Entries from July 2000

Lynching The Truth

David Frum July 31st, 2000 at 12:00 am Comments Off

In
the early evening of June 16, the dead body of 17-year-old Raynard Johnson was
found hanging from a pecan tree in front of his family home in the little town
of Kokomo, Mississippi. An autopsy established that Johnson had killed himself:
There were no marks or bruises on him, no signs of a struggle, no bindings on
his wrists.

Johnson’s
death was a sad but not entirely unusual event. More than 30,000 Americans kill
themselves every year. For American men aged 15 to 24, suicide is the
third-most-common cause of death. But what happened next was unusual. In their
grief, the Johnson family refused to accept the verdict of the local medical
examiner. The Johnsons are black. Young Raynard had sometimes dated white
girls. They convinced themselves that this crossing of their state’s ancient
racial line had provoked local racists into lynching their son.

It
was not only themselves they convinced. Soon Jesse Jackson was jetting in to
lead marches and fling accusations of coverup and worse at the Marion County
sheriffs. "This thing in Kokomo smells a lot like Emmett Till,"
Jackson said, referring to the Chicago boy murdered while visiting Mississippi
relatives in 1955, apparently after flirting with a white woman. Jackson’s
fervid words attracted the attention of the national press, as of course they
were meant to do. Over the past month, Raynard Johnson’s death has emerged as a
national news story, with multiple stories about it appearing in USA Today, > The New York Times, > and The
Washington Post, as well as on
all three of the major networks and the major cable news shows. Most of these
stories ran after Janet Reno’s July 12 meeting with members of the Johnson
family and her tragically inept statement that she considered Johnson’s mother
"a very courageous lady."

These
stories have often been presented so as to imply the truth of Jesse Jackson’s
and the Johnson family’s charges of murder and deceit. On the July 12 edition
of the NBC Nightly News, for example,
correspondent Pete Williams led his story this way: "Concerned that state
authorities are covering something up, members of Raynard Johnson’s family are
asking the Justice Department for an impartial investigation of his death — a
hanging that has stirred up bitter memories of the South’s racist past."

Williams
then cut to a clip of rep. John Conyers reminding viewers of Mississippi’s
history of lynching, to a second clip of two white neighbors alleging murder,
and a third clip of Jesse Jackson charging official malfeasance. The absence of
any evidence of homicide was described as merely "no evidence to rule out
suicide." While a pathologist was permitted to explain that murders by
hanging invariably leave some sign of violence on the victim’s body, Williams
did not mention that no such signs were found on Johnson’s. In the end, the
death was described both as "puzzling" and a "mystery."

When
asked to justify treating a nearly certain case of suicide as very possibly a
racially motivated lynching, Pete Williams cites the FBI’s involvement: Surely
that turned the homicide angle into a prime-time story? But by the time
Williams got to the story, the FBI had already, according to other news
reports, concluded that the death was overwhelmingly probably a suicide.
Besides, it is simply not responsible to treat the politicized Clinton Justice
Department as a reliable guide to the genuineness of racial incidents. Remember
its eagerness in 1996 to promote the myth of a nationwide epidemic of black
church-burning?

Still,
Williams’s reporting was a model of lucidity compared with the hyperventilation
of ABC’s Chris Cuomo on 20/20. On July
7, Cuomo presented a lengthy account of the Johnson case that did not so much
as nod to the overwhelming evidence of suicide until the segment’s final
seconds. Even then, the brief acknowledgment of truth was immediately followed
by a new allegation from a friend of the family that he had seen a bruise on
the back of Johnson’s neck that might perhaps indicate strangulation. Cuomo’s
report made much of the Johnson family’s decision to request a second autopsy
from an "independent" pathologist. But Cuomo did not wait for the
second doctor’s report before airing his item. Too bad: It confirmed suicide.

CBS’s
account of the Johnson death was more careful. Dan Rather introduced the story
with a warning that there was little evidence to justify the family’s
suspicions. Correspondent Byron Pitts gave close to half his airtime to
information that corroborated the official version of events. But splicing
together two contradictory accounts is not quite the same thing as weighing
those accounts. Revealingly, the network’s transcript refers to Johnson as the
"victim" — as if of a homicide — rather than by some neutral term
like "the deceased." And Pitts invited Johnson’s friends to speculate
on what motive the non-existent killers might have.

PITTS:
Even before the boy was buried, rumors were rampant [that] this was murder. The
belt around his neck wasn’t his own. Johnson had dated white girls and certain
locals didn’t like it.

SUSIE
STALLING (Victim’s friend): This is still the old South.

PITTS:
Mississippi?

STALLING:
Mississippi.

PITTS:
Susie Stalling knew Raynard and she knows Mississippi.

STALLING:
I mean, it’s not that they — they don’t like black people. That’s not the
problem. It’s just that they don’t want none of their white girls dating a — a
black man.

Print
coverage of the Johnson death has been markedly less sensational than
television’s. The New York Times in
particular played the story straight, giving prominent attention to the
solidity of the medical evidence in favor of suicide and the speciousness of
Jesse Jackson’s charges. Better still, the
Times > ran its account of the case in the appropriate
obscurity of page 21. The Washington Post, normal'> on the other hand, has printed stories that gave only perfunctory
mention to the evidence in the Johnson case and then immediately moved to a
discussion of President Clinton’s proposals for new federal hate-crimes
legislation, implying that such laws might despite everything be relevant to
Raynard Johnson’s death.

There
is something more than ordinarily strange about the media’s seeming
determination to report the Johnson story in the most inflammatory possible
way. Both in their editorial content and in their employment practices, the
country’s major news organizations represent themselves as passionately
committed to racial harmony. Yet here are some of the country’s proudest
broadcasters and publishers provoking racial mistrust by disseminating
allegations of which they themselves acknowledge the nearly certain untruth.

Why?
Abigail Thernstrom, co-author of America in Black and White, > the definitive study of contemporary race relations,
regretfully observes how often journalists convince themselves that they are
"furthering the work of the civil rights movement when they are in fact
undermining racial equality and goodwill."

When
called on to report cases of black-on-white crime, journalists are acutely
conscious of the need to avoid stoking atavistic fears. When New York City’s Puerto
Rican Day Parade ended in mayhem this year, nobody felt it necessary to run
stories under headlines like: "Black and Hispanic youths sexually assault
dozens of white women" — even though such stories, unlike the Johnson
lynching stories, would at least have had the merit of being true. With stories
that tap into white racial anxieties, news organizations try to ensure that the
details they present are not only true, but also relevant. But when the racial
anxieties at issue are black or minority, all that care flies out the window.

Jesse
Jackson makes his living turning ordinary tragedies into racial confrontations.
By now, few journalists harbor doubts about who Jackson is and what he does.
And yet knowing everything they do about him, knowing everything they did about
the real cause of Raynard Johnson’s death, they rolled over at Jackson’s signal
like so many well-trained poodles. In so doing, they shamed their profession
and injured their country.

The Republicans’ Cheney Moment

David Frum July 25th, 2000 at 12:00 am Comments Off

As
George W. Bush has led America to contemplate Richard B. Cheney as a vice
presidential nominee, he has sent two powerful messages to the country and his
party — one reassuring, one disturbing.

The
reassuring message: Mr. Bush is self-possessed and self-confident — unafraid
to campaign alongside a candidate of wider and greater experience. It’s the
very opposite of the decision his father made in 1988 when he selected Dan
Quayle, whom no one considered his equal, as his running mate.

But
there is a disturbing message, too, at least for Republicans. And no, it’s not
just a warning to county fairs across America that if they invite Mr. Cheney to
judge the local beauty contest, he might go home with a tiara on his head. The
disturbing message is that Governor Bush apparently feels he owes the
conservative wing of the Republican Party little.

It’s
not that Mr. Cheney is not a conservative man; of course he is. He’s much more
conservative than, say, Jack Kemp, Bob Dole’s choice in 1996. In many ways, he
would make an excellent national leader: calm, sound, seasoned, trustworthy.

Yet
if Mr. Cheney is conservative, he’s not "a conservative"; he’s not
someone whom the right wing of the Republican Party recognizes as one of its
own, the way it recognized Mr. Kemp in 1996, or Mr. Quayle in 1992 and 1988, or
Ronald Reagan in 1984 and 1980, or (odd as it may be to remember) Bob Dole back
in 1976. This nonrecognition may be arbitrary, but political affinities are
seldom entirely rational.

The
choice of Mr. Cheney offers a Bush-Bushie ticket, one that declares the Reagan
chapter of the Republican Party’s history not merely completed, but closed.
This might seem an audacious maneuver in a party whose congressmen occupy their
idle hours renaming airports and highways after Mr. Reagan. But it’s not as
audacious as it seems.

In
their quieter way, the Reaganites within the party have, since 1996, taken a
tumble every bit as painful and embarrassing as that which toppled the last New
Deal Democrats in the mid-1980′s. The outmaneuvering of Newt Gingrich by Bill
Clinton in 1995, Jack Kemp’s debate debacle against Al Gore in 1996, the
electoral reverses of 1998 — fairly or not, all have together discredited the
wing of the Republican Party that considered itself the inheritor of the Reagan
legacy.

That
wing knew it was discredited. Through the spring, summer and fall of 1999,
one-time Reagan Republicans made the pilgrimage to Austin, Tex. They flew back
charmed, convinced that the popular governor was just as committed as they were
to tax cuts, school choice, the defense of the traditional family and
color-blind civil-rights laws.

Others,
more skeptical, might acknowledge that the governor was not as staunch as he
might be on this or that conservative shibboleth but (they whispered) even if
he wasn’t good on everything, he could still be counted on to name the right
kind of judges. When asked how they could feel so sure that the governor would
deliver the judiciary, given that his father named David Souter to the Supreme
Court, the bitterest Republican judicial disappointment since William Brennan,
they would smile the quietly satisfied smile of those in the know.

And
so the Reaganite right gathered itself to Mr. Bush. It spurned Steve Forbes,
ignored Dan Quayle and recoiled from John McCain. It committed itself early,
just as labor signed up early with Bill Clinton in 1992, and without haggling
too long or too hard over the specifics of the quo it could expect in return
for its quid.

But
there’s an old rule in politics: The people who make up their minds last count
the most. That’s why politicians worry more about female voters than they do
about men, more about young voters than they do about the old, more about the
middle class than about the poor or the well-to-do. Having pledged themselves
to Mr. Bush so hastily and so unreservedly, Reaganite conservatives now find
themselves in no position to extract things from him. He may, for reasons of
his own, take a Reaganite line on issues like national missile defense. But if,
for other reasons of his own, he should take a non-Reaganite line on abortion
or federal spending or affirmative action, the old Reaganites will not find it
easy to prevent him.

There’s
no point in grumbling about this. The present weakness of the Reagan wing of
the party is no dirty trick; it is the price that must be paid for its recent
mistakes and defeats. But it is always better to pay such a price knowingly:
conservative Republicans would judge Mr. Bush more accurately and probably, in
the end, more charitably if they understood from the beginning how little they
counted with him and why.

Offering
Republicans Mr. Cheney only drives home that message. And in that sense,
perhaps after all it is good news all around.