I’m currently reading a book on Fox News mogul Roger Ailes, whose early career involved managing the media for political campaigns. While he was managing the Bush-41 presidential campaign, he was blamed for the infamous Willie Horton ad, even though an independent PAC actually produced it.
The Horton ad was controversial because it showed a menacing mug shot of Horton, an African-American, as an example of the kind of person that Bush’s opponent Michael Dukakis had set free on week-end furloughs (and who had famously used that freedom to murder someone). One blogger, The Grio, recently noted:
- But Willie Horton upended the race and represented a new low in race-card politics, and the manipulation of white fear of black criminality—and an irrational and visceral hatred of black people in general— to win elections.
Of course, the media has overreacted to this issue by applying some reverse discrimination. In the Trayvon Martin event, the media for weeks used an outdated, innocent-looking photo of much younger kid instead of a current photo of a more threatening young man, as described in the Poynter blog. When President Obama declared that Trayvon looked like Obama’s son would have looked, he was surely referring to the innocent kid in the outdated photo, not the big young man in a hoodie.
The issue resurfaced this week with the deaths in the South by Southwest event in Austin. Although the killer was quickly apprehended and identified as Rashad Charjuan Owens, the media reports rarely included a photograph of the young man. When his photo finally started circulating, we learned that Owens was a young black man with dreadlocks.
Why wouldn’t the media reports include a photo of Owens? Media-101 would advise that a photo would immensely increase the interest in the article.
Obviously dreadlocks do not indicate criminality; nor does a hoodie. Or tattoos; or pants halfway down your butt. But just as certainly, people will naturally use this information to profile. Young black men with dreadlocks, hoodies, tattoos, and dropped pants are more likely to be criminals than almost any other American demographic.
An analogous situation applies to terrorism. Because so many terrorists are Muslims, people naturally get concerned when passengers in Muslim garb board a plane. But when journalist Juan Williams admitted this concern, he was censored by his employer. I have a Muslim friend who says that whenever there is a terrorist event, like the one in Boston, one of her initial hopes is that none of the terrorists is Muslim.
The media’s conduct reminds me of judges in courtrooms who decide to exclude evidence that they believe will be unreasonably prejudicial. Unfortunately, this exclusion often leads to injustice rather than justice.
It would be better if the media followed the slogan of Roger Ailes’s Fox News – We report, you decide.