Someone - or actually a lot of SOMEONES - owes Jessy Brown and the staff of the Raeford News Journal an apology.
It all started on April 26. 2023. The Raeford News Journal printed a story regarding the budget request of the Hoke County Board of Education to the Hoke County Board of Commissioners. In that story, the paper reported the FACT that the Board of Education was requesting to almost TRIPLE their personal stipends and DOUBLE their personal travel reimbursement. The report was one hundred percent accurate and the source was the PUBLIC budget request presented to the Board of Commissioners by BoEd Chair Southerland.
That article - simply reporting facts - kicked off a firestorm of criticism against the News Journal and its owner, Jessica Brown. For whatever reason, members of the Board of Education and their political allies in the Hoke County community viewed the reporting of the truth as a personal attack.
Then, on May 3 and on May 24, the News Journal ran two separate FACT BASED stories about the chaotic situation between the Board of Education members and the Board’s attorney. This time, the BoEd members and their allies accused The News Journal of stirring the pot and of deliberately trying to cast a bad light on the Board.
On June 19, The News Journal published an unsigned (but not anonymous) letter to the editor outlining the disarray in Hoke County Schools under the leadership of the Hoke County Board of Education and interim Superintendent Register. Almost immediately, the BoEd members and the official social media account of the Hoke County GOP began personally attacking the paper’s owner, the employees of the paper, and the staff of Hoke County Schools who dared to speak out.
In the days after the publication of that letter to the editor, Jessica Brown and employees of the News Journal began receiving anonymous and threatening calls and letters. The were also the targets of extreme bullying on social media, The harassment reached a fever pitch when the wife of Hoke County Board of Education member Reuben Castellon publicly accused Brown of being responsible for threatening the safety of her family and causing someone to damage her personal property. Mrs. Castellon’s false accusations were amplified when longtime Hoke County GOP power broker Hal Nunn shared the false allegations on his own social media page.
The shit REALLY hit the fan on June 28, when the News Journal printed financial documents PROVING that members of the Hoke County Board of Education took THOUSANDS of dollars EACH in retention bonuses that were meant to be paid to teachers and school employees. Even though this article was based in fact and included absolutely no opinion or judgment whatsoever, BoEd members and their political allies continued to accuse Brown and the paper’s staff of being “fake news,” “printing rumors,” and “causing hate and division in the community.” Members of the News Journal staff continued to experience harassment and bullying due to those accusations.
Things were quiet for a while. The News Journal moved on to other stories and the Board of Education members and their allies stopped speaking out on the News Journal’s coverage. But then, on August 30, The News Journal published a story detailing a court order for BoEd finances obtained by Moore/Hoke District Attorney Michael Hardin and comments made by Board Chair Southerland that the members of the Board were being investigated for embezzlement.
So this is where we are now.
The News Journal has been accused of printing “rumors” and “gossip.” The staff members were harassed with anonymous phone calls and fake social media accounts calling for their “arrest.” They were falsely accused of inciting crimes against BoEd members. Even so, they persevered and continued doing the work that needed to be done to keep the community informed. Now, after all of their hard work and excellent fact based reporting, they have been vindicated.
But vindication isn’t enough.
The members of the Hoke County Board of Education, Chris Holland and Hal Nunn of the Hoke County GOP, and every single person who defamed and libeled Ms. Brown and her staff should be making PUBLIC apologies. I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for that to happen though. We have seen time and time again that these Board members and their political allies don’t believe in personal responsibility or accountability and can never admit to their own wrong doing. Having said that, I encourage the people of Hoke County to send positive messages and your personal thanks to Ms. Brown and her employees. Without them, what was done in the dark would never have come to the light.
***Commentary by Cheryl Christy. Cheryl can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.