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Hate Speech and Violent Crime as reported in our Community

by William McGaughey

“Sticks and stones
will break your bones,
but names can never hurt you.”

This is a saying that I learned as a boy growing up in Detroit many years ago. It expressed the moral understanding of a society dedicated to the principles of free speech and expression. Speech, even hateful speech, is permissible in a free society because people are able to deal with it in ways that avoid injury. It’s up to them individually whether to let themselves be hurt. Violent action, on the other hand, intrudes in unavoidable ways. Bones are broken despite healthy attitudes.

In recent decades, however, I have noticed that our society has become increasingly more concerned with hateful speech and less concerned with injurious action. The society’s leadership becomes increasingly focused on “hate crimes” than crimes which inflict real physical harm. There has been a sea change in our moral thinking. More anger is directed at words or expressions with which we might disagree socially and politically than at violent crimes such as murder and assault.

I would consider my daily newspaper a reflection (or perhaps a cause) of attitudes in the community. On Thursday, November 1, 2007, Minnesota’s largest newspaper, the Star Tribune, ran a story beginning on the front page with the headline, “Series of racist threats roil St. Thomas campus.” This article reported that four hate messages in written form had been delivered to three black-female students residing in the John Paul II Hall at St. Thomas College in St. Paul. One such note was posted on a message board at the dorm, another was taped to the students’ door, and another was slipped under the door. A fourth was slipped under the door of a computer lab where one of the women worked.

The article did not describe the content of those messages other than to describe them as “racist and threatening.” If they included the n-word, it was not mentioned. The messages were disturbing enough, however, that the university posted a “public safety officer” outside the students’ door twenty-four hours a day. “Officials are taking the incidents seriously,” said a feed to the story continuing on the next page.

In the same newspaper on the same day, there was another article which appeared on page seven of the B section. Its headline read “After a two-month murder lapse, two men found slain on North Side.” When Minneapolis police arrived at a house on the 900 block of 21st Avenue North in Minneapolis around 2:30 a.m., “they found two men in their early 20s inside the house dead from gunshot wounds.“ The men’s names were Ira Lee Brown and Charles Edward Woods. It was unstated whether or not the newspaper’s editors or city officials were taking this event seriously. It was unclear if the Minneapolis police had dispatched additional personnel to the block where the murders took place.

Here then was a “sticks and stones” type of situation that had resulted in the loss of two young lives. I would consider it a more significant crime than the expession of racial hate directed at the St. Thomas students. Yet, the Star Tribune, reporting both incidents on the same day, had chosen to devote 6.5 column inches to the story of the double homicide compared with 30.5 column inches to the story of the hate speech at St. Thomas College. The first story also received inferior positioning in the paper.

Part of the editors’ reasoning may have been that murders in north Minneapolis are so frequent that they hardly seem newsworthy. The double murder represented the city’s 39th and 40th homicides for the year. There were 49 homicides at the same point in the year for 2006. In fact, judging from the reference to a “two-month murder lapse” in the headline, the article might almost be considered to be a “good news” story: The community was fortunate that no murders had been committed in the preceding period. Nine fewer murders were committed this year than last.

Another reason that the Star Tribune editors considered the hate speech at St. Thomas more significant from a news standpoint than the double homicide was racial. The former incident represented a white-on-black offense. The three students who received the hateful messages were African American. While the identity of the perpetrator was not known, readers might reasonably assume that this person was white. In the case of the double homicide, the article did not mention the race of the two victims. I would presume them to have been black. The murderer’s identity was not known at the time of the story. A subsequent television news report identified him by photo as a middle-aged African American male.

I don’t know if the Star Tribune ran a story when the murderer’s identity was revealed. If so, I didn’t see it. Perhaps, the editors did not find the murderer’s arrest to be a significant news item, especially in the case of a black-on-black crime. On the other hand, the newspaper did find significant the fact that students and faculty at St. Thomas decided to hold a march and rally to support the three students who had been victimized by racial hate speech. This article, headlined “standing up to hate”, appeared on pages 1 and 8 of the B (local news) section on November 2nd. The story received 23.5 column inches of space.

Most of this story consisted of quotations such as the observation from a college freshman to the effect that “it seems like (white students) only talk to people who look like them” and mention of other similar incidents going back to a cross-burning in 1992. The college president, Rev. Dennis Dease, who was in the news recently when he disinvited South Africa’s Bishop Desmond Tutu from a speaking engagement at St. Thomas for having allegedly made an anti-Semitic remark, said at the anti-hate rally: “I know this community is very good at spinning straw into gold. Let us use this gathering as an opportunity to recommit ourselves to the values that are so a part of this university.” (The idea of turning lemons into lemonaid evidently went unmentioned.)

Why the disparity of treatment between a double murder and hate speech on a college campus? This question gets to the heart of what a newspaper such as the Star Tribune considers newsworthy. In my book, a murder is always newsworthy - much more so than offensive speech. The Star Tribune evidently makes decisions by another standard. And what is that standard? Perhaps it is the standard of politics and political correctness. The racial identities of victim and perpetrator are critical in determining how stories of this kind will be treated.

Much of the thinking of today’s political and cultural elites was set in the period of the Civil Rights struggle. The aging editors and reporters pride themselves on having come to the defense of downtrodden southern blacks who had to endure the injuries and indignities of the segregationist system. In subsequent decades, such attitudes have only hardened. The continuing struggle against racial bigotry and hate has become like a civic religion. Newspaper editors consistently puff stories that fit that paradigm. Political correctness is the prism through which worldly events are viewed.

Today, it is not just blacks who are victimized but also other groups: women, gays and lesbians, native Americans, immigrants. A shrinking “majority” group - straight white males - remains the oppressor. So we have an ever widening “morality play” concerning discrimination and social injustice presented as news stories in our daily newspapers.

Any burning of a cross on the lawn of a black family in Minnesota, or a swastika painted on a synagogue, is virtually guaranteed prominent coverage in the Star Tribune and similar newspapers ( and in the commercial television local-news programs that take their cue from them). Never mind that it may have been a teenage boy engaged in a “prank” who committed the offense. The authorities take such pranks “very, very seriously.”

The newspapers do not take as seriously crimes involving bodily injury especially when those crimes do not fit the desired demographic paradigm. When, for instance, a young white man on a bicycle was robbed and beaten by a gang of black youth a block from my house last week, it did not merit coverage in the newspaper. The Minneapolis police arrested two of the perpetrators but, if past experience is any indication, they may have been already released.

Looking at other stories that appeared in the Star Tribune in the same period, I must admit that there was a front-page article concerning the murder in Savage, Minnesota, of an attractive young white woman named Katherine Ann Olson. She was a recent graduate of St. Olaf College. Her 1.5” by 2.5” photograph appeared on the front page along with an equally sized photo of Michael John Anderson, a 19-year-old white man accused of her killing.

Why did Star Tribune editors decide to give prominent coverage to this murder when a double homicide reported on the following day received scant attention? The “mainstream” view would be because the victim was a college-educated white woman while, presumably, the victims in the double homicide were inner-city blacks. I think there is truth to that accusation. However, another reason for the more prominent coverage may be that the murderer was white. He was a young white suburban male. The Star Tribune editors ran a full-sized photo of him next to that of the victim as if to advertise the fact that not all violent criminals are black - a core assertion of the politically correct journalistic worldview.

Putting on my conspiratorial hat, I speculate that another reason the Star Tribune decided to puff the story of Katherine Ann Olson’s murder was that she had been lured to her death by an advertisement for a babysitter placed in Craigslist.com. This became known as the “Craigslist killing.”

Craigslist, a free classified-ad service on the Internet, is the entity most responsible for the financial decline of commercial newspapers. Millions of potential advertisers around the country have opted for free advertisements in Craigslist rather than pay for advertisements in the classified section of commercial newspapers. With declining ad revenues, the newspaper-publishing industry has been downgraded by Wall Street. The Star Tribune itself was recently sold to a New York-based private equity group for less than half what McClatchy paid for it in the late 1990s. To be able to associate a grisly murder with Craigslist may, therefore, have been too delicious an opportunity for the Star Tribune editors to overlook. Another frontpage article explored the dangers of responding to Craigslist ads.

Is there, however, other evidence to support the view that newspaper editors prefer to report hate speech more than straightforward crimes of violence? Yes, there is. Two stories appeared in the November 5th issue of the Star Tribune.

One, headlined “Blackface costumes cause Hamline uproar”, reported that “Hamline University has suspended six players from its football team for donning blackface and body paint to dress up as African tribesmen for an off-campus Halloween party.” Then, true to form, it reported that “on Friday, 100 people attended a campus forum to discuss the issue.” This story, beginning on page one of the B section, received 19 column-inches of print.

The African-born head of Hamline’s African-American Studies program, Samuel Imbo, graciously told reporters that perhaps the students were unaware of having done anything wrong. “They probably did not know,” he said, “but they should know (that wearing blackface would offend African-American students). The offense here is not even being aware of American history. And not being aware of this history leads people to do this kind of thing.”

In fact, if Hamline students studied the history of American entertainment, they would soon learn that white singers and dancers wearing blackface put on “minstrel shows” which were America’s most popular form of entertainment for more than a half century. Later, black entertainers, not requring facial makeup, got into the act. Neither race seemed to think much of it until the age of political correctness began in the 1960s.

There was also on November 5th a story which began on page one of the A section with this headline: “Latest static over remarks at KQ is a clear sign of the times.” In this case, a top-rated “morning show” on radio station KQRS included discussion of high suicide rates on the Red Lake Indian Reservation. The female talk personality, Terri Traen, made a comment to the effect that genetics and incest on the reservation might have been a factor in that situation.

Native American political leaders moved quickly to demand an apology and request that the show’s male host, Tom Barnard, be fired from the radio station. The same leaders did meet with officials of KQRS and received the requested apology plus other concessions although station management refused to dump Barnard. This particular story received 30 column inches of print. A column on the same subject of lesser length meanwhile appeared in another section of the paper.

On November 3rd, two days after the forementioned report of the double homicide, another murder was reported in Minneapolis. This also appeared on page seven of the B section, in the lower lefthand corner. The story concerned a single murder plus another assault with a gun. It received 3 column inches of space including this passage: "Minneapolis police were called to a shooting about 5 p.m. in the 3700 block of Girard Avenue N. and found a man dead from a gunshot wound. Another man with a gunshot wound arrived at the hospital a short time later. Police didn't release the names of the victims friday night and said there were no suspects in custody."

Then, on November 7, it was reported on page B6 of the Star Tribune that Hennepin County Commissioner, Mike Opat, a recent board chairman, had been attacked the previous evening outside his home in suburban Robbinsdale by two men wielding a sawed-off shotgun. After being struck with the butt of the gun, kicked, and punched, Opat managed to grab the barrel of the gun and flee. The assailants took his vehicle, wallet, and cell phone. Opat is white. The assailants' race was not disclosed. Hennepin County is by far Minnesota's most populous county. Given the prominence of this victim, the Star Tribune gave the story 11 column inches of space.

So, in the first week of November, we had at least four articles concerning racially offensive speech or expression totaling 113 column inches of print in the Star Tribune compared with a total of 9.5 column inches on an inside page given to the story of the double homicide plus a single homicide and assault in north Minneapolis and another 11 column inches to the story of Mike Opat's attack. All the damage to human life done by “sticks and stones” and hand guns in the state’s largest city, Minneapolis, or its adjoining suburbs seemed to interest Star Tribune editors and reporters less than “hateful” words spoken by white people to people of color.

Such priorities are a result of the quasi-religion of political correctness to which our nation’s cultural elite subscribes. This is why many people, including myself, believe that the mainstream media is politically biased. It is also partially to blame for the fact that our society finds itself in a state of demoralization and is experiencing rapid decline. We have lost our common-sense moral bearings (which would be worked up about murders and such things) for the sake of allegiance to the dominant political ideologies. The daily newspapers and other opinion-setting institutions have put our community firmly on the wrong path.

Giving the hate-speech stories a second life

While the double- and single-homicide victims remain dead and presumably forgotten by the community, the Star Tribune editorial-page editors decided to give the hate-speech stories a second life - reinforcing the notion that these are significant stories. The newspaper's "Letter of the Day" for November 7, 2007, is titled "St. Thomas seems to have lost its way". The writer cites this evidence: "Threatening notes slipped under doors. Racist graffiti placed on campus posters. A white hatemonger welcomed. (That would be Ann Coulter.) A black peacemaker turned away. (That would be Bishop Tutu.) A commencement speech made to denigrate women. (Sorry, I missed that one.)"

Two other letters published the same day refer to the hate speech that occurred on Tom Barnard's "Morning Show" on KQRS. One - less than a column inch - simply suggests that if the listener doesn't like the speech, he or she should turn off the radio. The other - 5 column inches - argues that Terri Traen's brief comments on the radio program pushed the limits of First Amendment protection. The letter concludes: "It is distressing that people with mass media access use this powerful tool to incite racism and hate under the guise of entertainment. Even more heart wrenching is the fact that this is one of the most popular morning shows in the metro. People in these positions need to be responsible for their words and held accountable. First Amendment rights are limited by slander and libel and do not give license to speak out destructively against others. We need not be tolerant of the intolerance of others."

Comment: The KQRS morning show specializes in an irreverant, politically incorrect type of banter focused on music and sports. It has become the Number One radio show in the Twin Cities because listeners hunger for this kind of uncensored talk. The letter writer's complaint really centers in the fact that so few people think like him. If the talk show's host were muzzled or censored as he requests, predictably its ratings would plummet.

If the letters were not enough, the editorial page for November 7, 2007, also included the following cartoon:

The general idea of this cartoon is that the people at the KQRS morning crew are totally stupid. And you, dear reader, might also be considered stupid if you show any sympathy for their point of view.

**** *** **** *** **** *** **** *** **** *** **** ***

The missing piece is the editorial, where newspaper editors actually tell their readers how to think on certain topics. In this case, the Star Tribune editors chose to write about the Halloween party at Hamline University in the paper's lead editorial on November 10, 2007. Its title was "How to address racism on campus". The editorial read:

"Some Hamline University football players dressed as African tribesman in black face attended a Halloween party as 'spooks'. Earlier this year, a pair of Macalester College students wore black face, a noose and Ku Klux Klan outfit. At the University of St. Thomas, several students received racist hate mail under their door a few weeks ago.

Racial intolerance can be found on campuses outside Minnesota, of course. Students at other schools have sponsored so-called race-themed events, including a 'South of the Border' party where students dressed as janitors and pregnant teens and law students donned 'doo rags' and black face for a 'Bullets and Bubbly' fest.

What's the problem with college kids today? As consumers of higher learning, shouldn't they be more enlightened and above the fray on racial, cultural and gender sensitivity?

Not necessarily. Student communities are microcosms of society as a whole. College students arrive on campus with all the biases and intolerance that plague American society.

And this generation of college kids brings another complication: They've grown up with media and Internet sites that routinely satirize racial and other stereotypes, further blurring the already delicate line between funny and offensive. If comics on Comedy Central and do and say those things, why can't they?

Because the context is vastly different. And because a civil college community should be concerned about behavior that offends or terrorizes whole groups of fellow students.

To their credit, the responses at Hamline, Macalester and St. Thomas were quick and decisive. Schools officials condemned the events, and the Hamline football players were suspended from the team pending an investigation. In most cases, other students rallied around classmates who were offended, threatened or otherwise hurt. Forums were held to promote racial sensitivity.

Still, many colleges can do more to get ahead of the problem. Tommy Moon, dean of multicultural life at Macalester, points out that when students arrive on campus, efforts should be made to build community and instill values of tolerance and understanding. In group sessions, he encourages people to put themselves in the place of those who were offended by the supposedly innocent party theme.

That's exactly what colleges and universities ought to do - take a difficult situation and turn it into a learning tool. And knowing that these kinds of things can happen at any time, they should also take proactive steps to prevent them."


Comment:

Prevent inappropriate free speech and free expression, cast a censoring eye on humor that offends certain people - that's what Star Tribune editors think ought to be a priority in our community. Zero tolerance of intolerance makes us a tolerant people, they suppose.

Meanwhile, the core cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul are hurting from violent crime. Decent, law-abiding people are afraid to go out on the streets at night. An 8-year-old girl was shot and killed by a stray bullet as she sat at a table in her apartment doing homework. Is this of concern to the Star Tribune editors and reporters? In theory, yes. In practice, they are reluctant to make violent crime an issue, or cast blame on the criminals themselves. That would be racist and demagogic.

So, instead, the Star Tribune favors the "sweat-the-small stuff" approach to crime, an approach pioneered by Rudolph Guiliani when he was Mayor of New York. The theory is that property owners who neglect maintenance or cause their properties to become run down are creating an environment which encourages violent crime. Therefore, the city should focus on inspections action to force property owners to take care of their broken windows and peeling paint. When the criminals see that people care about their neighborhoods, they will decide that it is inappropriate and wrong to commit crimes in those places. Dream on.

The Star Tribune also favors a more humane and just approach to sentencing. It's better to give the young gang bangers a second chance and help them avoid incarceration. Racial disparities in imprisonment are a major problem, the editors say. Less is written about how violent street crime is destroying certain neighborhoods and how it is spreading to the once-peaceful suburbs. Minnesota ranks near the bottom among the states in its rate of incarceration. We prefer to make certain neighborhoods "jail substitutes". I doubt if too many of the Star Tribune editors and reporters live in those neighborhoods.

If the Star Tribune put the story of every Twin Cities murder on the front page of the A section, the public would get the idea that this is a problem in our community and the politicians would be motivated to do something about it. What I think needs to be done is a combination of providing appropriate and certain punishment to those who have committed violent crimes and creating programs for young people who might otherwise be lured into criminal activities. Both the carrot and stick are needed.

Also, someone needs to assume responsibility for this problem. I nominate the governor. The Twin Cities community cannot afford all the excuses and buck-passing that goes on between the police, prosecutors, judges, and corrections officials. And the Star Tribune newspaper, in failing to put this problem prominently on the agenda of public policy and concern, is a major enabler of violent crime in our community.

Update:

The stream of featured letters and articles on politically inappropriate expression has continued. On Wednesday, November 14, the Star Tribune's "letter of the day" was titled "It's the same old shtick for Barnard, KQRS". It read:

"With due respect to the Star Tribune's Neal Justin, the latest dustup over the racism on Tom Barnard's KQRS morning show doesn't prove that broadcasters are being more careful. It proves that nothing's changed.

As a Minnesota Public Radio reporter, I also reported on the anti-Hmong comments he and others made on the show all those years ago. If something significant had changed, the show would be off the air or the content would be different. But he's still at it. The station's still at it. The only thing that's changed is that the owners have a bigger budget line item for FCC fines and community outreach. Obviously, what he does sells, and the fines are a drop in the profit bucket. Same for Don Imus and all the other shock jocks and their owners.

The sad thing is that Barnard has some real talent and can be funny. But I guess he doesn't have the guts to stand up to the suits and stop being their hired bomb-thrower.

They're not making money by accident, folks.

John Rabe"

Note: A 5-column inch photo of KQRS's billboard follows. It reads: "Our lawyer is always busy. 92 KQRS Minnesota's Classic Rock." The column by Neal Justin referenced in the letter had argued that Tom Barnard had actually been a moderate influence when his female associate, Terri Traen, had remarked that incest and genetics on the Red Lake Indian Reservation might have been a factor in that community's high suicide rate. However, the politically correct crowd prefers to focus blame on white males. So the letter writer ignores Barnard's particular role in the discussion and makes him personally responsible for the controversy arising from his show.

On the following day, November 15, the Star Tribune revisited still another incident involving hate speech. A month earlier, on October 10th, an editor at the student newspaper of the Minneapolis Community Technical College had taped a noose to the ceiling of the newsroom, claiming that no racial offense was intended. Others disagreed. The noose-hanging editor, Gabriel Keith, was promptly fired; but then the faculty advisor reduced his punishment to a suspension. So a major controversy erupted. The November 15th article, which was 24 column inches in length (not counting a 5" by 7" photograph) reported: "Two student groups held a protest rally last week to express outrage over the noose and plan more meetings today. The school administration has organized a meeting with students over the noon hour. Accusations are flying, both about the incident and the college's response."

If additional murders took place in the city during this period, they were not reported. There were no protest rallies.

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