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Hate Speech and Murder: a Comparison of news coverage in the Star Tribune
“Sticks and stones will break your bones,
but names will never hurt you.”
This is a saying that I learned as a boy growing up in Detroit many years ago. It expressed the moral understanding of a society dedicated to the principles of free speech and expression. Speech, even hateful speech, is permissible in a free society because people are able to deal with it in ways that avoid injury. It’s up to them individually whether to let themselves be hurt. Violent action, on the other hand, intrudes in unavoidable ways. Bones are broken despite healthy attitudes.
In recent decades, however, I have noticed that our society has become more concerned with hateful speech and less concerned with injurious action. The society’s leadership has become increasingly focused on “hate crimes” than on crimes which inflict real physical harm. There has been a sea change in our thinking. More anger is directed at words or expressions with which we might disagree socially and politically than at violent crimes such as murder and assault.
I would consider my daily newspaper a reflection (or perhaps a cause) of attitudes in the community. On Thursday, November 1, 2007, Minnesota’s largest newspaper, the Star Tribune, ran a story beginning on the front page with the headline, “Series of racist threats roil St. Thomas campus.” This article reported that written hate messages had been delivered to three black-female students residing in the John Paul II Hall at St. Thomas College in St. Paul. A note was posted on a message board at the dorm, another was taped to the students’ door, and another was slipped under the door. A fourth was slipped under the door of a computer lab where one of the women worked.
The article did not describe the content of those messages other than to describe them as “racist and threatening.” The messages were disturbing enough, however, that the university posted a “public safety officer” outside the students’ door twenty-four hours a day. “Officials are taking the incidents seriously,” said a feed to the story continuing on the next page.
In the same newspaper on the same day, there was another article which appeared on page seven of the B section. Its headline read “After a two-month murder lapse, two men found slain on North Side.” When Minneapolis police arrived at a house on the 900 block of 21st Avenue North in Minneapolis around 2:30 a.m., “they found two men in their early 20s inside the house dead from gunshot wounds.“ The men’s names were Ira Lee Brown and Charles Edward Woods.
Here then was a “sticks and stones” situation that had resulted in the loss of two young lives. I would consider this a more significant crime than the expression of racial hate directed at the St. Thomas students. Yet, the Star Tribune, reporting both incidents on the same day, chose to devote 6.5 column inches to the story of the double homicide compared with 30.5 column inches to the story of the hate speech. The first story also received inferior positioning in the paper.
Part of the editors’ reasoning may have been that murders in north Minneapolis are so common that they hardly seem newsworthy. The double murder represented the city’s 39th and 40th homicides for the year. There were 49 homicides at the same point in the year for 2006. In fact, judging from the reference to a “two-month murder lapse” in the headline, the article might almost be considered to be a “good news” story: The community was fortunate that more murders had not been committed in the preceding period.
Another reason that the Star Tribune editors might have considered the hate speech at St. Thomas a more significant news item than the double homicide was racial. The former incident represented a white-on-black offense. The three students who received the hateful messages were African American. While the identity of the perpetrator was not known, readers might reasonably have assumed that this person was white. In the case of the double homicide, the article did not mention the race of the two victims. The murderer’s identity was not known at the time of the story. A television news report later identified him by photo as a middle-aged African American male.
I don’t know if the Star Tribune ran a story when the accused murderer’s identity was revealed. If so, I didn’t see it. Perhaps, the editors did not find his arrest to be a significant news item. On the other hand, the newspaper did report the fact that students and faculty at St. Thomas held a march and rally to support the three students who had been victimized by racial hate speech. This article, headlined “standing up to hate”, appeared on pages 1 and 8 of the B (local news) section on November 2nd. The story received 23.5 column inches of space.
Most of this story consisted of quotations such as the observation from a college freshman to the effect that “it seems like (white students) only talk to people who look like them” and mentioned other similar incidents going back to a cross-burning in 1992. The college president, Rev. Dennis Dease (who was in the news recently when he disinvited South Africa’s Bishop Desmond Tutu from a speaking engagement at St. Thomas for having made an “anti-Semitic” remark) said at the anti-hate rally: “I know this community is very good at spinning straw into gold. Let us use this gathering as an opportunity to recommit ourselves to the values that are so a part of this university.”
Why the disparity of treatment between a double murder and hate speech on a college campus? This question gets to the heart of what newspapers such as the Star Tribune are about. In my book, a murder is more newsworthy than offensive speech. The Star Tribune evidently makes story decisions by another criterion. The racial identities of victim and perpetrator may be critical in determining how stories of this sort will be handled.
Today’s political and cultural elites came of age in the period of the Civil Rights struggle. The aging editors and reporters pride themselves on having come to the defense of downtrodden southern blacks who had to endure the injuries and indignities of the segregationist system. In subsequent decades, such attitudes have only hardened. The struggle against racial bigotry and hate has become almost like a civic religion. Newspaper editors want stories that fit that paradigm.
Today, it is not just blacks who are victimized but also other groups: women, Jews, gays and lesbians, native Americans, immigrants. A shrinking “majority” group - straight white males - remains the oppressor. And so, as news stories in our daily newspapers, we have a continuing “morality play” concerning discrimination and social injustice.
Any burning of a cross on the lawn of a black family in Minnesota, or a swastika painted on a synagogue, is assured prominent coverage in the Star Tribune and similar newspapers ( and in the commercial television local-news programs that take their cue from them). Never mind that it may have been a teenage boy engaged in a “prank” who committed the offense. The authorities take such incidents “very, very seriously.”
The newspapers seem not to take as seriously crimes involving bodily injury especially when they do not fit the desired demographic profile. When, for instance, a young white man on a bicycle was robbed and beaten by a gang of black youth a block from my house last week, it did not receive any coverage in the newspaper. The Minneapolis police arrested two of the perpetrators but, if past experience is any indication, they may have been already released.
Looking at other stories that appeared in the Star Tribune in the same period, I must admit that there was a front-page article concerning the murder in Savage, Minnesota, of an attractive young white woman named Katherine Ann Olson. She was a recent graduate of St. Olaf College. Her 1.5” by 2.5” photograph appeared on the front page along with an equally sized photo of Michael John Anderson, a 19-year-old white man accused of her killing.
Why did Star Tribune editors decide to give prominent coverage to this murder when a double homicide reported on the following day received scant attention? The “mainstream” view would be because the victim was a college-educated white woman while the victims in the double homicide were likely inner-city blacks. There may be truth to that accusation. However, another reason for the more prominent coverage may be that the murderer was white. The Star Tribune editors ran a full-sized photo of him next to that of the victim as if to advertise that fact.
Putting on my conspiratorial hat, I speculate that another reason the Star Tribune decided to puff the story of Katherine Ann Olson’s murder was that she had been lured to her death by an advertisement for a babysitter placed in Craigslist.com. This became known as the “Craigslist killing.”
Craigslist, a free classified-ad service on the Internet, is responsible for the financial decline of commercial newspapers. Millions of potential advertisers around the country have opted for free advertisements in Craigslist rather than pay for advertisements in the classified section of commercial newspapers. With declining ad revenues, the newspaper-publishing industry is hurting. To be able to associate a grisly murder with Craigslist may, therefore, have been too delicious an opportunity for the Star Tribune editors to overlook. A front-page article explored the dangers of responding to Craigslist ads.
Is there, however, other evidence to support the view that newspaper editors prefer to report hate speech more than straightforward crimes of violence? Yes, there is. Two more stories appeared in the November 5th issue of the Star Tribune.
One, headlined “Blackface costumes cause Hamline uproar”, reported that “Hamline University has suspended six players from its football team for donning blackface and body paint to dress up as African tribesmen for an off-campus Halloween party.” Then it reported that “on Friday, 100 people attended a campus forum to discuss the issue.” This story, beginning on page one of the B section, received 19 column-inches of print.
The African-born head of Hamline’s African-American Studies program, Samuel Imbo, told reporters that perhaps the students were unaware of having done anything wrong. “They probably did not know,” he said, “but they should know (that wearing blackface would offend African-American students). The offense here is not even being aware of American history. And not being aware of this history leads people to do this kind of thing.”
In fact, if Hamline students had studied the history of American entertainment, they might have learned that white singers and dancers wearing blackface put on “minstrel shows” which were America’s most popular form of entertainment for more than a half century. Later, black entertainers (not wearing blackface) got into the act. Neither race seemed to think much of it until the age of political correctness began in the 1960s.
There was also another story that day which began on page one of the A section. The headline read: “Latest static over remarks at KQ is a clear sign of the times.” In this case, a top-rated “morning show” on radio station KQRS had included discussion of high suicide rates on the Red Lake Indian Reservation. The female talk personality, Terri Traen, made a comment to the effect that genetics and incest on the reservation might have been a factor in that situation.
Native American political leaders moved quickly to demand an apology. They requested that the show’s male host, Tom Barnard, be fired. These leaders met with officials of KQRS and received the requested apology plus other concessions although station management refused to dump Barnard. This particular story received 30 column inches of print. A column on the same subject meanwhile appeared in another section of the paper.
On November 3rd, another murder was reported in Minneapolis. This appeared on page seven of the B section, in the lower left-hand corner. The story concerned a single murder plus another assault with a gun. It received 3 column inches of space. The story read: "Minneapolis police were called to a shooting about 5 p.m. in the 3700 block of Girard Avenue N. and found a man dead from a gunshot wound. Another man with a gunshot wound arrived at the hospital a short time later. Police didn't release the names of the victims Friday night and said there were no suspects in custody."
Then, on November 7, a report appeared on page B6 of the Star Tribune that Hennepin County Commissioner, Mike Opat had been attacked the previous evening outside his home in suburban Robbinsdale by two men wielding a sawed-off shotgun. After being struck with the butt of the gun, kicked, and punched, Opat managed to grab the barrel of the gun and flee. The assailants took his vehicle, wallet, and cell phone. Opat is white. The assailants' race was not disclosed. Hennepin County is Minnesota's most populous county. Given the prominence of the victim, the Star Tribune gave this story 11 column inches of space.
We had, then, in the first week of November at least four articles concerning racially offensive expression totaling 113 column inches of print in the Star Tribune compared with a total of 9.5 column inches on an inside page given to the story of the double homicide plus a single homicide and assault in north Minneapolis and another 11 column inches to the story of the attack on Mike Opat.
Such priorities are a result of the quasi-religion of political correctness to which our nation’s cultural elite subscribes. This is why many people, including myself, believe that the mainstream media is politically biased. We have lost our common-sense bearings and instead become fixed on the dominant political ideologies. The daily newspapers and other opinion-setting institutions have put our community firmly on the wrong course.
Giving the hate-speech stories their second wind
While the double- and single-homicide victims remain dead and presumably forgotten, the Star Tribune editorial-page editors decided to give the hate-speech stories a second wind in the letters-to-the-editor section. The newspaper's "Letter of the Day" for November 7, 2007, was titled "St. Thomas seems to have lost its way". The writer gave this evidence: "Threatening notes slipped under doors. Racist graffiti placed on campus posters. A white hate monger welcomed. (That would be Ann Coulter.) A black peacemaker turned away. (That would be Bishop Desmond Tutu.) A commencement speech made to denigrate women. (Sorry, I missed that one - not sure who is meant.)"
Two other letters published the same day refer to the hate speech that occurred on Tom Barnard's "Morning Show" on KQRS. One - less than a column inch - simply suggested that if the listener doesn't like the speech, he or she should turn off the radio. The other - 5 column inches - argued that Terri Traen's brief comments on the radio program pushed the limits of First Amendment protection.
The second letter concluded: "It is distressing that people with mass media access use this powerful tool to incite racism and hate under the guise of entertainment. Even more heart wrenching is the fact that this is one of the most popular morning shows in the metro. People in these positions need to be responsible for their words and held accountable. First Amendment rights are limited by slander and libel and to not give license to speak out destructively against others. We need not be tolerant of the intolerance of others."
(Comment: The KQRS morning show specializes in an irreverent, politically incorrect type of banter focused on music and sports. It has become the Number One radio show in the Twin Cities because listeners evidently hunger for this kind of uncensored talk.)
If the letters were not enough, the editorial page for November 7, 2007, included a cartoon featuring a gorilla in a cage that was flinging mud at people. A man who was identified as a “KQRS talent scout” was saying to the gorilla “Wonderful! Marvelous! When can you start?” The general idea of this cartoon is that the people at the KQRS morning crew are totally stupid. And you, dear reader, might also be considered stupid if you show any sympathy for that point of view.
This is what passes for news and commentary in today’s mainstream commercial newspapers. The Star Tribune may be one of the worst, but it is by no means alone in its “Nanny State” attitudes and contempt for readers.
See other related writings.