Headline ‘Noose’

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CNN plans to run a documentary Thursday entitled “The Noose: An American Nightmare” and prominently asking the question, “Why is it back?” The unspoken answer could be that the media helped to bring it back.

The Noose returned to the public eye following the now-infamous “Jena 6” incident in Jena, La. But, as the Poynter Institute’s Al Tompkins recently told a gathering of journalists and journalism students at King’s College, coverage of that incident has perpetuated numerous myths.

One of the biggest myths, according to a recent article in the Christian Science Monitor, is that the nooses hung in the tree were intended to intimidate black students. That simply was not true, the article said:

An investigation by school officials, police, and an FBI agent revealed the true motivation behind the placing of two nooses in the tree the day after the assembly. According to the expulsion committee, the crudely constructed nooses were not aimed at black students. Instead, they were understood to be a prank by three white students aimed at their fellow white friends, members of the school rodeo team. (The students apparently got the idea from watching episodes of “Lonesome Dove.”) The committee further concluded that the three young teens had no knowledge that nooses symbolize the terrible legacy of the lynchings of countless blacks in American history. When informed of this history by school officials, they became visibly remorseful because they had many black friends.

[Continue reading Jena 6 Media Myths]

Seeing CNN’s teasers for Thursday’s special report, I’m reminded of something Randy Quaid’s character says in “The Paper,” defending his tabloid newspaper: “We run stupid headlines because we think they’re funny. We run maimings on the front page because we got good art. And I spend three weeks bitching about my car because it sells papers. But at least it’s the truth. As far as I can remember we never ever, ever knowingly got a story wrong, until tonight.”

There has been a saddening trend among the national media lately. They appear willing to run a story despite the fact that is demonstrably false or at least highly suspect (cf. the Rush Limbaugh “phony troops” incident).

In journalism, as in life, people make mistakes. But it is disturbing to read so many stories about nooses in Jena hung to intimidate African Americans who wanted to sit beneath a “whites only tree,” when law enforcement officials and local journalists insist that not only were the nooses not aimed at black students, there wasn’t even a “whites only” tree (in fact, the very idea of such a thing “evoked laughter from everyone present – blacks and whites.”).

Why is the noose back? Unfortunately, in large part, because the national media helped to bring it back.

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5 Responses to “Headline ‘Noose’”


  1. 1 nicolen October 30, 2007 at 1:39 pm

    Uh…I don’t think so. Regardless of these students living in a small town in Louisiana – no one is THAT cloistered. Jena has had problems prior to this. The incident was just enough to bring what was below the surface to the forefront.

    As to the upcoming CNN show, it has been prempted twice but I believe that it will air this week. While watching and trying to either justify or refute the truth, pay particular attention to the segment with the racist talk-show host from New Jersey then come back and tell us that this is sheer media hyperbole.

    The number of noose incidents in this country over the last few weeks might be copy-catting, but that doesn’t ameliorate the pain experienced by their intended targets. And they certainly aren’t a “laughing matter.”

  2. 2 mreavy October 30, 2007 at 2:30 pm

    The idea of there being a “whites only” tree was enough to get both black and white students laughing. But, no, the copycat nooses are no laughing matter. Unlike the nooses that inspired them, they appear to be motivated by hatred of African Americans and intended to create an atmosphere of fear.

    Had the media not misreported the original noose incident, those copycats might not have occurred. Thus, I maintain that the media have played a role in the reappearance of “The Noose.” The point is taken though that the lack of a noose does not indicate the lack of the racist undercurrent that it symbolizes.

    It is not CNN’s discussion of race/racism in America that I take issue with. Rather, I call into question the network’s perpetuation of the idea that the nooses in Jena were aimed at black students when investigations indicate that this was not the case.

    Journalism is about telling the truth. Perpetuating falsehood, even in the service of a higher good such as combating racism, is in no one’s best interest.

  3. 3 bcase October 31, 2007 at 8:40 pm

    Most white Americans never regarded nooses as racist symbols until the Jena Six incident made headlines. Today, most white Americans are still confused by the term ‘lynching.” They think lynching means an illegal hanging. The image they have of a lynching is of a posse stringing up outlaws, cattle rustlers and horse thieves without benefit of trial, or a mob dragging a prisoner from a jail cell and hanging him from a nearby tree. Today, the definition of lynching has been expanded to include any murder by a mob, which is defined as two or more people. In addition, members of the “mob” have to be persuaded they are acting to promote justice, correct injustice, or defend long established tradition. For example, a mob of two or more people who hangs or shoots a person suspected of murder is a lynch mob. Since the 1930s, most lynching victims have been shot rather than hanged.

    The number most often cited for the number of people lynch is 4,743, including 1,297 whites and 3,446 blacks. However, these numbers only cover the period from 1882 to 1965. Most lynchings took place from 1882 to 1930 during the Jim Crow Era in the American South. (Prior to the Civil War, almost all lynching victims were white.) The statistics come from a database compiled by the Tuskegee Institute and NAACP. This database shows that whites usually lynched blacks for the same reasons they lynched whites. The victims had been convicted of crimes, or were suspected of having committed crimes, such as murder, felonious assault, rape or robbery. (Crowds gathered to view the lynching of whites as well as blacks. Huge crowds also gathered to watch legal public executions.) At times, white mobs lynched blacks for crimes that would not have been considered crimes had the victims been white rather than black, and sometimes they appeared to lynch blacks merely for being black, but these incidents made up less than 20 percent of lynching. The statistics show white mobs were much more likely to lynch blacks than whites, even though blacks made up a small percent of the population. As the number of lynch mobs dwindled, the NAACO revised its definition of lynching to include murders involving one assailant when the lone assailant could reasonably be assumed to have acted on behalf of a larger organization, such as the Ku Klux Klan.

    Today, racially motivated murders are rare. According to FBI statistic, there were six racially motivated cases of murder/manslaughter during 2005. In these cases, three offenders were white, two were black and one offenders’ race is listed as unknown. There are more interracial murders, of course, but these are not counted as hate crimes for various reason. Usually the reason is that the murders were comitted in the commission of another crime, such as robbery. According to the Bureau of Justice, from 1976 to 2005, 86% of white victims were killed by whites while 94% of black victims were killed by blacks.

  4. 4 mreavy October 31, 2007 at 10:52 pm

    As to the FBI statistics, the FBI does indeed list six murders as “hate crimes” in 2005. It also lists a total of 7,163 criminal incidents as hate crimes. The press release for that year also indicated that, “Of the 6,804 known offenders reported in 2005, 60.5 percent were white, and 19.9 percent were black. The race was unknown for 12.3 percent, and other races accounted for the remaining known offenders.”
    http://www.fbi.gov/ucr/hc2005/pressrelease.htm

    The subject of lynching remains a personal one for many people, especially in the Deep South. While I was teaching at Louisiana State University, one of my black students broke down in tears as she described a favorite uncle who had been lynched (hung) by the Ku Klux Klan. For her, the experience was still very much real.

    You may be right that many white Americans today might have been more likely to associate the a noose with Sadaam Hussein than with lynchings in the United States. Perhaps that’s one good that can come from the media’s perpetuation of the Jena Noose Myth. Whites can get on the same page with blacks in realizing that the symbol of the noose remains a very real threat to some Americans.

  5. 5 bcase November 1, 2007 at 1:04 am

    Whites make up 77.1 percent of the population, so it’s not surprising that 60.1 percent of hate crime offenders are white. In fact, it shows that whites commit a disproportionately small number of hate crimes. The downside of this statistic is that it means that 60.1 percent of all hate crimes are directed at 39.9 percent of the population.

    The FBI analysis of the 7,160 single-bias incidents reported in 2005 revealed 54.7 percent were racially motivated. This works out to about 3,917 racially motivated hate crimes ranging from homicide to vandalism, the scrawling of racial slurs on walls. Intimidation (verbal threats or name calling) is by far the most common racially motivated hate crime against persons, making up half of the total. I think that only six people died in racially motivated violence shows remarkable progress. My point is that racially motivated hate crimes make headlines, but are a small part of violent crime. The FBI recently reported that 1,417,745 violent crimes occurred nationwide in 2006. If the hate crimes rate for 2005 remains constant, racially motivated hate crimes would make up 0.003 percent of violent crimes.

    Whether nooses are racist symbols or not depends on the context. For example, the movie poster for the Clint Eastwood movie “Hang ’em High” features a hangman’s noose in a very threatening manner, but it’s not racist. The poster for the new British movie, “The Last Hangman,” also features a hangman’s noose. It’s not racist. Hangman nooses in halloween displays are in bad taste, but as a rule, they are not racist. Hanging effigies of politicians, at least white politicans, or effigies of college football coaches suffering through a losing season is a cruel form of expression, but it’s not racist. A hangman noose hung on a black person’s front door is a threat. Hanging a effigy of a black man across the street from a black school or church is a threat.


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This blog is maintained by Dr. Matthew M. Reavy as a service to journalism students at the University of Scranton.

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