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by Brian Clarey

I’m back after a week in New York with the family, where I ate bagels and lobster, reconnected with family and old friends, and worked to eliminate my farmer’s tan.

Before I left, I had the opportunity to pick up a Rhinoceros Times when I had a few minutes to kill at the Green Bean — yes, I read the Rhino Times, perhaps our biggest competitor for advertising dollars in Greensboro. I’m a newspaper editor; I read everything I can get my hands on, and it would be pretty stupid of me to ignore any publication that publishes within my market. I read them all, along with dozens of local blogs and websites. That’s part of my job.

And for disclosure’s sake, I’ll reveal that I wrote for the Rhino for a time back in 2001, mostly real estate advertorial — I was dreadfully underutilized, in my opinion. I also know Rhino Editor John Hammer and his brother, former Publisher Willy Hammer. We don’t exactly go on fishing trips together or anything, but if we see each other on the street we say hello and exchange a few words. I also count among my friends many current and former members of the Rhino staff, because when you get right down to it, Greensboro is as big as a dime, and if you live here long enough you will meet just about everybody.

Conflicts of interest abound. More on that in a minute. I read the Rhino cartoon that’s caused so much hoopla shortly after it hit the streets: a drawing by Geof Brooks of two orange-jumpsuited convicts conversing over a fence, bemoaning their predicament of house arrest while prisoners in the Guilford County jail get “three squares an’ cable.”

The convicts are black, and speak to each other in a stylized patois — lots of “dey”s and gratuitous plurals — the likes of which I haven’t seen since I wrote a paper on Stepin Fetchit for a black theater course in college.

Wow, I thought. Someone’s gonna hear about this. It follows on the heels of a CNN article about Greensboro that highlighted our city’s issues with race, a landfill issue that many see in terms of color and dozens of other racially-tinged slights, both real and perceived, at the county, city and community level.

It wasn’t until I saw a blog post later that day by my friend Ed Cone getting some traction that I posted the cartoon on my Facebook feed, hoping to get a discussion started about racism, stereotypes and the First Amendment. And then I split — I was about to leave town for a week, and I didn’t think I would be able to solve the issues of race relations in Greensboro before I hit the road in the morning.

While I was gone, the cartoon took on a life of its own, inspiring apologies and an explanation from John Hammer — he said the prisoners were supposed to be NY mobsters and blamed their brown-ness on a coloring issue with the printer. And then there were a slew of entries and comments across city blogs and the formation of a Facebook event page named “Bringing Down the Rhino Times,” a plan to target the Rhino’s advertisers with a phone campaign, complete with script and rebuttal points.

Imagine my delight! All kidding aside, I cannot sit here and pretend that an organized campaign against one of our competitors has no effect on our business. It does.

So when I discovered, on Day 5 of my vacation, that one of the driving forces behind the Facebook event and its attendant blog, theracistrhino.wordpress.com is Allie Stewart, one of our cadre of freelance photographers and rising senior at UNC who, incidentally, is dating one of our interns, Eric Ginsburg.

Conflicts of interest abound! Consider that another disclosure. For the record: YES! Weekly has no involvement with this group.

Ginsburg has no affiliation with the movement, save for his romantic relationship with Stewart. And as soon as I learned of these connections I told Stewart, who took some of the best food pictures we’ve ever run in the paper, that she will be on hiatus until her work on this project is done.

Stewart and I agreed that our professional relationship detracted from both of our efforts, giving the impression that she is doing this for something as base as opportunity or money.

It’s not that we discourage expression here at YES! Weekly. I’d say we built our reputation on it. Our staff is all over the board politically and socially, and discussion flows freely among the ranks.

But in this instance, I felt that it was important to avoid even the impression of impropriety in a campaign like this against our colleagues at the Rhino Times.

An advertiser boycott is serious business for free weekly newspapers, which rely almost exclusively on advertising revenue for income. Frankly, it’s hard to wish something like that on our worst enemies, let alone our worthy competitors.

I’m not going to defend the Rhino Times’ decision to run that cartoon, and I still don’t understand how a NY mobster with a barbershop fade found his way into the Guilford County corrections system. I, of course, defend their right to say it, because that’s the deal in this country. And if this situation can encourage more open discussion about the issues of race in our community, perhaps it’s for the best.

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