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Eye on the News

John Leo
Sins of Omission
Newspapers clam up about race, religion, and politics.
28 February 2007

Don’t identify people in the news by race unless race is important to the story: that’s the policy of most newspapers. But in practice, outbreaks of sensitivity in the newsroom often lead reporters and editors to withhold racial identification even when police are seeking a suspect after a major crime. Newspapers mention all details that might help the authorities find the perpetrator—except skin color.

A current example is the so-called “second rape case in Durham,” an eerie mirror image of the Duke lacrosse case: here the suspect is black and the alleged victim is white. North Carolina’s News & Observer described the suspect as “in his late teens or early 20s, about 6 foot 1 and wearing a do-rag, a gray sweatshirt and blue jeans.” That’s word-for-word from the police description, except that the police said that the suspect was black. The newspaper deleted the reference. It also couldn’t bring itself to mention that the attack allegedly took place at an African-American fraternity at Duke.

This squeamishness brought the expected hoots of derision. The blogger Confederate Yankee ran the mock headline RACELESS FEMALE RAPED BY RACELESS MALE AT A PARTY HOSTED BY A RACELESS FRATERNITY IN THE SAME CITY WHERE RICH WHITE BOYS RAPED A POOR BLACK STRIPPER. Later, the News & Observer posted a police sketch of the alleged rapist, clearly indicating a dark-skinned male, next to its original online story, thus implying that it hadn’t really suppressed racial information.

Sometimes news stories omit important religious and political identifications, too. In Nashville last week, readers of the Tennessean were probably able to deduce the religious affiliation of a cabbie who tried to run over two Christian students after a heated discussion of religion. His name: Ibrahim Sheikh Ahmed. The paper reported: “Metro police spokeswoman Kris Mumford said one of the students is Catholic and the other is Lutheran. Mumford said that Ahmed’s religion was not known.” Maybe so, but many readers probably wondered: if the driver had been a conservative Christian trying to run down a Muslim, wouldn’t the newsroom have summoned the energy to find out, and to confront Pat Robertson or Jerry Falwell on the evils of Islamophobia?

The mainstream press is also notably coy in identifying anyone as a member of the Communist Party, possibly because in many newsrooms almost any use of the C-word, no matter how relevant, is still deemed McCarthyite. Giuliana Sgrena, the Italian journalist whose vehicle was fired on in Iraq by American troops, said that the troops were lying when they claimed that her vehicle had attempted to crash through a checkpoint. Much of the news media delicately failed to mention that Sgrena is notably anti-American, identifies with the insurgency, works for a communist newspaper, and is a communist herself. The New York Times called her employer, Il Manifesto, a “leftist” daily. A more detailed description of her opinions and commitments might have helped readers trying to judge her credibility.

The Times also worked hard to avoid mentioning communism in profiling Leslie Cagan, leader of a big antiwar demonstration in New York in February 2003. Cagan is a prominent old-line communist who left the party only in 1991, and only because it underwent an ideological split. In the Times, however, she was merely “one of the grande dames of the country’s progressive movement.”

More candor, please.

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