By Lauren Victoria Burke, NNPA Newswire Correspondent
“Let It Be Known,” a live daily show broadcast on NNPA’s YouTube and Facebook channels at 7:30 a.m. and hosted by Stacy Brown, featured a discussion of the Justin Fairfax case on Jan. 27. “Let It Be Known” can be viewed here https://www.youtube.com/c/BlackPressUSATV/videos.
Since the growth of social media and the influence of Google ads built around clicks that drive money to certain content and vice-versa, the business of journalism has greatly changed. The speed of reporting and condensed time of news cycles based on what is seen on social media has impacted news decisions, fact checking and detailed vetting of stories before publication.
In 2019, Virginia’s Lt. Governor Justin Fairfax, whose last day presiding over the Virginia Senate was January 14, appeared close to becoming the Governor of Virginia. The elevation would have made him the only Black Governor in the U.S. after Virginia’s Governor Ralph Northam became embroiled in a scandal.
On February 1, 2019, it was revealed on Northam’s 1984 yearbook page from his time at the
Eastern Virginia Medical School contained a photo of two individuals — one wearing a Ku Klux Klan outfit and a second individual wearing blackface. Northam initially confirmed he was in the photo and apologized after which Virginia Democrats, MoveOn.org and the NAACP among many others demanded his resignation. Northam then said he didn’t believe he wasn’t in the controversial photo.
On February 2, 2019 as the scandal enveloped Northam, Joe Biden, who would announce his 2020 presidential run two months later on April 29, 2019, tweeted, “There is no place for racism in America. Governor Northam has lost all moral authority and should resign immediately, Justin Fairfax is the leader Virginia needs now.”
As the scandal grew around Northam and rumors swelled that he might resign, Lt. Governor Fairfax was suddenly met with two sexual assault allegations from 2000 and 2004 in the form of an internal Facebook message made public on Feb. 3, 2019 and a press release by an attorney on Feb. 8, 2019.
Northam remained in office after media attention swung to the negative news on the Lt. Governor. At the time, Fairfax, a former assistant U.S. Attorney elected as Virginia’s 41st Lt. Governor in 2017, was 39. Fairfax previously ran for Attorney General in Virginia in 2013 but lost.
In May 2019, an investigation of Northam’s yearbook page by the law firm McGuireWoods cost Eastern Virginia Medical School $368,000 but the investigation was unable to reveal the names of the individuals in the image wearing Ku Klux Klan garb and blackface. To date, the names of those individuals have not been publicly revealed.
Justin Fairfax is only the second Black elected official to win an election statewide in Virginia. L. Douglas Wilder, who was elected Lt. Governor of Virginia in 1985 and Governor in 1989, was the first. No investigation by police or media took place regarding Fairfax, though he contacted the FBI in February 2019 to investigate. The speed of the story on the allegations, from twitter to publication in the New York Times and other major media, was noted by some.
“Between the Northam and Fairfax responses, 2020 Democrats are now setting the standard that photos and accusations deemed credible are cause for resignation without investigations first,” political journalist Edward-Isaac Dovere wrote on Feb. 8, 2019. Terry McAuliffe was first to demand Fairfax’s “immediate resignation” in a tweet on Feb. 8, 2019 minutes after a press release by the attorney of an accuser.
On April 2, 2019 Fairfax called a press conference and announced he was contacting two Black female prosecutors, Satana DeBerry in Durham, NC and Rachel Rollins in Boston, MA, to investigate the allegations against him. To date, no known investigations took place from their office.
On “Let It Be Known” on January 27, four Black journalists, including this writer who served as Fairfax’s communications consultant, had an hour-long discussion on “twitter justice,” modern media click-bait strategies and how they impact the speed and decision making of today’s journalism. Speed has often given way to accuracy in some cases with facts emerging weeks and months later after stories were initially published and seen by thousands. The initial story on Fairfax went from press release to publication to widespread resignation demands in minutes.
“What responsibility does the media have when it comes to making serious allegations?” asked “Let It Be Known” host Stacy Brown of the panel. Brown has investigated and covered the allegations against Bill Cosby and the trial that followed as well as each separate allegation leveled against music mogul Russell Simmons.
“People believe what’s printed,” said Paris Brown, who is the top editor of the Baltimore Times.
Because investigative journalism is time consuming and expensive. Many news organizations wrestle with delaying publication of breaking stories versus money lost on clickable ads by not running a big story social media is already featuring. Most algorithms on social media reward new original content that is posted by users with more traffic. In an age of deliberate misinformation, the challenge has triggered concerns that have prompted discussions on potential regulatory action, particularly with regard to Facebook.
“If I go out and I print this I planted a seed. Once you plant that seed it is very difficult. In the case of Justin Fairfax, I question: Was it a political smear — it was so coincidental when you look at what happened with the Governor,” Brown said.
Richmond, Va. WREJ Rejoice radio host Gary Flowers has been focused on the Fairfax case since February 2019 and has repeatedly called it a “political smear” on the radio. On election night in Virginia on November 2, 2020, as Democrat Terry McAuliffe lost to Republican Glenn Youngkin, Flowers said on CBS6 in Richmond television, “What happened to Justin Fairfax? I think it was a political smear.” Conservative radio host John Reid, an anchor at WRVA in Richmond, Va. who was on with Flowers echoed the sentiment.
“Will it surprise you if I agree with you? I think it was a total political smear,” Reid said sitting next to Flowers in response.
To date no law enforcement investigation of the Fairfax case has taken place. Several large news organizations known for investigative prowess, such as AP, NYTimes and CNN have never interviewed Fairfax’s accusers on the matter of their allegations.
The last known media interview featuring either of them was in April of 2019.
Lauren Victoria Burke is an independent journalist and the host of the podcast BURKEFILE. She is a political analyst who appears regularly on #RolandMartinUnfiltered. She may be contacted at LBurke007@gmail.com and on twitter at @LVBurke