October 24, 2007

The Myths Of Jena

Over the past month, the press and a good deal of the blogosphere has thundered over the racial motivations of the town of Jena, Louisiana, after a series of incidents supposedly showed the bigotry of its people and its government. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton called Jena the new Selma of the civil-rights movement. Activists pressured presidential candidates into making appearances in Jena and statements regarding the allegedly harsher punishments given to black students for assault and battery. The nation assumed that the South still couldn't give justice equally regardless of race.

Craig Franklin of the Christian Science Monitor says that assumption comes from a national media too lazy to do any reporting on its own. He should know; he lives in Jena and his wife teaches at the high school at the center of the controversy. The media failed to learn anything from the Duke non-rape case and swallowed myths whole rather than investigate and report facts:

The reason the Jena cases have been propelled into the world spotlight is two-fold: First, because local officials did not speak publicly early on about the true events of the past year, the media simply formed their stories based on one-side's statements – the Jena 6. Second, the media were downright lazy in their efforts to find the truth. Often, they simply reported what they'd read on blogs, which expressed only one side of the issue.

The real story of Jena and the Jena 6 is quite different from what the national media presented. It's time to set the record straight.

So what were the myths? The whites-only tree was never white-only. The nooses were a message -- to the rodeo team, and a reference to the movie Lonesome Dove, not a message to blacks. The DA threat to "black students" in fact was directed at three white girls who wouldn't shut up during a talk to the student body. The party at which the first assault occurred was not a "whites-only" party but a private party, and the assault was just a punch to the face by someone who wasn't a Jena HS student, not a bottle attack. The attacks had nothing to do with the nooses, which appeared briefly three months prior to the assaults.

All of these could easily have been discovered by the professionals in the national media. Franklin references official reports in each of these refutations of Jena mythology, as well as other specific points. The layers of fact-checkers and editors found in the mainstream media apparently couldn't be bothered to research the assumptions made by the demagogues. Instead of using the facts to defuse a controversy fueled by misunderstanding, the media inflamed a nation by amplifying a series of exaggerations and outright lies.

Unfortunately, this revelation comes too late for the town of Jena, which has been vilified for bigotry that it never displayed. It might be that the Jena incident displays another kind of bigotry, one that afflicts urban and Northern writers about their rural and exurban Southern neighbors. The media apparently shares this bigotry, as shown in their impulse to accept the premise of the Jena mythology instead of actually reporting the facts. (via Power Line)

UPDATE: CapQ reader Pennywit notes that Franklin is actually "the assistant editor at the Jena Times. Which, IMO, makes him far more qualified to write about the story than any member of the national media." Franklin's piece is a guest op-ed at the CSM.


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