Racist mobs murdered African Americans with bullets, nooses, and knives. Innocent people were mutilated, strung up, and roasted alive. In the late 1800s, when these killings reached their peak, more than a thousand African Americans were killed in just five years. In one year, 1892, “there were twice as many lynchings of blacks as there were legal executions of all races throughout the United States.”
And yet, as media scholar David Mindich details in his book, Just the Facts: How “Objectivity” Came to Define American Journalism, elite press coverage of these murders typically presented them as morally ambiguous affairs that pitted a crowd’s desire for immediate justice against the horrific — and, very often, fabricated — crimes of the black victim.
The same ethic, in other words, that leads modern day reporters to claim Hillary Clinton’s denunciation of racists is the moral equivalent of Donald Trump’s racism also led journalists from another century to be extra careful to include the murderers’ perspective when writing about lynching.
Eighty-five years after Wells’ death, newspapers are hardly blind to the financial incentives that placed balance before truth.
Many opinion editors, the Washington Post reports, are alarmed that they do not have any columnists who share the racist belligerence of our incoming president. They are now struggling mightily to find writers who will defend the views of a man that a large minority of Americans voted for.
Meanwhile, writers who suggest that the news media did a sub-optimal job of explaining the relative shortcomings of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are often met with a brush off no less dismissive than the one the Times gave to Ida B. Wells.
Ian Millhiser’s article about false balance journalism is fascinating, and provides a much needed insight into just how journalism works, and who and what is the driving factor in most media. Highly recommended reading: The dark history of how false balance journalism enabled lynching.