CBS Sunday Morning’s segment on Mount Airy has caused quite a stir among the political class. I wrote about it last week. John Hood, former President of the John Locke Foundation, wrote about it this week. So did Sara Paqueño, an opinion writer for McClatchy who grew up in Mount Airy.
Both John and Sara took offense at the segment. John called it a “hit piece.” Sara felt Ted Koppel failed to follow up on his most consequential observation that “Mount Airy becomes more complicated with every conversation.” Both dislike national news organizations coming to North Carolina to belittle Southerners.
I think they have valid points. As someone who grew up watching The Andy Griffith Show and its endless reruns, I believe the show teaches valuable lessons. As John describes it, “A place where mistakes earn people second chances, not everlasting scorn. A place where parents teach their children the virtues of honesty, responsibility, and compassion — and sometimes get schooled themselves in those same virtues by those same children.”
I come from a Mayberry-like place myself and I am partial to small Southern towns. I landed in Carrboro partially because of its similarities to Wadesboro. I know many of the shop owners, business people, and civic leaders. My kids went to neighborhood schools where parents gathered in the morning for gossip and conversation. I can walk to the grocery store where I see and often chat with my neighbors and friends.
But Carrboro is a New South town, inhabited more by people from other places than people who grew up here. In Wadesboro, relationships went back generations. I understand the complexities that Sara describes. Race, as throughout the South, was always present even if sometimes it was just beneath the surface.
My first grade class was the first fully integrated cohort in Anson County schools. An African American friend who was also one of those first graders once told me that Wadesboro was a great place to grow up and that he never felt prejudice at school. In the same conversation, he told me a story about walking home from Little League practice with some other Black kids. A White women screamed at them from her porch, “You n*****s get out off of my street or I’ll call the police!” He’s still right. It was a great place to grow up with a sense of community despite the obvious divisions and animosity of some of the residents. The South, particularly in its small towns, is indeed a complicated place.
Still, I think Ted Koppel had a point, regardless of his unfortunate use of stereotypes. I don’t think he gathered those people on the trolley. That’s largely who is visiting Mount Airy-come-Mayberry–middle-aged, middle class White people with roots in the rural South. The majority of those people share the views of the people on the trolley. Koppel could have found a similar demographic at a tourist place like Branson, Missouri, and found the same attitudes.
Those folks believe the election was stolen, that antifa stormed the Capitol, and the press is the enemy of the people. John Hood says, “Of course, there are quite a few Trump supporters who believe such rubbish. They’ve been lied to, yes.” But it’s not just quite a few. It’s two-thirds of the Republican Party and they are being lied to every night by people like Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity and politicians like Madison Cawthorn and Marjorie Taylor Greene. The cynical silence from once-responsible GOP leaders just validates the disinformation. The only people who could possibly correct their distorted view of reality won’t even try to do it.
Koppel’s approach may be elitist, condescending, and insulting, but he’s not the one pushing the disinformation that has led to their noxious views. And he’s not the one exploiting their ignorance for political gain. So, yes, criticize Koppel for being an asshole and getting people to expose their foolishness on national television, but don’t give a pass to the people who have promoted or enabled the dangerous lies that too many Southerners believe. Andy Taylor may have put Ted Koppel in his place in his “Aw, shucks” kind of way, but he also would have taught Opie not to listen to those people on the trolley or the ones on Fox News.