Several White America articles have dealt with anti-white, or “leukophobic,” bias in the media. However, a comprehensive perspective on liberal media bias on race has been lacking. Fortunately, William McGowan’s Coloring the News: How Crusading for Diversity Has Corrupted American Journalism, by far the most penetrating and thorough treatment of liberal bias in the news media, provides the basis for such a perspective. Since the book was published in 2001, McGowan’s examples are now dated, but media bias is plainly as egregious today as it was in the 1990s, as examinations of the coverage of the Duke lacrosse rape scandal and the Jena Six case will show.
McGowan paints a portrait of a media establishment that obsessively promulgates what I will call “the myth of white racism” at the expense of objectivity and accuracy. According to the myth, irrational hatred and fear of non-whites is rampant among white Americans and causes whites to subject non-whites to discrimination and abuse. To bolster this myth, the media establishment eagerly seeks out incidents that reveal white racism. This eagerness often causes journalists to fall for hoaxes and poorly supported accusations of racist treatment. The media establishment also believes that white racism is the primary reason for high rates of poverty, incarceration, and other types of social dysfunction among non-whites. Consequently, the establishment censors and silences journalists who suggest non-whites themselves might be responsible for their failings. Finally, the media establishment is convinced that pervasive and profound racism is unique to whites and, therefore, downplays and apologizes for manifestations of racial hatred among non-whites.
McGowan gives several examples of incidents in which the press, eager to expose white racism, leapt to conclusions that were later proved false. The most flagrant is the 1996 black church burning hysteria. The story began with a report from Center for Democratic Renewal, a leftist activist group, that claimed there had been a surge in arson attacks against black churches in the South. The attacks were supposedly perpetrated by “night riders,” recruited from among the ranks of white supremacist groups like the KKK and the Aryan Brotherhood.
The story appealed so deeply to journalists’ stereotypes about race that the church burnings became one of the major stories of the year, generating over 2200 newspaper articles. Earnest editorialists scorched readers with the full heat of their liberal outrage. USA Today said the fires were an “attempt to murder the spirit of black America.” The New York Times called the attacks an “epidemic of racial terror.” The media establishment interpreted the burnings as a manifestation of widespread anti-black racial hatred among whites. As Jack White of TimeNew York Times columnist Bob Herbert wrote, “The fuel for these fires can be traced to a carefully crafted environment of bigotry and hatred that was developed over the past quarter century.” fumed, “the coded phrases” of Republican leaders “who build their careers George Wallace-style on a foundation of race-baiting” were “encouraging the arsonists.”
After all of this, investigations finally revealed that the whole story was false and perhaps even a deliberate hoax. There had been no increase in church burnings in recent years—there had, in fact, been a decline. Arsonists burned down more white churches than black ones. An investigation by the Alabama government found not a single instance of racial motivation in arson attacks on churches in the state, and such attacks were also extremely rare elsewhere. The media had been led astray by its eagerness to crusade against white racism.1
The second prejudice that slants media coverage of race is that white racism is the primary explanation for the failings of non-whites, such as high rates of incarceration and illegitimacy. The press has cast the war on drugs as a war on blacks that unfairly sentences them to illegitimate hardship. In 1996, Washington Post writer Courtland Millroy attacked three-strikes laws that sentence repeat offenders to long prison sentences as a manifestation of white hostility to blacks: “If you were writing a law to target blacks one could scarcely have done it more effectively than three strikes.” McGowan also cites evidence that the press ignores research that argues there is no racial bias in the criminal justice system.2 Similarly, a Newsday columnist named Les Payne improbably blamed the high black illegitimacy rate on the legacy of slavery, when slaves were deprived of the legal right to marry and forced to bear children out of wedlock.3
The media establishment tends to be hostile to work that threatens the dogma that white racism is responsible for black failings. Thus, Dinesh D’Souza’s 1995 book The End of Racism, which argued that black poverty was blacks’ own fault, was greeted with hysterical and unfair abuse from a Time magazine reviewer, who said it was “full of obscene ideas” and proved that “bigotry sells books.”4
This hostility was particularly evident in the reaction to Eugene Richards’ 1994 Cocaine True, Cocaine Blue, a photojournalistic depiction of drug addiction in America’s inner cities. The book contained disturbing images of the reality of the black underclass, including a photo of a deranged-looking woman clenching a syringe in her nearly toothless mouth, as well as interviews with drug addicts and dealers. In the New York Times Book Review, Brent Staples accused Richards of staging the photos to make blacks look bad and whined, “Couldn’t Mr. Richards have found a setting where most or at least half of the drug addicts are white?”5
Sometimes journalists disguise the embarrassing reality of black failure by glamorizing it. In 1996, the New York Times ran a profile of rap producer Suge Knight, who had a long criminal record and collaborated with the most violent, anti-social “gansta rappers.” The piece recognized Knight’s vile past, yet managed to transmute him into a sort of rebel hero. Knight and his associates:
move at their own time, they do things their own way. Suge and his boys are grand. Men without women, they believe the masculine code defines everything.6
The last component of the myth is the conviction that pervasive and profound racism is unique to whites. This prejudice causes journalists to hide or downplay racial hatred among non-whites. In their coverage Louis Farrakhan’s 1995 Million Man March, the press soft-pedaled Farrakhan’s history of anti-white hate mongering, which included accusing the US government of inventing the AIDS virus as a means of genocide against blacks. Rather, reporters did their best to paint the event in a positive light. One Washington Post reporter was “overcome… with the sights, sounds and spirit of a community renewing itself in a day-long myth-shattering celebration of smiling faces, slapping hands, upbeat voices, hugs and goodwill.” Reporters emphasized the lip-service to tolerance and downplayed the race-baiting and zany conspiracy theories in Farrakhan’s speech at the march.7
Two more recent incidents confirm that the media bias McGowan identifies is still present, and probably even more virulent, today. In the notorious Duke lacrosse rape case of 2006, the media were once again tripped up by their eagerness to promote the myth of white racism. The incident began in March when black stripper and prostitute Crystal Mangum accused members of the Duke lacrosse team of having raped her at a party where she had been hired to perform. Despite the lack of evidence for Mangum’s claim, and much evidence contradicting it, District Attorney Mike Nifong aggressively prosecuted and publicized the alleged crime. The media collaborated in this smear of the students, granting Nifong dozens of sympathetic interviews during which he painted a ghastly portrait of what he called “ganglike rape activity accompanied by the racial slurs and general racial hostility.”8 Over the coming months, the case became a cause célèbre, just as the church burnings had a decade before. Editorialists fumed with outrage. For example, in “Bonded in Barbarity,” New York Times columnist Selena Roberts railed against “a group of privileged players of fine pedigree entangled in a night that threatens to belie their social standing as human beings.”9 Nancy Grace of CNN assumed the players were guilty, dismissed all evidence to the contrary, and subjected the players to insults. “The Blue Devils!” she said, “It may not be just a nickname at Duke University.”10
After nearly a year of hysteria, the case against the players unraveled, and they were found innocent of all charges. In the aftermath, some press commentators admitted that they and their colleagues had taken the stance they did because the story appealed to their prejudices. As a reporter from the Raleigh News & Observer, reflected, “I was viewing the scenario through the prism of white liberal guilt… I stereotyped the entire Duke lacrosse team.”11
Despite this soul searching, the next year proved that journalists had not learned a thing. This time the source of outrage was the allegation that white high school students in Jena, Louisiana had displayed racial hatred towards blacks and that blacks were treated in an unfair manner by the criminal justice system. The media’s story, which was again taken uncritically from the account of a leftist activist group, went as follows. On August 31, the white students had hung nooses from a tree on Jena High School grounds in order to mark it as a “whites-only tree” that blacks were forbidden to sit under. Three months later, a group of black students who became known as the “Jena Six,” retaliating for the noose incident and other alleged racist treatment, attacked a white student named Justin Barker, who was not one of the students responsible for the nooses. In what seemed like a clear instance of disparate treatment by race, five of the black students were initially charged with attempted murder in the courts, whereas the white students had only gotten nine-day suspensions from the school board for the noose incident.
Typical of the furious tone the media adopted in covering the story was the New York Post’s description of the noose-hanging incident as a throwback to “the reign of lynching terror that once permeated the South.” Thanks in large part to the investigations of Craig Franklin, an assistant editor at The Jena Times, the whole story was revealed as a patchwork of falsehoods. There had never been any “whites-only tree” at the high school. A black student had jokingly suggested that the tree might be reserved for whites the day before the noose incident, but everyone at the school understood the joke for what it was. The nooses were not intended as a reference to the South’s history of lynching. Rather, the students had gotten the idea of nooses from the Lonesome Dove, a television show set in the Old West that depicted lynchings of cattle rustlers. The prank was directed at the students’ white friends on the school’s rodeo team, not at blacks. There was no evidence that the attack on Barker was related to the noose incident either; such a link had not been suggested by anyone interviewed during investigations of the attack. As Franklin concluded:
I have never before witnessed such a disgrace in professional journalism. Myths replaced facts, and journalists abdicated their solemn duty to investigate every claim because they were seduced by a powerfully appealing but false narrative of racial injustice.
Finally, the initial charge of attempted murder, which was later dropped, against the black students was not a clear case of racial injustice, as the attack on Barker was severe enough to endanger his life. Mychal Bell, one of the Jena Six, had knocked Barker unconscious by slamming his head against a concrete beam, after which the gang had stomped and kicked him. Bell had four prior convictions for crimes of violence. By casting the attack as a response to racism followed by unjust sentencing, the media perpetuated the myth that whites are to blame for high black crime and incarceration rates.
Coloring the News is an indispensable book for anyone who is interested in any aspect of liberal bias or “political correctness” in the media—McGowan also deals with the coverage of women’s issues, homosexuality, and immigration. His work on race paints a comprehensive portrait of the stubborn prejudices that slant news coverage. Unfortunately, McGowan’s book has not prevented the media from making the mistakes he skewered over and over again.