When asked for an anecdote of why history is important, I usually cite a story from March 1948, shortly after a coup that installed totalitarian rule in
Four years later, a wave of anti-Semitic show trials occurred throughout the Eastern Bloc;
The trials’ outcome required creating a new, politically correct, version of the past. Propagandists eliminated the executed party members from communist history books. Clementis, for instance, was airbrushed from the photograph at the
The true story of Clementis and his fur cap comes from the opening of Czech dissident Milan Kundera’s novel, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. To one of the novel’s characters, the tale showed how “the struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.” For historians, Clementis’ fate illustrates the willingness of totalitarian regimes to alter the past to align with their contemporary political interests; and, from the other side, the need for scholars to resist such efforts.
In the lacrosse case, the Group of 88 most blatantly imitated the Czech propagandists. Beginning in late 2006—as the case to which they had attached their cause began to implode, and the African-American Studies Department had removed the ad from its homepage, where it had been posted for 183 days—we witnessed a furious attempt to create a new, politically convenient, meaning of the ad.
Airbrushed out was Wahneema Lubiano’s e-mail soliciting signatures for the ad. In its stead, Group apologists described the ad as a general commentary on society. Airbrushed out was the overwhelming, guilt-presuming early media coverage. In its stead, Group members deemed the ad a necessary corrective to the anti-black stereotypes and defenders of the lacrosse players that allegedly dominated the early media coverage. Airbrushed out was the way in which the unequivocal statement that something “happened” to Crystal Mangum took a position on the case. In its stead, Group members affirmed that the line was merely a commentary on Mangum’s public “drunkenness.”
Alas, unlike Gottwald and his propagandists, the Group and its apologists can’t remove the many documents and images from the time of the ad. As a result, their attempted airbrushing has only made the Group look worse.
A more subtle type of airbrushing has occurred in the media, and in commentary about the media’s role in the case—as three recent items bring to light.
1.) From the Q&A session of the recent SEALS panel: the media coverage of Mike Nifong’s abuses, and in particular the 60 Minutes broadcast. The basic line: attention to the players’ exoneration proved the media’s class bias, since poor black victims of prosecutorial misconduct don’t usually get interviewed by 60 Minutes.
It’s quite true that poor black victims of prosecutorial misconduct don’t usually get interviewed by 60 Minutes. Prosecutorial misconduct often isn’t revealed until the post-appellate stage; covering it well requires reporters who both understand and can explain procedural developments, and it rarely makes for exciting television. Given this roadblock, why did Nifong’s misbehavior attract attention?
It could be that the players benefited from their class. Far more likely, however, are other explanations that advocates of the new narrative have airbrushed out.
(1) 60 Minutes detected a good story, in that a massive amount of initial coverage not only presumed guilt, but made deep moral judgments from the presumption of guilt, and was stoked by Nifong and his enablers. Most “normal” cases of prosecutorial misconduct attract little or no initial media attention, and certainly not the tens of thousands of articles that occurred in the first two months of this case.
(2) The 60 Minutes team—the late Ed Bradley and producer Michael Radutsky—don’t exactly have reputations as defenders of white privilege.
2.) Courtesy a recent post by Lead and Gold’s Craig Henry:
I’ve posted a lot on the Duke lacrosse fiasco. many of those posts have focused on the News and Observer whose reporting did much to launch and prolong the hoax.
One might expect the paper to learn their mistakes. They have not. The latest proof is this bizarre post on perp walks.*
Dan Barkin writes:
There is a good chance that the perp being walked today will never see the inside of a prison cell when all is said and done.
The feds know this, in the back of their minds, which may be one big reason for the handcuffs and the cameras. Because even if the accused [white collar criminals] win in court, they’ll still have to live down the images of being perp walked being seen on CNN by everyone who went to high school with them.
The N&O still hates the presumption of innocence when it comes to politically correct defendants. Just like the “privileged white athletes” in the hoax frame, rich white businessmen can never be truly innocent to the N&O. That makes it OK to ruin their reputation before the trial and after an acquittal.
* I first wrote about perp walks long before the lacrosse case. See here.
One of the most distasteful examples of media behavior came on the day that Reade Seligmann and Collin Finnerty were arrested—the breathless coverage of their (arranged) “perp walk” followed by journalists all but clawing the Durham County Sheriff for a copy of their mugshots (we have a photo of the latter in UPI.) How can any newspaper that covered that event continue to justify covering “perp walks,” which serve no purpose other than humiliation?
[Update, 1.27pm: After an e-mail from an astute reader, a couple of points of clarification.
(1) I didn't mean to imply that the N&O had unfairly covered the lacrosse case perp walks, although my language didn't at all make that clear (the "that event" to which I meant to refer was the arrest of Seligmann and Finnerty). In fact, the troubling "perp walk" coverage in the lacrosse case that remains in my mind was from CNN/Headline News and MSNBC. I apologize for the confusion.
(2) I would have liked to have seen a commitment by Barkin not to use "perp walk" photos, but the post does not mean to suggest that the N&O's record in using such photos is unusual. Indeed, as any regular reader of the Times could attest, the Times' record in this regard is appalling.]
(3) Perhaps the clearest case of media airbrushing, however, came in an AP article that from a couple of days ago. The headline “Race sometimes a problem in eyewitness IDs.” The article discussed a
The article discusses how DNA exoneration of wrongly convicted people often (more than 75% of the time) involves cases where convictions were obtained in part through mistaken eyewitness IDs. From the AP article: “Of those, nearly half, roughly seven dozen, involved a person of one race wrongly identifying someone of a different color.” The article discusses the increased danger of cross-racial IDs, and contains a quote from Barry Scheck about the particular dangers of white IDs of black people.
Then came this item:
became the first state to standardize identification procedures. That includes preventing the police officer who is investigating the crime from conducting photo identifications with witnesses and requiring that lineup photographs be shown one after another rather than in groups of six. North Carolina
What case provided the final impetus for this change? The AP doesn’t say—the lacrosse case gets airbrushed from history. (If anything, the article implies that the Picking Cotton case brought about the change.) This editorial decision was particularly odd given the lacrosse case demonstrated the dangers of cross-racial IDs, most notably when Crystal Mangum twice stated with 100 percent certainty that she saw Brad Ross at the party, even though Ross could provide unimpeachable electronic proof that not only did he not attend the party, he wasn’t even in Durham County that night.
It seems that the lacrosse case doesn’t fit into the article’s framework that one type of cross-racial misidentification is where the media should confine its attention.
What makes the items above particularly depressing is that the AP and the N&O joined the Chronicle as the top performers among the print media in the case. And while, as Craig Henry points out, political correctness appears to be behind the N&O’s approach to perp walks, it’s hard to characterize the AP as a paragon of political correctness. Indeed, the wire service’s coverage of this year’s campaign has been almost laughably tilted in John McCain’s favor, as Talking Points Memo has detailed convincingly.
There is, in this respect, a difference between the media airbrushing—which, it seems, comes more from a subconscious worldview—and that of the Group of 88, which obviously stems from more malevolent intent. But in the end, the result seems to be the same.