorialized about what it sees as pitfalls in the practice of hauling, but that The Robesonian is active in keeping the public informed about how to vote and when. The newspaper next week will publish a Voters Guide. It published two stories in advance of One-Stop Voting and has another scheduled for Sunday.
“We want voters informed, which is why we did the story,” Ward said.
Moultrie hinted at something broader with The Robesonian.
“I’ve told brother Patterson that it’s not about him,” Moultrie said. “He is just the face of it.”
Watson said, “It is time for a change, and their objective is to divide African American and American Indian voters.”
Moultrie said he did many things he regretted in his youth until he got saved.
“The only people who don’t have a past are people who are still living it,” he said. “As Dr. Martin Luther King said, ‘An injustice to one man is an injustice to all men.’”
A few of those in attendance wore “Patterson for Sheriff” T-shirts. Besides Campbell, several other candidates and elected officials attended, including county Commissioner Berlester Campbell and Fairmont Commissioner Monte McCallum.
The meeting lasted 40 minutes and drew one other news media outlet, WPDE-TV from Florence, S.C.
Staff writer Scott Bigelow can be reached at 910-644-4497 of [email protected]