"All they know is that it's a black guy."
[Image credit: The U.S. Army | Flickr]
Cross-posted from Eclectablog.
Yesterday's travesty in media and journalistic fail surrounding the investigation into the Boston Marathon bombings was epic and public and brings into sharp relief how people view acts of terror and terrorists in America. I was at work when the first emails and texts started coming up on my phone telling me a suspect was in custody. Tweets revealed that CNN's John King was reporting that the suspect was a "dark-skinned male".
At my workplace, one of my coworkers suddenly became an expert, telling anyone who would listen, "All they know is that it's a black guy." Another guy, when I told him it looked like they had someone in custody, said, "I just wonder if it's that Arab guy they were questioning at the hospital..." That guy, by the way, ended up being a witness who was injured by one of the explosions and was not a suspect.
The whole thing got me thinking about who I was hoping the culprit would turn out to be and I realized that I hoped it was some crackpot American anti-government nut rather than a foreign terrorist. That, to me, would make the world just slightly less scary, slightly more in control. Because, even though domestic terrorists can do as much or more harm than foreign terrorists, at least it's an enemy we know and, at least in part, can understand. And, most importantly, they are people we can keep a much closer eye on.
Here in Michigan, we are quite experienced with anti-government zealots. The Michigan Militia and the Hutaree are pretty common names in the lexicon of domestic terrorism. Every day on my way to work I pass the house of Mark Koernke, a guy who has ties to these groups and even Timothy McVeigh. The day after Barack Obama was elected in 2008, Koernke had these signs displayed in front of his home:
[Sign photos by Anne C. Savage, special to Eclectablog]
These people are real and they are scary and they are in our communities but somehow, for me, having my enemies close is better than having them far away; a big unknown that I can't understand or even know about.
But that is clearly not how many Americans feel and, thanks to John King and CNN's abysmal reporting (Fox News was right there with them, of course), at least for a few hours, Americans that are cheering for this to be a Muslim terrorist had their hopes fulfilled, or nearly so.
Last night, Chris Hayes nailed this perfectly:
The one thing people knew about the suspect, the only thing they thought they knew for sure, thanks to CNN's reporting, was the following descriptor:Here's the video:
"It was described to me as a dark-skinned male individual."
"I was told by one of these sources that was a law enforcement official that this was a dark-skinned male."
"The source had been briefed on the investigation, I should say, that the suspect was a dark-skinned male."
Forget about the fact that CNN got wrong the information they said they had. Just explain to me precisely what news value exists in the adjective "dark-skinned." What exactly that's newsworthy is communicated in that phrase? A dark-skinned individual could be my swarthier Italian-American relatives or the Ethiopian who won the Boston Marathon before it was bombed on Monday and everyone in between. No, that's not the purpose of that phrase. That phrase is not there to convey journalistic information. What "dark-skinned" actually communicates with a wink and a nod is "Aha, all you folks who thought it was a bad Muslim who did this, you nailed it. If you had al Qaeda in your own private betting pool, you were right. Because, of course, let's be honest, that is the sub text that suffuses all of this. That is what our collective societal id is pushing us towards.
But our job, our job in the media is not to flatter those knee-jerk presumptions for the sake of momentary titillation. It's to wrestle that id to the ground and get the facts right.
I don't want the terrorist to be an American because of some reverse racism or anti-American feelings. I want the terrorist to be homegrown because, for me, it's just a bit less frightening, a little less unknown. At least when they are in our towns and neighborhoods, there's some infinitesimal chance that we might catch them before they kill someone. I actually don't understand the response of my coworkers, the response that CNN fed raw meat to with their erroneous reporting that a "dark-skinned male" was in custody. That seems to me to be putting racial hatred and nationalism over rationality. It is, in fact, racism in pure form because they are not judging someone by the color of their skin. They are, instead, looking at an evil act and immediately assuming it was committed by someone of a different race.
And that is shameful.