Corporate Media Smear Lynched Otis Byrd, Par for Course with Slain Black Men

Details surrounding the death of Otis Byrd are still unclear. The FBI has launched an investigation on the grounds that the crime has the markings of a lynching, and local police were quick to “not rule out foul play.” What is clear, however, is that once again our media, short on actual facts, is homing in on the criminal past of a victim. We see this refrain so often one can practically script how it will play out.


Michael Brown

NY Times Declares Michael Brown To Be 'No Angel'

Eric Garner

Eric Garner Criminal Past Emerges: 30 Arrests In 34 Years, Including Assault

Tony Robinson

Wisconsin man killed by police faced some past troubles

Charly Robinet

Man Killed by LAPD on Skid Row Was Convicted of Bank Robbery, Stolen Identity

Otis Byrd

Black Man Found Hanging From Tree in Miss. Reportedly Robbed and Murdered Woman in 1980: Report

All of these men were the victims of crimes. While it’s possible Byrd’s death could end up being ruled a suicide, he’s not the criminal in question nor is he being accused, in the present context, of committing any crime.

How are the completely gratuitous and sordid details—almost always accompanied with the obligatory mug shot—of these victims’ pasts at all relevant? And it’s important to use that word: victim. It's a term that seems to be lost on the CNNs and CBSs of the world, which, in the wake of violence committed against African Americans seem compelled to create a false symmetry. Surely, they reason, they must have had it coming. Their instincts, therefore, are drawn to criminalize them—to smear them. 

Imagine a scenario, where after each time a white woman was raped, the media flooded the airwaves with her criminal record, school troubles and bad decisions. We would be outraged, and rightfully so. Why does this same standard not apply to murder victims, especially African Americans, for whom a life of poverty and institutional racism make a criminal past more likely? Editors and journalists should think twice before indulging this perverse media trope. An absence of new information in our 24/7 news cycle shouldn’t mean filling this empty space with any sordid, irrelevant details of the victims’ pasts, especially is the person is, by all appearances, the victim of a Jim Crow-era lynching.

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