July 5, 2006
Convict, Correct, but Never ApologizeBy Richard Baehr
In recent months, the cable TV shows, newsweeklies and large circulation newspapers eagerly jumped into a story about an alleged rape of an exotic dancer by several Duke lacrosse players. The media storyline fit the theory of the case put forth by the now disgraced District Attorney Michael Nifong.
Privileged drunk white jocks had brutally abused a desperately poor woman of color. The dancer was the innocent victim of a criminal sexual assault, and her treatment by the lacrosse players demonstrated how race, class and gender still define the real playing field in America.
The essence of the storyline was that for the lacrosse players it was natural, given the sickness and gross inequality of American society, for them to believe they had a right to such power to abuse the dancer. Eighty—eight Duke professors and administrators published a statement that both implicitly convicted the lacrosse team of all the charges, and explained how the attack on the dancer was symptomatic of the racist, classist, and miscogynistic society in which we live, where this kind of thing happens all the time.
For the record (and clearly this would be news to the signers of the Duke letter), there are many more white women sexually assaulted by black men in America each year than there are black women sexually assaulted by white men (100 times as many in some years).
About the same time as the Duke story was breaking, another story that was equally revealing of the cultural consciousness of the American media also received a lot of play. This one concerned the alleged murder of 24 Iraqis by a Marine company in Haditha, following the killing of one of the Marines in an ambush. Given the sensitivity of some in the media hewing to the accepted logic of: 'We hate the war, but love and support our troops fighting in Iraq,' this story only emerged after former Marine and now long—term Congressman John Murtha of Pennsylvania, made the charges of Marine misconduct public. Once the former Marine bashed his fellow Marines, the near 100% of journalists who have never served in the military were free to join the chorus and all but convict the Marines in the media. Chris Matthews entered stage left for his Daily Murtha Show.
While the condition of terrorists held at Guantanamo has been a major human rights issue for many in the press (think Andrew Sullivan), the fact that the Marines accused of the Haditha massacre were chained in cells while the story was investigated drew no attention or sympathy in the mainstream press.
In an attempt to show that the Haditha event, (if it in fact happened) was not all that unusual, a collection of stories of other alleged incidents suddenly were all over the TV and newspapers. Without doubt, some bad things have happened. But with over a quarter of a million Americans having served in Iraq, the attempt to tar all or most of them with the possible guilt of a very small number reflected something deeper in the journalists' collective psyche. With almost a reckless disregard for the rights of the accused in any of the alleged incidents, the assumption was that American soldiers, forced to fight this terrible war under difficult conditions, were losing their dignity, and self—control, and wildly murdering the locals.
In reality, most journalists cannot comprehend why anyone would volunteer to join the Army. They do not really believe that our fighting forces demonstrate great courage and character, and are among the most selfless in our society. They view most soldiers as society's losers, who join the military because they can not find work elsewhere in an economy that favors the rich and privileged and leaves behind the poor and minorities.
It is easy to hold such views when you do not know anybody who serves. And increasingly, it is possible in America to never know a soldier or his or her family. Today, the armed forces are approximately 1.4 million in number, less than 0.5% of the American population. At the time of the Vietnam war, the armed forces were 3.5 million in size, or almost 2% of the population.
In the locations where the elite media tend to live and work, few if any journalists know any soldiers or their families. This is also the case on college campuses, where almost all journalists spend several years, and where ROTC programs have been eliminated or pushed away, and academics provide a steady diet of anti— militarism. Journalists who have to deal only with the pressure of meeting a deadline for getting an article out have no conception of the competence of the American military, or the life and death pressure that service in wartime guarantees.
After the immediate cloudburst of stories that effectively convicted the Duke lacrosse players and the Marines, the media were forced to backtrack a bit as actual facts emerged to throw into substantial doubt some of the quick and predictable conclusions drawn in the first overheated reporting in both cases. After a cover story in Newsweek all but endorsed the DA's story line on what happened at Duke, a small column several weeks later provided an update on the story, almost totally negating the earlier dramatic conclusions. In the Duke case, there may even have been prosecutorial misconduct, with the District Attorney deliberately ignoring exculpatory evidence. But the media's abuses — immediately convicting the accused, so long as the accused fit the profile of those you would like or expect to see as the guilty party — will go unpunished, with the pattern likely to be repeated in the future.
In the Haditha case, the connection of the Marines to the supposedly discredited and hated war was enough to make the media want to believe the atrocities occurred. Iraq was likened to Vietnam even before the war began, so to find some My Lai type incidents in the current war was nothing unexpected. Soldiers do bad things, whether they are killing the enemy in combat, or for sport. Regrettably, this really is what many journalists believe.
In both the Duke case and the Haditha incident, the undercutting and discrediting of the original stories occurred primarily in the alternative online media. In this new media, one is still allowed to hold views that are inconsistent with the group think of the mainstream media, and amazingly, sometimes, facts matter more than stereotypes, biases and instant conclusions.
Over the last few decades, America's mainstream media has become much more diverse, at least in terms of gender mix, race, and ethnic background of the practitioners. Even in virtually all—white cities in some northern states, a local TV news team has to include an African American, and always a gender mix that is about 50/50. The real lack of diversity today is in the worldview of most journalists. They overwhelmingly believe that:
I may have missed a few, but that may be because I cancelled my subscription to the New York Times, and this week's Newsweek has not yet arrived. To put it simply. Bernard Goldberg was right, and the mainstream media is left.
When a newspaper makes an obvious error, usually a correction will appear in a box buried in the paper (almost never on the front page, where the original story may have appeared), and usually days later. When the media convict athletes or Marines of crimes they may not have committed and for which the cases have not yet been brought to trial, the corrections are not enough.
Apologies are also in order. But better yet, what is needed is more restraint the next time the media find a story that touches all the third rails of what makes journalism so exciting for its practitioners (war, sex, race, crime). Since it is clearly too much to expect a commitment to just reporting the facts, rather than trumpeting the beliefs of the journalists, self—restraint will have to do.
Richard Baehr is the chief political correspondent of The American Thinker.