The Magazine

Lynching the Truth

Jesse Jackson and the media turn a suicide into a racial cause celebre

Jul 31, 2000, Vol. 5, No. 43 • By DAVID FRUM
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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, 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.

Contributing editor David Frum is the author, most recently, of a history of the 1970s, How We Got Here (Basic Books).