10 of the Most Racist Media Moments of 2015

Human Rights

Racism in media can be a difficult thing to pin down, but like pornography, you know it when you see it. It's that toxic combination of bias fulfillment, sloppy conclusions and dog-whistling that feeds the prejudices of editors, writers and viewers alike. Sometimes it's subtle, sometimes it's subconscious, and sometimes it's out in the open and unquestionable. Here are some of the worst offenders of 2015.

10. Paris Muslims think Jews carried out Charlie Hebdo attacks because one guy said so (Daily Beast).

After the terrorist attack on Charlie Hebdo in January, the Daily Beast’s resident European Islamophobe Dana Kennedy wrote a rushed recap of the reaction of Muslims in Paris. The headline sloppily implied all Muslim residents of Paris believed Jews were behind the attacks:

Kennedy’s evidence? One random Muslim. That was it. MSNBC’s Chris Hayes mockingly asked Daily Beast editor-in-chief Noah Shachtman on Twitter: “an interview with one person and a few nodding onlookers = the 'verdict' of Paris suburbs? Come on.” Eventually, Shachtman changed the headline to something slightly less offensive, but the damage had been done.

9. CNN calls mother of black man slain by the police “illiterate heroin addict.”

One should not speak ill of the dead and which includes those killed by the police. And one should really, really not speak ill of the mothers of those killed by the police. In what has to be one of the more disgusting posthumous drive-bys in corporate media history, CNN decided to characterize Freddie Gray, the Baltimore man killed by six police officers last April, by smearing his mother for no reason:

The first of six city police officers went on trial Monday in a closely watched case involving a 25-year-old black prisoner who died after being shackled and placed without a seatbelt in a Baltimore City police van.

“The April 19 death of Freddie Gray, the son of an illiterate heroin addict, made him a symbol of the black community’s distrust of police.”

There is a larger pattern in the media of smearing African-Americans killed by the police by bringing up their “troubled lives,” irrelevant facts, and their petty criminal histories in an effort to try them en absentia. But this takes such smearing to new heights and marks a placeholder for the entire subgenre of smearing black victims of police violence, which I documented more thoroughly this August.

8. Bringing imperialism back to the Middle East (Foreign Policy Magazine).

Foreign Policy’s parent company, Slate, is known for its trolly headlines (also known as #slatepitches) designed to solicit outrage from unsuspecting liberals, but this gem wasn’t just a gimmicky hook, it supported the general thesis of the article (the bulk of which was debunked by Juan Cole at the Nation):

The headline was changed after a backlash and Kagan insisted the headline did not reflect his opinions (writers don’t choose headlines) but this sentiment is belied by his subsequent explanation:

I chronicled how imperialism helped stabilize the Middle East for significant periods in the past and analyzed the post-imperial future that now awaits us in the region.

So imperialism was once good, but now it’s… what? What appears to have happened is Kaplan was calling for more Western interference to “stabilize” the Middle East after the vacuum caused by the fall of traditional European imperialism and the subsequent “strong man” model we associate with Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi. This sure seems like a tacit endorsement of a new form of imperialism and certainly not a rejection of it as his walk-back seems to indicate. But feel free to read the essay and decide for yourself.

7. Civilian market in Beirut blown up by ISIS described as "Hezbollah stronghold" because brown people can't be innocent.(New York Times).

A time-honored tradition at The New York Times is to call any civilian area bombed in south Lebanon a “Hezbollah stronghold”; this is meant to give the reader the impression that the entirety of Lebanon is a militarized zone occupied by an illegitimate terror army in Hezbollah. This is nonsense because Hezbollah, in addition to being a militia, is also a political party and those who fall under its civilian charge are simply everyday people trying to get by. Traditionally, this characterization is in the context of Israeli bombs, but it took on an even more cynical note when it was ISIS doing the killing, as it did November 12 when suicide bombers blew up a popular market in Beirut. The New York Times headline described the event:

The Times has used this description many times, but this was the first time it caused an outpouring of Internet backlash buoyed by the fact, no doubt, that it was ISIS doing to the bombing, not American ally Israel. The headline was eventually changed, though the reporter, Anne Barnard continues to call civilian areas of Beirut “strongholds.” 

6. Halloween threat made by white nutjob pinned on “Black Panthers” (Fox News).

One of silliest of all the silly moral panics this year was an alleged “anarchist plot,” whereby anarchists would dress up in costume and attack police on Halloween. The origin of this story was a warning issued by the FBI to police departments that was purposefully leaked to the New York Post by the NYPD to help create the illusion that police officers were under siege. Somewhere, in the telephone game of panic, the story morphed into an attack by “former Black Panthers,” even though the threat, as far it is went, was traced back to a white right-wing separatist group associated with 765. But this didn’t stop Fox News from conflating the white “National Liberation Militia” with the “New Black Liberation Militia” and pinning a white threat on its favorite strawman, the New Black Panthers.

The FBI is saying a potentially dangerous anarchist group known as the National Liberation Militia; it was founded by former Black Panther members. Well, that group has proposed what it calls a “Halloween revolt”; it encouraged supporters to ambush police officers.

Never mind this was the man allegedly responsible. Looks like a real hardcore former Black Panther:

5. Muslims cheered on 9/11, says retired cop, one man and anonymous callers (NJ.com).

Donald Trump dusted off an old anti-Semitic canard and ascribed it to Muslims, claiming he saw video of thousands of Muslims cheering after the buildings of the World Trade Center collapsed on 9/11. The claim was widely debunked (again), yet NJ.com’s Mark Mueller felt it necessary to investigate Trump's claim, and in doing so, managed to dredge up three people who claim they saw Muslims in Paterson, New Jersey cheer as the buildings fell.

The sources: an ex-cop, some guy and some anonymous callers. No evidence, only the fragmented testimony of a handful of people about an event that happened almost 15 years ago. Ostensibly the point was to "debunk" Trump, but all Mueller ended up doing was spreading around on right-wing media "proof" that some Muslims support terrorism. Good job Mark, you really afflicted the comfortable with this intrepid reporting.

4. “Baltimore Purge” moral panic blinds media to context, common sense (Baltimore Sun, local affiliates).

The Baltimore "purge" narrative during the Baltimore Uprising had it all: social-media-using teens, racist panic, and an urgent deadline that added a 24-like ticking time bomb element. In the afternoon of April 27, 2015, the media began circulating reports of a “purge” planned at Mondawmin Mall, in which all the local school kids were going to riot at 3 p.m. Local media, namely the Baltimore Sun, breathlessly repeated the claims and rushed to the scene. In the rush to panic, huge pieces of context were left out or buried; namely that the school kids of Baltimore have no choice but to go to the Mondawmin mall around 3 p.m., because they get out of school at that time and it's on their way home. 

Another piece of context the press omitted was that the kids were trapped, some for many hours, without food or restroom access. The city shut down all public transportation in the area, further trapping the kids. Add the full-riot gear martial response by police and the story doesn’t seem so black and white. Excellent followup reporting by Mother Jones and Gawker revealed that many teachers and parents felt the kids were “set up,” that they had been pinned in and any resistance was painted as a “purge.” The local media was measurably worse, uncritically echoing the moral panic narrative to their largely white suburban Baltimore constituency and helping create the image of a city on fire. This provided the political cover for the governor to call in the National Guard and quell the unrest later that evening.

3. Dylann Roof massacre was actually attack on Christianity not African Americans (Fox News).

It’s natural that in the wake of the racially motivated Charleston massacre, those who traded in Roof’s most popular themes (black-on-white crime, changing demographics, liberal media coverups) like Fox News would be quick to blame anything but racism for the heinous crime. The most clever spin they could come up with was that Roof did not attack a black church because it was black, but because it was a church, and that he actually hated Christianity, not African Americans.

"Extraordinarily, they called it a hate crime," Steve Doocy said in an interview with a pastor on Fox and Friends. "And some look at it as, well, it's because it was a white guy, apparently, and a black church. But you made a great point just a moment ago about the hostility toward Christians, and it was in a church, so maybe that's what it was about."

Uh, no. Nice try, Doocy, but this tenuous theory was short-lived, especially after Roof’s manifesto revealed his racist motivations in clear-as-day terms that even the intellectual detritus at Fox and Friends could understand.

2. Widely disproven Ferguson Effect won’t go away (Wall Street Journal, et al.).

The Ferguson Effect, a phantasmagorical term applied to the alleged rise in crime resulting inexplicably from police reform protest, is not real. Even though this notion that crime has risen because police officers are more likely to be videotaped and held to account for incidents of brutality has  been pushed by the Wall Street Journal and Fox News again and again this year, it's not real. The White House says it's not real, the Department of Justice says it's not real, and the American Psychological Association, which studied the question in great detail, concluded it wasn't real. Despite this, it hasn't gone away and likely won't anytime soon.

1. White op-ed columnist prays for Katrina-like storm to hit mostly black Chicago (Chicago Tribune).

A common theme that has crept under the radar of so-called school reformers for years is that Hurricane Katrina was actually a godsend because the benefits of charter schools and all the neoliberal technocratic tweaks to New Orleans' education system made the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina ultimately worth it. This subtext came rushing to the surface of Kristen McQueary’s text in an ill-considered op-ed in the Chicago Tribune:

Envy isn't a rational response to the upcoming 10-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.

But with Aug. 29 fast approaching and New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu making media rounds, including at the Tribune Editorial Board, I find myself wishing for a storm in Chicago — an unpredictable, haughty, devastating swirl of fury. A dramatic levee break. Geysers bursting through manhole covers...

That's why I find myself praying for a real storm. It's why I can relate, metaphorically, to the residents of New Orleans climbing onto their rooftops and begging for help and waving their arms and lurching toward rescue helicopters.

After a furious backlash on social media, the Chicago Tribune quickly changed the headline and substantive sections of text, but never noted as much. The most glaring change was the addition of “metaphoric” before “storm”. Of course, McQueary wasn’t originally praying for a "metaphoric" storm because she actually said “a real storm”. Washing away over 1,800, mostly African-American, lives so the school system could be handed over to largely white corporate interests is something someone not only wished for but wrote down, an editor greenlighted, and a publisher published in a major American newspaper. And they did so because all McQueary was doing was expressing the latent racist sentiments of our white corporate class, most of whom have seen Katrina as a blessing for years. McQueary just made the mistake of actually saying it.

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