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An open letter to a former hero who seems to have lost her way 

From a citizen who got served

Dear Tara Servatius,

I always imagined one day I'd write to you. I would've thought I'd be writing to congratulate you on breaking a huge story, or to ask for advice on my budding journalism career. Instead, today I'm writing you because I need answers. I need to know what the fuck happened.

Let me start at the beginning:

I don't remember when I first started reading Creative Loafing. After I moved here in the mid-'90s, it eventually became a ubiquitous part of my Charlotte life — like Bojangles', road construction and the name "Sharon." Back then, I read the paper in an aspirational way — to see photos and listings of events I was too young to attend, and to get the lowdown on the latest instance of local government corruption from my favorite column — your column — Citizen Servatius.

You were everything I wanted to be when I grew up. You spoke truth to power. You made it your mission to catch people in lies, call them on their bullshit, make the world a better place by exposing one untold story at a time. I've spoken to former editors who tell me your work ethic and dedication to research bordered on OCD.

You took on issues the Charlotte Observer wouldn't touch at the time; the need for civil investment in poor neighborhoods, preferential police treatment for Charlotte's wealthiest citizens, church corruption and medical board corruption. You spoke about those issues with the confidence and authority of someone who knew the facts and a long trail of receipts to back them up.

click to enlarge Tara Servatius
  • Tara Servatius

When CL's Best of Charlotte issue rolled around, each year you were voted both Best Local Columnist and Local Columnist You're Sick Of. To me, the equal parts love and hate you received were further proof you were doing important work — people wanted to shut you up because you were a force of illumination for worlds whose elite inhabitants would prefer to remain in the shadows.

Even your headshot was badass, with your head cocked slightly sideways like you were sizing someone up, your mouth forming a sarcastic sneer barely disguised as a smile. I imagined you gave the photographer this look because you had little time for formalities like photo shoots. You had asses to kick and names to take.

To say you influenced my award-winning column, Trouble Hunter, is an understatement. Nearly every single time someone who has lived in Charlotte for more than a decade talks to me about my column, they mention Tara Servatius. I remind them of you back in the day, they say, or they tell me they're happy to see another CL columnist willing to take on established power structures. I thank them for the comparison, but I know I haven't yet reached the level of peak Citizen Servatius.

One night a few months ago, I received another comparison during a tipsy conversation at The Milestone. "Whatever happened to her anyway?" my bearded conversation companion asked. I realized I had no idea.

That night I Googled you to find out. I figured maybe you had moved on to a gig doing consulting or teaching. Surely, if you'd continued a career in journalism, I'd be reading your articles in national publications by now, or seeing you make appearances as a pundit on cable news.

What I found brings me to the purpose of my letter today. The first result was a headline that read "WRNN radio host resigns as blogger over graphic picture of Obama." Wait, what? Surely they weren't referring to you.

Oh, but they were. I learned how in 2012, as a blogger for the conservative John Locke Foundation, you posted an image of President Obama dressed in drag, holding a bucket of fried chicken. You were forced to resign and when you did, you issued the standard non-apology of racists everywhere. The one that goes something like, "I'm sorry if anyone was offended because they took it the wrong way."

I was shocked at what looked to be a mistake in judgement, but reading further Google results revealed that I shouldn't have been. Apparently, during the years I'd stopped reading your column while away at college and becoming a new mother, you began a drastic transformation.

You spoke to the League of the South, a radical white supremacist group with its own paramilitary unit that advocates for Southern secession. You hosted an afternoon talk radio show on WBT from 2008 to 2011 where you reported on nonfactual white fearmongering stories such as the mosque at Ground Zero (there wasn't one), and how the New Black Panthers affected the 2010 midterm elections (they didn't).

After your contract wasn't renewed in 2011, you took your newfound void of journalistic integrity to stations in Myrtle Beach, Charleston and Greenville, S.C., where you currently host a show on 106.3 the WORD.

How did you get to this point, Tara?

How did the journalist who wrote about the untold hardships endured by Cambodian refugees become the radio wingnut warning her listeners that the refugee program is part of a Washington conspiracy to create a one-party system?

How did my justice-minded, truth-seeking high school role model who held the elite's feet to the fire end up advocating for our current president — who offers not even slight regard for the truth — instead of calling him on his bullshit?

How did the pragmatic journalist I knew as the one able to always find the facts become the person reposting links from conservative conspiracy-porn sources like Breitbart, Infowars and TheBlaze.com?

How, Tara? How did a brilliant, intellectually honest journalist turn into a hateful, fear-mongering, nonsense-spewing blowhard?

Perhaps you were always subtly racist and I was too young and naïve to pick up on your dog whistles. Re-scanning your columns from the past still doesn't offer many hints of this, but it could've been there.

Perhaps the election of our nation's first black president brought your inner racist into a more prominent place in your mind and heart, like it did so many other conservative pundits.

Perhaps 9/11 scared the shit out of you and you went to a dark place as you looked for answers. Your first column following those attacks rightfully demands that Americans keep a close eye on those looking to encroach on their liberties from within the country. The call for blood included in the same column is what confuses me.

My personal theory regarding what looks to be a loss of logic on your part is that it became harder for you to make a living as a journalist in the print medium as it began to die. I think you saw the post-9/11 rise of Fox News and the radical right, and dollar signs danced in your eyes. Perhaps the opportunity to join the ranks of celebrity hatemongers like Anne Coulter and Michelle Malkin was too much for you to turn down. Maybe you saw a lucrative book deal and your name in the headlines you once wrote.

I know how difficult it is to make a living wage as a journalist. The reason my column hasn't reached the level of Citizen Servatius in terms of investigative reporting is that I have to maintain a day job to support my family and I'm unable to invest the time required into the stories I want to chase with all my heart.

I've tried other ways to reach you to discuss that balance and to ask for answers to the questions I've asked above, but you haven't responded. Maybe I'll never have those answers, but your career trajectory provided at least one:

Would it be worth it to ever compromise my integrity and lower my standards to make more money? The clear answer is hell no. And I thank you for that.

Best regards,

Erin Tracy-Blackwood

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