Friday, October 14, 2011

History repeats itself in lynch-mob mentality media

Irresponsible, rumor mongering journalism, as an outstanding piece in the Kansas State Historical Society magazine reminds us, is hardly a new phenomenon.

The article, “A Public Burning: Race, Sex, and the Lynching of Fred Alexander” by Christopher C. Lovett, reminds us that the kind of writing and reporting that encourages hatred, inflames violence, and ignores or disdains peaceful conflict resolution is a hardly a creation of the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

Lovett’s piece chronicles the case of a lynching in 1900 in Leavenworth, Kansas that is a noteworthy lesson for journalists about the terrible power we had, and have, to create an atmosphere conducive to conflict and even mob violence.

What is truly fascinating is how applicable the principles of peace journalism (like not spreading rumors, understanding the consequences of what you report, and giving peacemakers a voice) would have been over a century ago.

Lovett’s article chronicles the racially motivated lynching (actually, ritual burning at the stake) of a rape/murder suspect, a black man named Fred Alexander, and the media’s role in encouraging this vigilantism. The article stated, “In the late summer and fall of 1900, right before the election, rumors spread throughout the city that a number of white females had been sexually assaulted by unknown black males. E. W. Howe of the Atchison Daily Globe, writing after Alexander’s lynching, put the number of alleged assaults at thirteen. A review of arrest records does not support this claim. Even still the Leavenworth Times made no effort to dispel the rumors…Even though it reported this was “the only instance,” the Times and other papers did nothing to refute the popularly held belief that a black male was roaming Leavenworth streets preying upon vulnerable white females.”

As I teach peace journalism, we talk a great deal about atmosphere—specifically, a journalist’s responsibility to help create an atmosphere where peace and non-violence can flourish. Clearly, the opposite occurred in Leavenworth in 1900. Lovett wrote, “The reports of Pearl Forbes’s death (for which the mob murder of Fred Alexander occurred) appeared in all the local papers, but it was especially the Times that fomented the public’s outrage and escalated the racial prejudice that captivated Leavenworth.”

Not only were the newspapers guilty of nurturing a lynch mob atmosphere, they even went a step further. “…The newspapers fabricated and encouraged the assumption that the assailant was black, with no hard evidence to support that supposition, particularly when the Times reported ‘a colored man well known in the southwestern portion of the city who was seen walking west on Spruce street about the time of the murder . . . is behind bars and . . . he had in his pocket a handkerchief with the initials of the girl on it. Like in many police inquiries, rumors and impending arrests proved to be untrue,” according the article.

Think this is all behind us, that we’re too sophisticated today to repeat the Leavenworth Times’ errors from 110 years ago? I believe the media-induced lynch mob is alive and well, and exhibit A is Nancy Grace and Casey Anthony, who hasn’t been lynched but is undoubtedly the target for any number of potential vigilantes thanks to hateful press coverage. Exhibit B are the many sad examples of media induced violence worldwide in places like Kenya (2010, following presidential elections), Uganda (tribal/racial violence stirred by radio in 2009) and even Rwanda, where radio played a large role in the 1994 genocide.

Moreover, I would argue that an anti-terrorism (some would say anti-Muslim) frenzy whipped up by an irresponsible media has in part created an atmosphere where Americans are indifferent or even tolerant when our government chooses to murder terrorists (including an American citizen) abroad rather than dealing with them using non-violent means.

Unfortunately, the kind of irresponsible journalism practiced by the Leavenworth Times in 1900 is still thriving today.

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