16 Oct 2006

Journalism, Stereotypes, and Scapegoating

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Back in the first half of the last century, too frequently the pillars of the community, and their allies in the fourth estate, stereotyped and scapegoated the Negro, and then celebrated every lynching as a victory for justice and law and order. Then, as now, a small minority of skeptics saw through the falsehood and hypocrisy so eagerly embraced by opportunistic pols, the conformist mob, and the slimey priesthood of dead tree pulp.

The identity of the victims of mob mentality and the forms of lynching have changed, but the basic process of a passionate embrace of irrational accusation precisely because it provides a yearned for excuse to punish some living representative of a hated stereotype, the vindictive pursuit and punishment of the unhappy victim drafted to serve as scapegoat, and the whole ugly affair egged on and encouraged by the press sinking to the lowest level of emotionalism, group hatred, and prejudice has not changed.

In Rape, Justice, and the “Times”, Kurt Anderson excoriatingly, and deservedly, reviews the Duke rape story, the prosecutor’s, and the New York Times’ behavior.

As a young writer at Time, whenever I’d hear “That story’ll write itself,” I wanted to reach for my revolver. The line, delivered with bluff cheer, suggests that good material makes good writing easy, which isn’t true. Its premise is the very wellspring of hackdom: The more thoroughly some set of facts reinforces the relevant preconceptions, caricatures, clichés, and conventional wisdom, the easier it makes life for everyone, journalists as well as their audiences. Most people want to be told what they already know. And in a world of murky moral grays, who doesn’t sometimes relish a black-and- white tale, with villains to loathe, victims to pity, injustice to condemn?

Thus the enthralling power of the Duke lacrosse-team story when it broke last spring. As a senior Times alumnus recently e-mailed me, “You couldn’t invent a story so precisely tuned to the outrage frequency of the modern, metropolitan, bien pensant journalist.” That is: successful white men at the Harvard of the South versus a poor single mother enrolled at a local black college, jerky superstar jocks versus $400 out-call strippers, a boozy Animal House party, shouts of “nigger,” and a three-orifice gangbang rape in a bathroom.

The story appalled us good-hearted liberal metropolitans, but absolutely galvanized the loopy left at Duke. One associate professor, Wahneema Lubiano, could barely disguise her glee. “The members of the team,” she wrote in a blog, “are almost perfect offenders” because they’re “the exemplars of the upper end of the class hierarchy … and the dominant social group on campus.”

Furthermore, she wrote, “regardless of the ‘truth’ ”—that is, regardless of whether a rape occurred—“whatever happens with the court case, what people are asking is that something changes.”


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