♠ What Happens When A “Dark-Skinned Male” isn’t… ♠
“Good judgment comes from experience, and a lot of that comes from bad judgment.”
— Will Rogers
DETROIT (JSC) — Greetings & salutations, people. After what has been honestly one of the more insane news weeks in memory, I almost wouldn’t know where to start if I had to do a mash-up of every horrible and amazing thing that’s happened in the last seven days. But let’s first and foremost throw thoughts and prayers out to the nearly 200 people who were injured in the heinous and senseless bombing of the Boston Marathon. Rest in Peace to the three people who were killed during the attack, and to the family of MIT Police Officer Sean Collier, who was murdered by the two cowards on that insane Thursday night. Thoughts and prayers to the people of West, Texas as well, who are reeling from that horrific explosion at the plant that killed 14 people and obliterated most of that town. Big ups to the police departments of Boston and Watertown, Mass. as well as the FBI for their work in capturing one of the culprits while killing the other one. Incredible work. A lot of people did the damn thing in terms of their jobs. One entity that didn’t exactly have a very good week was the American news media — which, if you didn’t know, I am a member of. Never one afraid to smack my own when needed, I’m here to address the hottest of hot buttons and that’s the performance of CNN, specifically a man I had grown to respect the hell out of the last decade: John King. With one speculative statement amidst a chaotic afternoon, he may have single-handed ruined his reputation and exposed an multitude of greater problems in the news media and journalism as a whole. Let’s Go.
Those of you who know how I am know I’m not one to go on “Hey! That Was Racist!” screeds on this blog. I’ve often said that the race card has become so overplayed that if this were a spades game, the race card has gone from being the Big Joker to the 3 of Clubs. However, that doesn’t mean I don’t know a good ol’ fashioned racist dog-whistle phrase when I hear one. So when King, a man that I thought was one of the straightest of arrows in the business, said this during the hysteria over whether there had been an arrest last Wednesday on CNN, I nearly spat my tea on my dashboard (I have satellite radio in the whip and was listening to CNN while having lunch):
“I want to be very careful about this, because people get very sensitive when you say these things. I was told by one of these sources who is a law enforcement official that (the bombing suspects) is a dark-skinned male.”
Yep. The suspect that was assumed to be in custody — but wasn’t — was allegedly a “dark-skinned male.” An audible cringe could be heard across the country. Now here’s the thing: Had this come from some stiff behind a desk at Fox News, you’d be able just to write it off to Fox News being Fox News. But this was King. Arguably the most reliable dude on CNN not named Anderson Cooper saying that the Feds had not only figured out who the culprit was but potentially had him in custody and :::dun, dun, dun::: he is a “dark-skinned male.” Holy shit! The only problem is that King and CNN got it wrong. 100% Wrong. I’m talking a massive Adam Dunn swing-and-a-miss at a 3-2 change up. There was no suspect in custody. There wasn’t even a person of interest. And as we found out on Thursday evening when the FBI released the pictures, neither of those cats were exactly “dark-skinned” males. In fact, these dudes are actual Caucasians. Seriously. Chechnya is located in the Caucasus Mountain range in southern Russia.
Even worse, CNN got the Associated Press, The Boston Globe, CBS, and even Fox News to bite on the pump-fake (even though CBS immediately disputed the racial link). To their credit, ABC, NBC/msnbc and NPR did not run with it. NBC came out smelling like a damn rose actually. So let’s break this down. From strictly a journalistic standpoint, King and CNN completely messed the sheets with this. They essentially took the first thing they heard from a source (trusted or not) and ran with it. Sources are very valuable, but they can also be faulty. Even the most reliable cat can mess up or get bad intel. King himself acknowledged as much. “One of the federal sources I was just communicating with said, ‘Even to say it’s an identification, a specific identification, is to go too far,'” King later said after the entire thing was debunked. “But then I circled back, several Boston and state law enforcement officials say we have identified, based on the enhanced video.” So from a pure journalist sense, he f—ed up.
I have long had an issue with the “breaking news first” culture that has overtaken journalism. Blame it on Twitter and the “24-hour News Cycle” all you want, but a lot of this is just out of opportunistic desperation to scream “I Had It First!” like those dodo birds who insist on declaring they were “First!” to comment on a Facebook status or picture on Instagram. I used to tell young writers (and still do, actually) that you want to be the first one to get the story right. What’s the point of being first if you get the shit wrong!? Secondarily, King ran with ONE source before he went to air with it. You never go with ONE source! If you can, get two, or even three before running with it. King didn’t and it cost him. Only after the fact did he get the first source clarified and, by then, it was too late. That toothpaste was out of the tube. King’s screw-up was apart of what might have been the worst week in CNN’s history. Starting with King’s error, it was like a chain reaction of gaffes, missteps, and blunders the likes we’ve only seen from Fox News & TMZ. It’s one thing for TMZ to say Lil’ Wayne is on his deathbed. It’s another for CNN to do it. You’re friggin CNN, not WorldStarHipHop or Bossip.
That brings us to the “dark-skinned male” assertion. Here’s the thing: I’m not accusing John King of being a racist. I sincerely believe he is NOT a racist. I think he got a juicy tip and ran with it. He realized that he was getting knee-deep in the shit when he made the statement and it blew up on him. This was not an Al Campanis on Nightline moment for John King. He’s not Jimmy The Greek. However, by just kinda tossing that “dark-skinned male” thing out there, he reopened a can of worms that has plagued American society for over 200 years. Now, understand, the “dark-skinned male” deal has evolved in the last 20 years. You can no longer assume that when someone says it that they’re talking about Black people. But let’s keep it one-hunnid, if you are black, Latino, or (since 9/11/2001) Arab, you know what that is code for. It’s that good old irresponsible rationale of “when in doubt, blame the minority.” This is nothing new. It happened a multitude of times in the Jim Crow South, when innocent black men would be accused of everything from robbing a chicken coop, to flirting with a white woman, to murder, rape, and child molestation, only for it to eventually be discovered that it was a white person who did it. In modern times, that “dark-skinned” individual can now be a Latino, a Southeast Asian, or an Arab. We don’t have to go that far back to know how ugly shit gets when we start throwing around racial descriptions. We’re barely a year removed from Trayvon Martin being killed because he was “looking suspicious” in a hoodie. Clearly, I’m not alone in finding a problem with this. Just ask venerable PBS host Gwen Ifill:
Disturbing that it’s OK for TV to ID a Boston bombing suspect only as “a dark-skinned individual.”
— gwen ifill (@pbsgwen) April 17, 2013
Now, let’s rewind the tape back a little further to 1995: When Susan Smith drove her two children — but not herself — into a South Carolina lake, the first thing she did was claim those kids were kidnapped. The composite sketch: A Black Man in a skull cap. Before her story fell apart, the man hunt was on for the car and the mystery brother who took those kids. And we know how progressive South Carolina is. Earlier in the same year, we had the infamous bombing in Oklahoma City. Less than an hour after Timothy McVeigh’s cowardly act of terrorism left 168 people dead, the national news media was running speculative stories about potentially Middle Eastern terrorist cells being responsible for the heinous attack. A composite sketch of a potential accomplice looked like a mash-up of a Latino and an Arab. If an axle from the Ryder truck McVeigh used didn’t have a traceable number on it, he may have never been found and who knows where that manhunt goes.
One of the most notorious “It was a Black Guy but not really” tales just so happened to take place in Roxbury, Mass., not that far from the bombing and where John King grew up. On Oct. 23, 1989, Charles Stuart and his pregnant wife Carol were driving home from dinner when they were violently carjacked in Boston, driven to Roxbury, and shot by a black man with a raspy voice. Carol was shot in the head, while Charles took one in the stomach. He managed to heroically drive out of danger and call police. Carol died at the hospital; her unborn child, Christopher, was delivered and died 17 days later. The story of this heinous crime made national headlines. Stuart, a successful business owner in Boston, was dragged to the projects and robbed by a black thug. Boston police immediately went hunting for this “dark-skinned” menace, randomly strip-searching black men all over the city at the drop of a hat, eventually arresting a man named William Bennett. Stuart then identified Bennett as the shooter from a rigged lineup — the others in the lineup were Boston cops in plain clothes — and Bennett was staring down a murder rap. It all fell apart when Stuart’s brother (who was in on the murder, thinking it was an insurance scam) confessed that it was Charles all along. Before Charles Stuart could be brought to justice, he committed suicide, jumping off of a bridge.
While I’m sure that was not John King’s intention, that’s the can of worms you potentially open up when you start throwing around racial and ethnic descriptions all willy-nilly and you don’t have concrete proof. In the last week, there have been incidents of ethnic intimidation directed at Arab-Americans and Muslims in the wake of the bombing. TMZ went with the tried and true “blame Hip-Hop” post move because the younger of the two bombers was really into rap music. You have Republican congressmen Peter King essentially calling for all Muslims to be under suspicion because of this attack (lest we forget that at least 40% of American Muslims are Black). You have another one in Texas claiming that there are Al Qaeda cells working with Mexican drug cartels and there could be “Muslims posing as Hispanics” (as if “Muslim” is a race of people). This is the slippery slope that this country can head down when we aren’t responsible as journalists or as citizens.
In the end, it wasn’t Russia that bombed the Boston Marathon. It wasn’t Islam that bombed the Marathon. It was two really bad dudes who had some ridiculous grudge that involved attacking innocent people. There was no federal investigation or racial profiling of all White Christian Males after Oklahoma City, or the Unibomber, or the Sikh Temple massacre last summer, or Newtown, or Columbine, or the myriad of terrorist hate crimes committed by the KKK the last 150 years. If a white (American) man commits these acts, it’s seen as an isolated incident committed by an unstable person. If the assailant is black, or Latino, or Arab, or a Muslim, or a foreigner, it’s an indictment of the entire group. That needs to stop and it starts with being responsible.
We as journalists have a difficult enough job. Hell, we rarely get credit when we do shit right. The last thing we need are high-profile journos who are considered the best-of-the-best making high school mistakes on the biggest stage. We gotta clean that shit up, B. Because, frankly, I’m tired of seeing all these community college graduates and dime-store bloggers on Twitter lamenting the end of quality journalism, impugning all journalists for the screw-ups of a few, and trying to tell me how to do my job when they can’t get you’re/your right in a sentence and have never as much as taken a single high school journalism class. Let’s Do Better. As for John King, I suggest you take a couple of weeks off and press the reset button, chief. We’ll see you when we need you on that cool CNN electoral map.
Until Next Time, That’s The Way It Is. Sunday, April 21, 2013.
The 169th Day since the Detroit Lions’ Last Victory
Take Care, God Bless, Always Dare to Be Different, and G.O.M.A.B. Σ