Sunday, September 30, 2007

How the Lazy Media is taken for a ride, part 1

This COULD be about how multiple news sources all were taken in by the same misquoted, out-of-context comments of Rush Limbaugh. Or the similar way they were takn in by misquoted, out-of-context comments of Bill O'Reilly.

But instead, this is the story of how a lazy media, too eager to believe charges of racism, blinded by their own beliefs, was manipulated by a man working for a defense team to shape and miscast the story of the Jena Six into a clear case of racism and bigotry.

The story was documented in an excellent piece of investigative journalism found at the Kansas City Star, in the article titled "Jena 6 case caught up in a whirlwind of distortion, opportunism", written by a black reporter, Jason Whitlock:

JENA, La. Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton and talk-show hosts certainly feasted on the racial unrest in this tiny central Louisiana town.

But it would be unfair to claim they threw the match that ignited the Jena Six case into a global blaze of hostility and misinformation.

That distinction belongs to Alan Bean, a 54-year-old white, self-proclaimed Baptist minister from Tulia, Texas.

The story notes how Alan Bean became the head of an organization he created called Friends for Justice:

In the late 1990s, Bean exposed a corrupt cop in his hometown. More than a dozen drug convictions against minorities were overturned because of Bean’s work. Tulia was labeled as racist, and Bean became the person to call if you thought the police and/or a prosecutor were exploiting you.

So when a lawyer needed someone to spin the Jena 6 story for the defense, he knew who to call:

A lawyer in New Orleans put Bean and parents of the Jena Six in contact with each other in December. Within three months, Bean had researched Jena and the events surrounding the assault, and published a 5,400-word narrative titled “The Making of a Myth in Jena, Louisiana” and a 2,400-word, media-friendly narrative titled “Responding to the Crisis in Jena, Louisiana.”

The article explains how these two writings, one-sided, error-filled, and biased, became "the truth" of the story for the media:

Bean said he first spoon-fed his narratives to Tom Mangold of the BBC because Mangold had worked with Bean on the Tulia drug cases. The BBC filmed a documentary on the Jena Six titled “Race Hate in Louisiana.” Bean said he then gave the Jena Six story to newspaper reporter Howard Witt of the Chicago Tribune, which published a similar story on May 20.

“I put it in the hands of people I knew would do a good job with the story,” Bean said.

Bean also gave his story to a blogger, Jordan Flaherty, and a law professor, Bill Quigley. From all of these sources the story mushroomed and became fact.

For example, this is why most stories about the "noose incident" say there were three nooses, even though there were only two. Seems that "3 nooses" has some folklore in KKK history, so it was much more powerful an image than "two nooses". This is also why most everybody believes the noose incident was related to the attack 3 months later, even though when the police questioned people the day of the attack, not ONE person mentioned the noose incident.

Rather than research for themselves, many news outlets just picked up the initial story written for them by Alan Bean, and ran it as if they had actually done some work. And of course, many people believed the stories, because why would the news media lie about it?

The article notes the many errors in the story, and notes that Alan Bean didn't even KNOW some of the story, starting with a great summary of the Alan Bean fictional narrative:

The Jena Six beat up Justin Barker because they were still angry about the lack of sufficient punishment given to white kids who hung nooses on a whites-only shade tree, and the six were railroaded by an overzealous district attorney who failed to properly prosecute white men who viciously assaulted Robert Bailey and later pulled a shotgun on Bailey and two others at a convenience store.

Walters, police investigators, school officials and some Jena residents say Bean’s story is hogwash. There is at least some legitimacy to those claims. Bean’s story and subsequent posts on his Web site contain factual errors.

For example, "everybody knows" the kids who hung the nooses just got a "few days of in-school suspension". But as the article explains:

The three kids responsible for hanging the nooses were given more punishment than just a “few days of in-school suspension.” They went to an alternative school for nine days and received two weeks of in-school suspension, LaSalle Parish school superintendent Roy Breithaupt said.

But the real problem isn't how the facts were twisted and made up, as bad as that is. It's the entire narrative, written to tell a false story, written by a man who by his own admission didn't bother to get many important facts:

But more than the factual errors, Bean’s story is framed — by his own admission — as an indictment of the criminal justice system and the people in power in Jena and, therefore, the story is unfairly biased. Bean never examined the other forces at work that contributed to the Jena Six assault and Walters’ heavy-handed approach to justice as it relates to the alleged perpetrators.

I didn’t know,” Bean said when asked whether he knew of defendant Mychal Bell’s violent juvenile history when he was crafting his narratives. “I never talked to Mychal’s family, and I never talked to Mychal. He was in jail. I knew he had a history for getting into trouble. I knew he was a kid at a crossroads.”

But the story he told was of an innocent boy driven to the breaking point, not a troubled kid who always seemed to be looking for trouble. To tell THAT story, he had to ignore the facts, to remain ignorant. Which Alan Bean did very well, as the article notes:

Bean has a very idealistic view of the Jena defendants.

“These are fun-loving, impetuous, athletically gifted black males that don’t drink and don’t smoke, and they go to church as well,” he told me.

The church-going contention flies in the face of what Rev. Jimmy Ray Young, pastor at L&A Baptist Church, said Wednesday. "None of these boys have been in church except when Al Sharpton was in town,” Young complained. “I’ve told the ministers we need to get these boys back in church.”

The article dismisses other claims by Bean as well, which you can read at the source.

Jason Whitlock notes that Bean is now upset that he's not the story:

Ironically, Bean is now growing frustrated with the way the case has turned, particularly since Jackson and Sharpton got involved. He said they wouldn’t return his calls. He indicated there was a riff between the Bailey (Bean camp) and Bell (Sharpton camp) families.
“I’m not at all comfortable with the way this has been handled by the Jackson and Sharpton folks,” Bean said. “What’s wrong is that Jesse and Al have tried to turn this into an old civil-rights story in which Mychal Bell emerges like Rosa Parks, and that’s not right. These guys (Jackson and Sharpton) have lost their gravitas, lost their credibility. People are really tired of the same old 1960s shtick.”

It is sad how the media allows itself to be used to push people's agendas. It seems to happen more often these days. Is it because of spending cutbacks, simply laziness, or a bigger world than they can cover? I suppose all of that can contribute.

But if a right-wing group tried to feed a biased story with inaccurate information, I'm guessing the media would be able to fact-check and report on the attempt. No, I think the real problem is that it is all too easy to believe a story that fits into your world-view. Note that Alan Bean said he fed the story to people he KNEW would buy it.

No comments: