McFeely: Pelican Rapids newspaper pushes back on bigotry
PELICAN RAPIDS, Minn. — To be clear, it was one bigot who prompted the Pelican Rapids Press and managing editor Louis Hoglund to respond with a column and opinion page worthy of a New York City tabloid. Just one. But, we can all agree, there are more people out there like the Facebook user whose Islamophobic comment started a fire at the small Minnesota lakes country weekly newspaper.
So, to all the intolerant sorts out there who gripe and moan about immigrants, refugees and descendants thereof graduating from area high schools and (gasp!) getting publicity for it, the June 12, 2019, edition of the Press is for you. Enjoy, because it is a thing of beauty.
The story begins May 31, when the Press posted a handful of photos from the Pelican Rapids High School graduation to its Facebook page. There were nine photos in all, including several that showed students of color, some of Somali descent. A few pictures showed female students wearing headscarves. The photographs were standard graduation fare.
Student diversity is not a new phenomenon in Pelican Rapids. The Otter Tail County city of 2,500 has long been known for its immigrant and refugee population, in part because the turkey processing plant on the north edge of town recruited New Americans to work there. The largest wave of Somalian immigrants to Pelican Rapids was about 20 years ago.
But the Facebook photos stirred something in the dark soul of a man named Mike Morgan, who posted the following comment to the page: "Is the PR Press owned by Somalians?...The first and biggest pics are always ragheads!!...Anti-Americanism at its finest!"
As far as social media commentary, those words are par for the course for the Islamophobes and racists who pollute newspaper, television station and radio station posts on Facebook. The vile garbage Valley News Live allows on its social media posts makes the Press' situation seem quaint. But the newspaper removed the comment because it was deemed offensive.
Something didn't quite sit right with Hoglund, though, a passionate newspaper man and strident defender of Pelican Rapids.
"I wasn't going to do anything with it. It was only one guy and it seemed so petty and odd, and we had pulled down the comment. I didn't want to give him too much of a voice. So I slept on it," Hoglund said. "When I got up the next day, I decided to write something. That's the column you've read."
The result was a thing of beauty, a piece of column-writing surgery of which the late, great Mike Royko would be proud. Hoglund cut open a caustically sarcastic vein, then used the same knife to fillet the letter writer.
"With deep regret," reads Hoglund's first paragraph, "the staff and management of the Pelican Rapids Press feel obligated to report that the local newspaper is 'Anti-American.'"
Even better, Hoglund and his staff splashed the column in a tabloid-like layout in the printed edition of the newspaper.
"Photos in local paper attack on American values!" screams one sub-headline.
"African immigrants with diplomas? What's next?" says another.
And another: "Ethnically-diverse display of photos in radical newspaper is sure sign of a failing Republic!"
Hoglund said the newspaper has determined that Morgan is a real person, not a pseudonym or fake account, and that he has past connections to Pelican Rapids. The column encourages the writer to pen a letter to the editor to "highlight your views of Americanism, patriotism, liberty and justice for all. I’m sure you know all about that stuff. Further, I’m certain that you can articulate those views with verve and vigor."
But this is really not about the person making a Facebook comment, Hoglund said. It's the editor's belief that while some people in Pelican Rapids surely share Morgan's viewpoint, it seems rare. Even more so as time goes on.
"This type of stuff is not common here. We're pretty accepting on the whole," Hoglund said. "We all know people like this exist, but even the side remarks you might hear sometimes are surprisingly few. I mean, if you think about it, the kids who graduated this year were probably all born here and grew up here. They are not even immigrants or new to the country."
There is also this delicious twist: This Saturday, June 22, is the date for the annual Pelican Rapids "International Friendship Festival," started in 1998 as a way to celebrate the area's multiculturalism. Held at Sherin Park, the event includes music, dance and food from around the world. Right there in little ol' Pelican Rapids from 10:45 a.m. to 5:15 p.m.
"We anticipate a full range of subversive activity — including Somali dancers, Native American drummers, Mexican performers and even (God forbid) a Scandinavian music group — who are also descendants of a bunch of rag-tag immigrants," Hoglund wrote in his column.
See you there, Facebook bigots. The Pelican Rapids Press would willingly accept your signed letters to the editor and — bonus! —Hoglund will even print your photograph with them, as he offered to do with Morgan.
We're pretty sure this is one offer that will go unclaimed.