In July of last year, after The New York post ran the headline, “CIVIL WAR: Four cops killed at anti-police protest,” I wrote the column “How We Report on Structural Racism Can Hurt Us—Or Heal Us.” I could have easily written the same article today.
That column recalled the Kerner Report, the findings of President Johnson’s commission investigating the uprisings that occurred throughout 1967, to determine what happened and why, and to provide recommendations to prevent them from happening again.
While reading and watching the news stories unfolding from the college town of Charlottesville, Virginia, what I and many others are calling White nationalist race riots, I couldn’t help but recall the Kerner Report again.
A fundamental criticism in the report was that news media had failed to analyze and report adequately on the many incidents of racial injustice in the United States. The report noted that the social ills, challenges, and grievances African Americans face were “seldom conveyed.”
In considering the history of racism in this country, they wrote, “By and large, news organizations have failed to communicate to both their Black and White audiences a sense of the problems America faces and the sources of potential solutions. The media report and write from the standpoint of a White man’s world.” This “White press … reflects the biases, the paternalism, and the indifference of White America. This may be understandable, but is not excusable of an institution that has the mission to inform and educate the whole of our society.”
The commission found media outlets had distorted information and made protests look more racially divisive and destructive than they actually were.
They were not accurate. They were not truthful.
Today, still, not much has changed.
In the case of Charlottesville, media outlets are being careless with words, whitewashing the intentions and the actions of White nationalist protestors. The “Unite the Right rally” stopped being a rally sometime Friday night when a stream of torch carrying White supremacists arrived at night to the University of Virginia campus chanting “blood and soil.” They used those torches as weapons in fights with counter-protesters.
On Saturday, NBC said, “Charlottesville rally turned deadly.” CNN said, “1 dead, 19 injured after crash near Unite the Right rally.”
What took place was not a rally. Who wears paramilitary gear and carries automatic weapons to a rally? Who takes shields and helmets and pepper spray and bats and sticks to a rally? The car didn’t “crash”— it was driven at full speed into a crowd of counter-protesters.
What happened in Charlottesville was White nationalist extremists inciting a riot.
We cannot unite, come together, overcome, Kumbaya, or whatever else, until we get some truth-telling. Media professionals need to get it right this time.
It is also the responsibility of those of us who are anti-racist not to be silent in this time. Call out every media outlet that is soft-selling White supremacy and sidestepping the ugly truth.
Nothing less is acceptable. This milquetoast coverage lets White nationalists off the hook, even when the dithering commentary comes from President Trump.
His statement about being against violence “on many sides” stopped short of calling out the domestic terrorism of the White men who carried out acts of violence on American citizens today. Walking away when you’re asked if you denounce these actors is the definition of cowardice.
Trump managed to anger both “sides,” Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke as well as anti-racists.
What side are you on? Are you on the side that makes excuses for and sanitizes these acts and actors by calling them misunderstood Americans, the “alt” right, misguided, upset, fringe, and whatever other name might diminish the outright terrorism these people are perpetrating.
Or are you on the side that calls bullshit on anti-Black, anti-Native, anti-Jewish racism, bigotry, and xenophobia—and the White supremacist domestic terrorists who marched on Charlottesville to shed some blood.
Zenobia Jeffries Warfield is the former executive editor at YES!, where she directed editorial coverage for YES! Magazine, YES! Media’s editorial partnerships, and served as chair of the YES! Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Committee. A Detroit native, Zenobia is an award-winning journalist who joined YES! in 2016 to build and grow YES!’s racial justice beat, and continues to write columns on racial justice. In addition to writing and editing, she has produced, directed, and edited a variety of short documentaries spotlighting community movements to international democracy. Zenobia earned a BA in Mass Communication from Rochester College in Rochester, Michigan, and an MA in Communication with an emphasis in media studies from Wayne State University in Detroit. Zenobia has also taught the college course “The Effects of Media on Social Justice,” as an adjunct professor in Detroit. Zenobia is a member of NABJ, SABJ, SPJ, and the Ida B. Wells Society for Investigative Reporting. She lives in Seattle, and speaks English and AAVE.