The crew from the Cavalier Daily at the University of Virginia that covered the chaos in Charlottesville over the weekend: Alexis Gravely, Anna Higgins, Daniel Hoerauf and Tim Dodson. (Photos courtesy of the Cavalier Daily staff)
Editor’s Note: This is the second in a short series of posts about the Cavalier Daily’s coverage of the chaos over the weekend in Charlottesville. Part I can be found here, along with an explanation as to why I’m focusing on student media and how amazingly helpful managing editor Tim Dodson with all of this. Tim, Senior Associate News Editor Alexis Gravely, News Editor Anna Higgins and Senior Writer Daniel Hoerauf were on the ground as the “Unite the Right” event turned violent and deadly. Tim was repeatedly clear how much this was a team event and that is so clear in the coverage the Cav Daily published.
The staff of the Cav Daily is continuing to cover the outcomes of this event. Here are a few stories they published in the last 24 hours:
Here is part two from our hour-long interview. Any mistakes are mine, not Tim’s. Corrections and tweaks are likely necessary and gratefully received.
Here are two images that give you an indication of what the Cavalier Daily staff was walking into when covering the weekend’s events. Photos by Alexis Gravely, courtesy of the Cavalier Daily.
As the Cavalier Daily staff began covering Saturday’s “Unite the Right” rally, one thing became immediately clear to Managing Editor Tim Dodson.
“We had never covered something like this,” he said in an interview this week.
Charlottesville had become a flashpoint for the alt-right, neo-Nazis and other white supremacist groups that weekend. A group of white supremacists had already gathered Friday on the University of Virginia campus, carrying tiki torches and chanting racist rhetoric. A federal court injunction Friday allowed the event to take place in Emancipation Park, but it felt like chaos might emerge in the city. Counter-protestors had gathered in droves. Police donned riot gear and braced for mayhem.
Into it all marched the four-person team of the Cavalier Daily, U.Va.’s student newspaper, unsure of what would happen but knowing covering the event was necessary.
“There are people who are ‘first responders’ who rush into situations like fires and accidents to help people,” Dodson said. “I’m not comparing us to them, but journalists are like ‘first informers’ and we run toward chaos too so we can tell people what’s going on… I am proud of the courageous members of the Cavalier Daily staff who put themselves in harms way to report what we were seeing”
The main event was to start at noon, but things were getting ugly far earlier. Dodson said brawls popped up in various spots around the area. Someone burned a Confederate battle flag. Marchers carried machine guns and wore tactical body armor. The air became unbreathable.
“We started walking over to the rally and immediately the chemical irritant hit us,” he said of the tear gas. “We were choking on it. I was trying to do a Facebook Live event but I had to give up on it. I couldn’t keep it going because I was coughing on whatever was in the air.”
Police were clearing the area when Dodson said the staff got word the white supremacists planned to gather shortly in McIntire Park to continue the rally.
“We drive over to the park and then we start walking around and it’s kind of empty, nobody really there,” he said. “There appear to be some alt-right people and some white supremacists, but not a crowd. It was really quiet. And then within a half hour, dozens or up to 100s showed up to gather and they’re clustered by this playground and we hear there are going to be speakers.”
Former KKK leader David Duke and white nationalist leader Richard Spencer arrived and addressed those who had gathered. The Cav Daily crew wove its way into the amped-up crowd to gather information.
“I think the people on the ground had great news instincts,” Dodson said. “There were seasoned members of the Cav Daily. In terms of the photography, Alexis is more of a trained photographer than I and she had a lot of photos. I had no experience with this so I kind of learned on the job when Spencer and Duke were speaking.”
Spencer and the Cav Daily had crossed paths before: The staff learned last year that Spencer graduated from U.Va. in 2001 and it began trying to piece together his past on the Charlottesville campus. He was not overly active in campus events, except for his participation in “Shakespeare on the Lawn” productions. Few people remembered him and those who did were almost universally unwilling to talk about him. When it came time to interview Spencer for the profile, the task fell to Dodson.
“I think I did two or three phone interviews with him to get a line on his time here,” Dodson said. “I had been prepared for the interview, I researched his timeline here and so forth. There’s not a whole lot written about his time at U.Va., so I was at a bit of a disadvantage… It was just a matter of asking some open ended questions.
“I don’t think I was necessarily intimidated but I did as much research as I could but I had to realize I was gathering information,” he added, noting that Spencer made it clear that nobody at U.Va “turned him into” the current iteration of himself. “You don’t always have all the answers.”
When Duke addressed the crowd, the situation began to devolve again.
“It was hard to keep track of all these things as the speakers were addressing the supporters…” Dodson said. “Some people saw a reporter being intimidated… During Duke’s speech, counter-protesters showed up and that altercation turned physical… As all that was happening, our reporting team and I were watching this happening and covering all this on social media and we get this news that a car plowed through crowd in a downtown area.”
The staff members split up with two people heading downtown and two others staying at McIntire Park. All the content was flowing from the scene to EIC Mike Reingold, who was retweeting material and working with others to build content on the paper’s homepage. The social media flow from the scene was essentially a reflexive need to get the story out immediately, Dodson said.
“I think for the social media it was just our instincts,” he said. “As things happened, we just had our phones out and we were telling stories. One of our people was smart and brought a battery pack, so we were all plugging into that to pull juice off of for the day… I think as things happened in the moment we were very good at reacting to that.”
The car attack downtown killed 32-year-old Heather Heyer and injured 19 others. Other physical altercations, including an assault in a parking garage, were reported as well, with varying levels of injuries. The police began to take over the situation downtown and the rally in the park began to dissolve as the day wore on, Dodson said.
“Police began to take charge and there was definitely less chaos,” he said. “We could see the aftermath of what had happened…”
“It was a very long day in Charlottesville.”