Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Racism and BAD Journalism

I'll be the first to admit that I don't follow the news very well.  I get Breaking News updates and I read my Twitter feeds, and if there's a common theme that is compelling enough, I might choose to spend time checking it out.  The most difficult thing about such a means of digesting news is that by the time I'm jumping in, the news pages dedicated to that specific issue are already way ahead of me and I don't know the premise or the basic facts.  I've found that, for better or for worse, I can get the big picture, from the beginning, most easily from Wikipedia.  

In this way, I finally gave in to reading about the Zimmerman trial.  I skimmed the Wikipedia article, focusing in on the opening statements and the evidence presented.  Based on what I read, I came to the conclusion for myself that it was a move of self-defense.  Now mind you, I don't watch the news on TV, and my breaking news alerts don't have pictures. I saw mention of that awful n- word, but I didn't know the race of either participant.  For all I knew, Zimmerman could have been black and Martin could have been white.  In fact, I had no reason to believe it was the other way around based on the Wikipedia article, because what I read was that Martin was calling Zimmerman the n- word in hateful language, not the other way around.  It was only when, after getting the context of the trial, I started looking at other articles, that I came to realize who was black and who was white, and why it could be made into a racial issue.

So here's my point: from the evidence I've read about, the most objective I think possible, I don't think there is any reason to believe this is or should be a racial issue.  If, and I'm only saying if, the outcome is that Zimmerman is declared innocent, having shot and killed in self-defense, I really, truly wish that we as a united, just country could look at it logically and rationally and accept the outcome.  I say wish instead of hope, because I am certain there will be some level of racially-motivated backlash, so my hope is that the backlash will be minimal, and my wish is that it wouldn't happen at all.  I mean, if we can elect a black President, isn't that enough evidence to say that, as a whole, this country is not racist anymore?  Of course there will still be groups of racist idiots and hate crimes of all sorts, and I will not downplay the severity or horror of those people and events.  But enough people in our country went out to the polls to either say we support a black President (I wish this wasn't even an issue, but I know it exists) or that we support Obama to be President regardless of race (my preference).  I'll be honest, I thought there were too many racists in the country for Obama to gain enough votes; and I personally voted against him because I disagreed with his political position and agreed with his opposition, but that's beside the point.  Even though I was disappointed that my favorite candidate wasn't elected, I was delighted in the fact that America put the first black man in the Oval Office, and that was a big step for our country.  Now, if we can just stop making random issues into race issues when they aren't, we could really be the society we want to be.

I read one opinion piece (and at least it stated it was an opinion piece, which is better than some of the editorial garbage being published as if its fact) that just outraged me.  The author, who was flaunting that she is black and speaking from that perspective, stated that the case is cut and dry: there is one person dead and one person alive, therefore it was an act of racist hatred.  She said that because its a "murder" trial, that the person on trial must be a "murderer" because someone is dead.  By that standard, anytime anyone dies, someone should be hung for murder.  Her reasoning implies that there is never anything such as self-defense, and no such thing as an accident; anytime someone is killed, its because of a vicious, murderous intent and nothing else.  She's basically saying, let's not examine any evidence, there's no need, someone is dead so the other person should serve life in prison.  Let's start a witch hunt, shall we?  Maybe it was sensational journalism to stir up the readers and gain publicity, in which case it probably did its job and I'm not going to help it along by sharing the link or the author's name.  I think its downright idiocy, and writers like that should have their publishing privileges revoked.  

Listen, I am disgusted by how much coverage terrorists and murderers in mass shootings get, and not just because there are so many better things we could be talking about.  I truly believe that messed up people see it as glorification of those crimes, and are thereby encouraged to commit or attempt similar crimes in hopes of making it into the sensational news.  To be clear, my assertion is that there would be less mass shootings and awful people-created tragedies if we didn't honor them with weeks of news stories.  

In that same light, I think that making non-racial issues into racial issues incites more backlash and separates us more.  In fact, even if it was a racial issue, I don't think it should be treated as such.  If someone actually shoots and kills another person with harmful intentions, regardless of the reason why, it is a crime.  Why do we have to classify it as a hate crime?  Why do we have to point out that he/she may have been racist?  When someone dies, that is sad.  When someone intends to kill someone, and succeeds, that is sad.  It's sad that we live in such a world.  It's sad that someone can take another's life so easily.  The color of the injured, wounded skin should be the furthest thing from our minds.  A person dressed like a punk and acting suspiciously could cause a problem, I don't care what color their skin is.  And a man who is attacked and acts in self defense is in his own right, no matter how old he is, if he is armed, or if he is white.  I'm not saying that is what happened; I'm just saying that's a possibility everyone should be open to.  The only alternative version would be that an armed man chased down an unarmed man who he mistook to be bad, and shot and killed him without good reason.  There should not be a version where racism is an issue; I've known racists who never committed murder.  Murder is murder no matter what the motive is, and racism doesn't cause murder.  

Yet, what I have read about this trial indicates that it is already building momentum as a race issue, no thanks to slanted reporters looking to cause a stir to get ratings.  Good, honest journalism seems to go out the window with some reporters when it means driving more traffic, even if it generates negative comments.  I guess the old mantra "no press is bad press" translates to "no traffic is bad traffic".  So taking the extreme view, even if its blatantly wrong, helps the audacious writer to win for all the wrong reasons.  One comment I read says, "If riots break out over the Martin shooting, I hope criminal charges are brought against NBC and its doppleganger, MSNBC, for incitement."  I haven't read a lot of the news stories yet, so I don't know if NBC specifically did report bad news.  Nevertheless, I agree with the sentiment; slanting facts to get people excited or angry should be punished if it leads to any kind of crime or injury.  If NASDAQ can be sued for poorly managing the facebook IPO, journalists should be held accountable for altering facts or presenting them in overly slanted ways.  I don't know if our society is ready to hold journalists to higher standards just yet, but I think it is inevitable in the future.  

On the topic of battling racism, I have to share a story.  I knew a man, dressed in a suit, who was mugged on a prestigious college campus from which he proudly graduated.  Where he was mugged was in an open field, with very little foot traffic, and lots of room to cross the field to get to where a person was going. The three muggers had several piercings among them, and were wearing baggy pants around their knees, boxers showing, hooded sweatshirts and baseball hats sideways.  By anyone's definition, they were dressed like punks.  People dressed like punks aren't inherently bad.  But based on the dress and actions of these three men in particular, I'd go ahead and say they were criminals.  The fact that they were black should have had no bearing on the conversation.  Describing them as black should have been limited to the report to the police in order to help identify suspects.  Here's where racism sneaks into our subconscious: the way the mugging victim, who was white, described the event was that he was "mugged by three black men."  And there it is.  Note, he didn't use the n- word or anything traditionally seen as racist or derogatory.  But he pointed out their race, when it wasn't really necessary to the conversation.  Being mugged is bad on its own, it doesn't matter who mugged you.  Yet, if they had been three white men, then he would have just said he was "mugged by three men," or "mugged by three assholes," or something similar.  What if they were all speaking with, say, an Italian accent?  Would he have said he was "mugged by three Italians"?  I somehow doubt that.  What if they were white women?  Maybe being mugged by the opposite gender would be seen as embarrassing, and the man would have just said, "I was mugged," and leave it at that.  Or, if he assumes or learns that the women were part of a gang, "I was mugged by three gang members."  He certainly wouldn't have said, "I was mugged by three white, female gang members with blonde hair and blue eyes," in normal conversation.  That would just be weird.  Yet it sits okay with most people that he would say, "I was mugged by three black men."  

This is where I think we should focus our energy - not on blowing relationships between individuals of different colors out of proportion, but in how we describe and see events.  Nobody wants to be mugged, and being mugged by a black person isn't better or worse than being mugged by a white person.  He should have just said, "I was mugged," and we'd all feel bad for him and glad that he was ultimately okay.  

I want to clarify that I do believe it is okay to make assumptions about people for our own safety.  If three such men, dressed like punks, were walking directly at me when they had no reason to be walking towards me, I'd be nervous / suspicious, no matter what color their skin was.  That is the natural thing to do; that is acting with self preservation at heart.  Had they been dressed in suits, it would have still been odd that they were walking directly towards me.   

Unfortunately for the victim I am speaking of, he didn't see them coming, so he had no way of profiling them or making good decisions prior to the attack anyways (except, perhaps, not being so distracted that he didn't see them coming).  My point is that profiling based on behavior is a much more powerful thing than looking at race, and yes, I think dress is part of that behavior.  How a man carries himself, how he dresses, and if he seems to have a purpose to what he is doing, are all better indicators of how he might act or if he's potentially a "bad guy" than whether or not he was born to black parents.  I've heard it joked about that if you see a black man in a nice car, you assume he must have stolen it.  That kind of profiling is downright wrong.  But if you see a punk-ass looking kid in a really expensive car, and he is acting nervous, hell, it might be worth acting upon.  

I dare you to think what the media would be saying about the trial at hand if Zimmerman was black and Martin was white.  For the sake of this exercise, if only for the sake of this exercise, let's just assume that all evidence indicates that Zimmerman was acting in self-defense and that Martin viciously attacked him, calling him the n- word.  Would it be portrayed as a victory over racism, because a racist white man attacked a black man and died as a result?  Would the media raise alarm bells about racism in our courts because Zimmerman was clearly innocent, and yet was being accused simply because he was black?  I'd say if you read the facts over again, assuming that Zimmerman was black and Martin was white, and your conclusion changes, then you're creating a race issue that isn't there.  I'm not saying we should ignore race issues, I'm just saying we shouldn't fabricate them.  

We may never know who first hit who in the Zimmerman incident.  We may never know beyond a reasonable doubt that Zimmerman acted purely in self-defense.  It doesn't matter if we do.  This country's justice system says we are innocent until proven guilty.  It is not the responsibility of the accused to prove innocence.  I think our society forgets that sometimes.  I don't want to be a society of witch-hunters.  I want our system to punish what is clearly wrongdoing, and not punish what is not clearly wrongdoing.  That is the only part of our justice system, our media and our culture, which should be black and white.