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: 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).