The dark history of how false balance journalism enabled lynching

Both sides.

CREDIT: NAACP via the Library of Congress
CREDIT: NAACP via the Library of Congress

Racist mobs murdered African Americans with bullets, nooses, and knives. Innocent people were mutilated, strung up, and roasted alive. In the late 1800s, when these killings reached their peak, more than a thousand African Americans were killed in just five years. In one year, 1892, “there were twice as many lynchings of blacks as there were legal executions of all races throughout the United States.”

And yet, as media scholar David Mindich details in his book, Just the Facts: How “Objectivity” Came to Define American Journalism, elite press coverage of these murders typically presented them as morally ambiguous affairs that pitted a crowd’s desire for immediate justice against the horrific — and, very often, fabricated — crimes of the black victim.

The same ethic, in other words, that leads modern day reporters to claim Hillary Clinton’s denunciation of racists is the moral equivalent of Donald Trump’s racism also led journalists from another century to be extra careful to include the murderers’ perspective when writing about lynching.

Frederick Douglass’ error

The idea that lynching was typically an extrajudicial punishment for a real crime was so widely accepted in the 1890s that Frederick Douglass, the former slave turned abolitionist leader, once admitted that he’d been troubled by the “lasciviousness on the part of Negroes” that led to such killings.

Press coverage of such lynchings typically took a bloodless tone, at least in elite papers like the New York Times, laying out a rote description of the murder against an uncritical restatement of the killers’ rationale for why they committed the crime.

As Mindich recounts, for example, the Times reported that two men “were hanged last night,” alongside the murders’ claim that “their crime was the murder of Mr. Benson Blake.” Another Times report printed the fact that “a negro was lynched” in Jasper, Alabama alongside the claim that “he attempted to assault two white women.” And a man described as “the young negro who murdered Michael Tierney” was “hanged by a mob.” None of these descriptions of the victims’ supposed crimes were qualified by words such as “allegedly.”

In no small part because lynching bypassed a valid judicial process, we will probably never know how many of the people killed by such mobs were innocent of any crime. We do know, however, that these killings frequently targeted African Americans whose only real transgression was entering into a consensual sexual relationship with a white woman, or opening a business that competed with white-owned companies, or offending the wrong white person, or just being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

One reason why we know this is because of Ida B. Wells, a black journalist who rejected the convention of false balance that pervaded — and often still pervades — the elite press.

Like Douglass, Wells once accepted that lynchings were often an extralegal response to real crimes committed by African Americans. She was shocked out of this misconception after a friend of hers, Thomas Moss of Memphis, was killed by a lynch mob.

The New York Times’ account of Moss’ killing (who it wrongly identified as “Theodore Moss”), repeated his murderers’ claim that Moss, along with two other black men, were killed for “ambushing and shooting down” four deputy sheriffs. Wells knew, however, that the reality was very different.

Moss and his two fellow victims, Wells wrote in the Memphis Free Speech, an African American weekly that she edited, owned a grocery store in town which competed against a white-owned store and was costing them business. To eliminate this threat, a white mob gathered outside the black-owned store and fired into it, leading the people inside the store to return fire. In the ensuing firefight, several members of white mob were wounded—the men the New York Times identified as deputy sheriffs — and over a hundred black men were arrested.

Then, the mob dragged Moss and his business partners from their jail cells and shot them to death. Their real crime wasn’t murder. It was opening a business that threatened white wealth.

As Wells later wrote, knowing why her friend was killed, and then reading the elite press’ misrepresentation of why he was killed “is what opened my eyes to what lynching really was.” Before Moss’ death, Wells “had accepted the idea meant to be conveyed — that although lynching was irregular and contrary to law and order. . . perhaps the brute deserved death anyhow and the mob was justified in taking his life.” Now, however, she knew better. She knew lynching to be “an excuse to get rid of Negroes who were acquiring wealth and property and thus keep the race terrorized and ‘keep the n***** down.’”

This new knowledge — not just that lynching was a means of control, but also that major newspapers were not reporting the truth about why it happened — fueled the remainder of Wells’ career. Though she was driven out of Memphis by white supremacists and forced to relocate in New York, Wells would eventually travel to the sites where men were lynched to construct a real history of what transpired.

After the Associated Press uncritically reported claims that a lynching victim raped a seven-year-old girl, for example, Wells uncovered several errors in this account — including the fact that this “girl” was actually a seventeen-year-old woman and that she was found in the victim’s cabin. What was represented as an horrific case of child rape appeared to really be a consensual relationship between a black man and a white woman.

“Prove your man guilty, first,” Wells declared. “Hang him, shoot him, pour coal oil over him and roast him, if you have concluded that civilization demands this; but be sure the man has committed the crime first.” Journalism could not simply collect one quote on either side of a dispute and then print them both as if they were equally valid takes on an uncertain situation. To the contrary, journalism must be a “contribution to truth.”

How balance became God

For many journalists, then and now, balanced reporting is a kind of religion. Under this faith, reporters have an obligation to take themselves outside of the story, to simply lay out the competing perspectives, and let the readers determine what they should take from them.

Journalists who dare to break this code, moreover, can be dismissed out of hand by the writers who insist upon it. A New York Times correspondent accused Wells of mixing “sensational charges, unhappily true in the main” with “stuff which I feel sure is not true.” Later, after a British committee formed to fight lynching at Wells’ urging, a Times editorial complained that “it is especially to be deplored that it should take this action at the insistence of a slanderous and nasty-minded mulattress who does not scruple to represent the victims of black brutes in the South as willing victims.”

Yet, while journalists both in Wells’ era and today often present balance as a moral and ethical necessity, its true origin has much more to do with rank capitalism than it does with any noble aspiration.

Early in the American Republic’s history, overly partisan newspapers were widespread. The tabloid New York Post, for example, began its life as a Federalist Party paper founded by Alexander Hamilton and a team of Federalist investors in order to provide a counterpoint to newly dominant Republicans. By the mid-to-late nineteenth century, however, this business model grew increasingly untenable, especially in less populated areas. “Partisanship,” the media scholar Gerald Baldasty writes, “could not appeal to a large enough group of readers to be financially attractive to advertisers, and thus such partisanship was de-emphasized.”

Indeed, this problem arose even for papers that eschewed a specific partisan viewpoint and simply tried to report the truth about politically contentious topics. In the late nineteenth century, “trade journals warned editors that advertisers wanted less criticism of public officials,” while also warning that overt partisanship “hurt circulation and, consequently, advertising revenues.”

Tepid, balanced coverage of lynchings was the best way to ensure that readers continued to buy the New York Times.

These pressures increased in the twentieth century, as most American cities became single-paper towns. As Talking Points Memo’s Josh Marshall, who has a doctorate in American History, writes, newspapers’ “financial footing became increasingly based on monopoly ad pricing” in this era. But they could only maintain that monopoly if they remained “the default news source for all news consumers in their geographic domain.” And that, in turn, required them to eschew coverage that might anger some of their readers.

Thus, reporters became “something more akin to moderators of debates between candidates rather than arbiters of fact.”

The economic pressures that drove this shift towards uncritical balance were very much in play when Wells challenged the New York Times. Though the paper’s news coverage of lynchings was relatively bloodless, its editorials often tracked the prejudices of its predominantly white audience.

Beyond its attacks on Wells herself, the Times editorial page viewed lynching more as a crime against due process than as a lethal tool of white supremacy. “The crime for which negroes have frequently been lynched,” one editorial claimed, in a reference to rape, “is a crime to which negroes are particularly prone.” The South, it continued, shouldn’t end this practice by ending lynching, but by subjecting convicted rapists to the death penalty, and by ensuring “that judicial processes are not so much slower and less exemplary than mob law as they are now.”

It’s worth noting that the South largely took the Times up on this suggestion. As I explain in my own book, Injustices: The Supreme Court’s History of Comforting the Comfortable and Afflicting the Afflicted, the number of lynchings in the South plunged by more than 90 percent between the era when Wells started writing and the early days of the Hoover administration. A major contributor to this drop, however, was “state laws intended to placate white mobs by rushing black defendants from arrest to execution.” One such law required a trial for rape, murder, or “any other crime calculated to arouse the passions of the people” to begin just ten days after the local sheriff notified the judge that such a crime had occurred — leaving defendants with little time to find an attorney and their lawyers with hardly any time to build a defense.

In any event, while Wells’ reporting was frequently more accurate than the accounts of lynching printed by the elite press, it was also likely to prove jarring to a mostly white audience that did not want to hear the truths Wells hoped to spread. Tepid, balanced coverage of lynchings was the best way to ensure that readers continued to buy the New York Times.

The problem we all live with

Eighty-five years after Wells’ death, newspapers are hardly blind to the financial incentives that placed balance before truth.

Many opinion editors, the Washington Post reports, are alarmed that they do not have any columnists who share the racist belligerence of our incoming president. They are now struggling mightily to find writers who will defend the views of a man that a large minority of Americans voted for.

Meanwhile, writers who suggest that the news media did a sub-optimal job of explaining the relative shortcomings of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are often met with a brush off no less dismissive than the one the Times gave to Ida B. Wells. Last September, after many Clinton supporters complained about coverage that was heavy on innuendo and light on facts showing that the Democratic candidate engaged in any wrongdoing, New York Times Public Editor Liz Spayd dismissed allegations that her paper’s reporters should be concerned with false balance in their reporting.

Her column on this subject has not aged well.

The problem with false balance doctrine is that it masquerades as rational thinking. What the critics really want is for journalists to apply their own moral and ideological judgments to the candidates. Take one example. Suppose journalists deem Clinton’s use of private email servers a minor offense compared with Trump inciting Russia to influence an American election by hacking into computers — remember that? Is the next step for a paternalistic media to barely cover Clinton’s email so that the public isn’t confused about what’s more important? Should her email saga be covered at all? It’s a slippery slope.

Yes, imagine that someone might think that Russia’s efforts to boost Trump’s candidacy — efforts that Trump actively encouraged — deserved more attention than yet another piece about Hillary Clinton’s emails!

As I wrote shortly after Spayd published these words, she fundamentally misrepresents the kind of judgments reporters and editors must make every day in order to do their job. Contrary to her suggestion that reporters must not “apply their own moral and ideological judgments to the candidates,” journalists unavoidably make these kinds of judgments every single day.

There is a limited supply of journalists in this country, and we all have a limited amount of time. Every time we choose to cover one story, we are effectively choosing not to cover some other story that we could have focused on during that time. To make these judgments about what to cover and what not to cover, we necessarily make moral judgments. The reason why a politician’s affair with their mistress is considered news, while their relations with their spouse does not make headlines, is because reporters make a moral judgment that extramarital affairs are more worthy of a harsh spotlight than ordinary marital relations.

At times, however, Spayd has been far more open about the capitalistic impulses that drive false balance journalism. In July, Spayd addressed allegations from conservatives that her paper’s coverage is unfair to them. Rather than dismiss these allegations as a masquerade of rationale thinking, as she did when similar concerns were raised by liberals, Spayd offered a very candid explanation for why she thinks the paper needs to be careful not to annoy people on the right: “a news organization trying to survive off revenue from readers shouldn’t erase American conservatives from its list of prospects.”

It’s tempting to dismiss Spayd’s disparate reaction to liberal and conservative critics as bias — maybe she just really wanted her paper to help Donald Trump win. There’s another explanation, however, that is just as rooted in profit-motive as the false balance journalism she defended.

Conservatives haven’t simply whined about coverage they don’t like — they’ve built an entire network of conservative alternatives to the mainstream press. This network not only includes major brands like Fox News, but also includes a diversity of flavors for different kinds of conservatives. When one of the Republican establishment’s flagship publications reacted to its party’s leading presidential contender with a magazine cover denouncing him, conservatives who objected to the National Review’s position could find solace at white nationalist sites such as Breitbart.

Conservatives, in other words, present the Times with a credible threat that they will take their business elsewhere if they don’t appreciate the paper’s coverage.

Of course, liberals can also read several left-leaning outlets that compete for readers with the Times — you are reading one of them right now, as a matter of fact! But publications like ThinkProgress do not attempt to displace the New York Times completely, nor are we in a position to do so if we tried. ThinkProgress currently employs 36 editorial staff in our newsroom. We all work hard. But we cannot possibly replicate the fact-gathering ability of the Times’ approximately 1,300 person newsroom.

The dilemma facing media consumers, or, at least, those consumers who care about factually reliable journalism, is that the task of gathering and reporting the information voters need to participate in a democracy is a serious, time-consuming enterprise that requires a veritable army of reporters to carry out. Those reporters need to get paid, and humanity has yet to implement a better method of gathering together enough money to pay the bulk of them than profit-driven capitalism.

And that means that the market will often decide how stories are reported — even when the market is tragically, immorally wrong.