GAINESVILLE, Fla. – I will be covering a war Thursday. Not far away on foreign soil, but right here in Florida.
A war of words. Hatred. A deadly conflict that’s been brewing for centuries.
Richard Spencer is coming to Gainesville. A college town with a population just over 130,000 is ground zero.
Spencer is an “alt-right” speaker, labeled as a “white nationalist.” Many call him a racist bigot. He calls himself an "identitarian."
He’s called for “peaceful ethnic cleansing” and quoted Nazi propaganda. He’s spoken against African-Americans, Jews, Muslims, homosexuals and women.
While he denies any wrongdoing, violent protests erupted around his rally in Charlottesville. One woman was killed. Thursday’s event in Gainesville is his first major speech since the Virginia violence.
Make no mistake, University of Florida leaders have made it clear they did not invite Spencer to speak. Rather, being a public institution, they could not deny his First Amendment rights to hold an event.
Spencer is spending $15,000 to rent an auditorium on campus. The school is shelling out more than $500,000 for security.
Hundreds of law enforcement officers from across Florida are already in town. The Florida Highway Patrol sent around 500 state troopers with riot gear. That’s nearly half their force in the entire state.
Gov. Rick Scott has declared a state of emergency in Alachua County and ordered the National Guard to be available for response.
Media outlets from across the globe are covering the event. National TV networks started setting up early this week.
All eyes will be on Gainesville.
I’ll be there with a team of about 10 colleagues; black, white, Hispanic, Asian, female, male.
I’m one of the select group of reporters who's been approved by the National Policy Institute to be at Spencer’s press conference and speech.
So why? Why give this coverage? Why give Spencer a platform? I’ve asked myself that very question again and again.
I already know I’ll get angry comments, emails and phone calls. I’ll lose some followers on social media. My words will be picked apart and scrutinized. Criticized.
And yes, journalists are putting their safety at risk.
I find it highly unlikely there won’t be some sort of violence and arrests. I hope no one is hurt, or worse.
Anger will be flowing freely. We may see the worst in society. But we may also see the best.
Like it or not, this is newsworthy. Spencer is essentially shutting down part of a major public university with more than 50,000 students enrolled.
Some students are scared for their safety. Parents are freaking out.
On Wednesday, I spoke with Muslims, Jews, African-Americans, Indians -- many scared to be on campus. We, the media, are their eyes and ears, documenting what may affect them.
The event has also solicited an unprecedented police response at the university.
The governor sees a significant threat to people and property. These officers are here to protect and prevent. And the price tag is high. Your tax dollars.
As a journalist, it is my obligation to cover this.
Diane McFarlin, dean of UF’s College of Journalism and Communications (full disclosure: my alma mater), lays it out well:
Richard Spencer is controversial because of what he espouses and because his appearances have tended to be highly disruptive to communities.
Our obligation as journalists is to provide information and knowledge that will empower the communities we serve to grapple with the situation.
Simply ignoring it won’t make it go away. This is happening. Local citizens need to understand why and how.
Knowledge is power. The more we understand the forces at play in our world, the more we are empowered to deal with those forces most effectively.
It diminishes the shock value when people can read or hear objectionable speech without encountering it in an emotional setting.
It also helps people process what is inexplicable to them and affirm their own beliefs in ways that can be constructive.
Our mission is to inform the public in a fair and impartial way through our public media, while educating the next generation of professional journalists.
The watchdog role of local media can be unpopular at times, but the illumination they provide is essential to healthy communities and a highly functioning democracy.”
Long story short, responsible journalists know it’s important to get this right, to tell the story accurately, not sensationally. To not rely on emotions or bias.
While you may not like what I have to report, I vow to tell it like it is. To keep you informed and educated. And to keep you, your family and friends safe.
It’s not just my job; it’s my commitment to you.
I’ll give you the same details I’ll give my family, friends and colleagues. I’ll give everyone their due chance, even if I don’t personally agree with them.
Be careful about unverified information and rumors, especially on social media. Stick with journalists you know and trust. We’ll tell it to you fairly and accurately, to the best of our knowledge.
We won’t try to sway you one way or the other. We’ll tell you the truth.
You deserve it.