Hiding the Facts from Readers Is the Opposite of a Journalist’s Job

Police investigate the scene of a shooting in the Sixth Street entertainment district of Austin, Texas, June 12, 2021. (Nuri Vallbona/Reuters)

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Start with the Facts

On Monday morning, my wife showed me a “blue alert.” A bald guy with a beard riding a motorcycle had shot a cop. She read me the description. “You check a lot of boxes,” she said.

Motorcyclists as a group have a bad reputation, and that’s not new: In the immediate post-war years (the era famously depicted in The Wild One), the American Motorcycle Association apparently felt the need to put out a statement insisting that 99 percent of all motorcyclists were decent, law-abiding people — at which point, the nation’s nascent outlaw-biker gangs embraced the designation you can still see on their patches today: “1%.”

The stereotypes about motorcyclists are probably unfair. (To say nothing of the stereotypes about Tatars, who apparently look so suspicious that they sometimes — more often than you’d think! — get stopped by the police for the suspicious activity of taking a walk down the street they live on.) But if the police are on the hunt for a bikerish-looking white guy, that’s usually what they say, and for good reason — white and male alone are enough to eliminate about 75 percent of the residents of Dallas County (where that police shooting took place), and, if you add in the bald head and the beard and other reasonably visible attributes, you can eliminate most of the population. Assuming that your average Texas biker isn’t traveling around with a Simon Templar–style disguise kit, police looking for that suspect can ignore the women, the African Americans, the ginger dudes with long red ponytails, this guy, etc.

You say what you’re looking for: standard, reasonable stuff. An inconvenience for those of us who get stopped for looking suspicious, to be sure, but the world is an imperfect place.

As you may have heard, on Friday night there was a mass shooting in Austin, Texas, in the Sixth Street entertainment district. Fourteen people were shot; as of this writing, one has died. This apparently wasn’t one of those loser-shoots-up-his-school mass shootings, but one of the more common shootings involving “some kind of disturbance between two parties,” as the police put it. So the shooter didn’t kill himself or wait around for the police and force them into shooting him. He fled, and the police, naturally, put out a description of him.

The Austin American-Statesman, the local daily, refused to publish that description. Instead, it put this editor’s note at the end of its report:

Editor’s note: Police have only released a vague description of the suspected shooter as of Saturday morning. The American-Statesman is not including the description as it is too vague at this time to be useful in identifying the shooter and such publication could be harmful in perpetuating stereotypes. If more detailed information is released, we will update our reporting.

Some of you will have guessed that this “vague description” did not involve a MAGA hat or a Confederate-flag T-shirt.

In fact, the description put out by the police was that of a black man with a skinny build and dreadlocks. Vague? Maybe. But nonetheless useful, and the Statesman is obviously wrong — and must know it — to claim otherwise. Black men compose about 4 percent of the population of Travis County. Skinny black men with dreadlocks (or braids — witnesses sometimes say one when they mean the other) make up an even smaller share of the population. In a county of 1.3 million people, eliminating 96 percent or 99 percent of the population is useful.

A suspect, a minor, was arrested over the weekend. A second suspect remains at large as of this writing. The local newspaper won’t tell you the relevant information about him, either.

What are newspapers for?

Newspapers exist to tell people about what is happening. If newspapers are sometimes instruments of justice and enlightenment, it is because facts — and the vigorous if necessarily imperfect pursuit of them — sometimes are instruments of justice and enlightenment. That is what Thomas Jefferson had in mind when he observed: “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.” But that, of course, assumes that newspapers are doing what they are supposed to do.

I used to give a lecture about the culture of American journalism in which I mentioned the House of Elzevir, the great Dutch book-printer (the modern publisher is named in its honor) that made it its business to publish things that certain authorities elsewhere in Europe did not wish to see published, most famously Galileo’s Two New Sciences. In the fight between the printers and the Inquisition, journalists used to know what side they were on. But in our time, the most powerful forces in media have got in touch with their inner Torquemadas and feel the need to quash heresy before it can pollute the minds of the pure and the blameless. We even have an Index, of sorts, courtesy of Jeff Bezos et al.

If you believe that doing good necessitates keeping things from readers — or willfully misleading readers, as the Statesman did — then you have no business being in journalism. You should go do something else — join a cult, or seek out work in Amazon’s book-banning department, which amounts to much the same thing.

The Statesman here is following a lamentable precedent. The worst episode — the one that stands out most in my mind — involved a cover story in the Philadelphia Daily News, one of those spirited democratic tabloids of which the New York Post is the platonic ideal. Philadelphia was suffering a crime wave with an elevated number of murders, and so the Daily News published an interesting piece about the shocking number of fugitives wanted on murder charges who remained at large. The cover contained mugshots of all the current fugitives, all of whom were men and none of whom was white. The predictable uproar ensued, and the editors of the Daily News allowed themselves to be bullied into publishing an apology for acknowledging the facts. It was one of the all-time-low moments in modern American journalism, one that emboldened practitioners of the now-familiar mob-rule model of media management. Shameful stuff.

This isn’t how you make things better. This is how you make things worse.

Singapore, to take a counterexample, has a local civic culture that is at times stultifying — some critics say repressive — and one feature of that culture is that journalists, intellectuals, and other voices in the public discourse rarely acknowledge ethnic or religious tensions. There is some official censorship, but — as the American Left is learning to its great satisfaction — self-censorship is more effective. Scandinavia has its Janteloven to enforce herd culture, Japan its conformist ethic. But the United States is not very much like Singapore or Denmark or Japan. In our open, irascible, competitive culture, social problems do not get better when we refuse to acknowledge them or to talk about them openly — they fester, instead.

There are many complex issues touching the situation of African Americans vis-à-vis crime, police, and incarceration. None of them will be improved by adopting superstitious speech norms that prevent newspapers from reporting the facts about a given crime, including descriptions of the suspects. And the silly way the Austin American-Statesman did it — Gee, I wonder which stereotype was on their mind? — is as destructive as it is ridiculous. They may as well have written: “He’s black, okay? According to the description, anyway. You’re thinking he is, we know you are, and we’d rather not talk about it, so don’t make a big deal about it, alright?”

If you think the way to address our thorniest and most sensitive problems is to not talk about them — and to go out of your way to hide unwelcome facts related to them — then, for goodness sake, don’t become a newspaper editor. Go sell hotdogs.

Aptronym Alert

From the New York Times:

In 1917, when Marshall Field & Co. moved its underwear and bedspread manufacturing from Illinois to the town of Leaksville, which consolidated with two other towns to form Eden in the 1960s, it was to be closer to non-unionized labor and cotton, a raw material used in many of its products. Though known today for its former retail empire, Marshall Field had an equally important wholesale business that supplied its stores and others.

Moving your underwear business to Leaksville sounds like a piss-poor plan to me.

In Other News . . .

I’m the wrong Kevin Williamson to consult on Scottish questions (though I have written a bit about “Scottish” issues), but I think this from the New York Times is a charming example of how tribalism produces the occasional good result, at least when it comes to what Charlie Cooke probably still secretly calls “football”:

Tam Coyle, a veteran of more than 100 overseas games since 1985, recalled how fans started a chant with lyrics that included the words “We’re the famous Tartan Army, and not the English hooligans.” And Richard McBrearty, the curator of the Scottish Football Museum in Glasgow, said the rivalry with England was so deep that even the Scots’ reputation for good behavior could be traced to it.

“The Scottish fans wanted to isolate themselves,” he said. “They wanted to say, ‘Look at us, we are better than the English.’”

I wish I could direct some of that energy into the United States, sometimes, if I could be confident that it would make people who feel threatened by Asian immigrants start more businesses and work harder in school.

Words About Words

From Slate:

Over the past several years, Yale Law School has faced a number of controversies involving two of its best-known professors: Amy Chua and her husband Jed Rubenfeld. The pair are the closest thing Yale Law has to a celebrity power couple, less for their legal and academic achievements than their boundary-pushing bestsellers and op-eds.

Professor Chua is the author of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, and the co-author, with her husband, of The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America, in which she argues that the secret to Chinese-American motherhood (and the parenting of other successful minority groups) is to make your children believe that they are part of a superior, high-performing community while simultaneously making them anxious about their individual achievements and, hence, their status within that high-achieving community — a programmatic approach to high expectations. I am reminded here of Jay Nordlinger’s wonderful account of the Indian educator Ben Chavis’s response to the charge of “acting white”: “‘Acting white’ is not enough. I’m acting Jewish. Or maybe Chinese.”

Professor Chua is, in my view, a bland but very competent writer, producing the sort of prose one associates with Ivy League law-school faculty. I don’t know how much meaningful boundary-pushing she does. Her most famous essay (the basis of Tiger Mother) was published in the Wall Street Journal. Her books are sold in airports and read by people who would otherwise be reading The Economist or a Malcolm Gladwell book. Not exactly samizdat. Not exactly the Marquis de Sade — or even Joe Rogan, for that matter .

Ah, but she’s at Yale. And there are people at Yale and at likeminded institutions who are very interested in redrawing boundaries in such a way as to place Professor Chua outside of them.

Boundary-pushing is like accountability and offensive: Whose boundaries? Accountability to whom? Offensive to whom? Language of the sort deployed in the Slate article is designed intentionally to obscure that issue, because acknowledging it would raise the question: Why should we, or anybody else, defer to your claim to the power to set the limits of public discourse? Why shouldn’t we think of this as a naked power grab on your part?

Which is, of course, what it is.

A culture in which Amy Chua is pushing up against the boundaries is a culture with some problems. I pity the novelists and the poets. Or I might, if they weren’t leading the charge for narrower boundaries.

And Furthermore . . .

The New York Herald once complained that the late 19th century was the Age of Shoddy. Shoddy at the time was both an adjective and a noun, referring to a kind of cheap cloth.

The world has seen its silver age, its golden age. This is the age of shoddy. The new brown-stone palaces on Fifth Avenue, the new equipages at the Park, the new diamonds which dazzle unaccustomed eyes, the new people who live in the palaces, and ride in the carriages, and wear the diamonds and silk—all are shoddy. Six days in the week they are shoddy businessmen. On the seventh day they are shoddy Christians.

But the Age of Shoddy has come and gone. As attested to by the items above, this is the Age of Petty.

And Even Furthermore . . .

The ghost of Yogi Berra apparently is writing for Sports Illustrated, insisting, on the matter of Gerrit Cole and Trevor Bauer: “These pitchers’ hands have become the face of a scandal.”

And thus does the literal facepalm meet the metaphorical one.

Rampant Prescriptivism

About last week’s column, a reader observes: “You were slow to point out that the permafrost is thawing quickly, not ‘fast.’ Unless it is engaged in fast motion while also thawing. Which I suppose it is, from a Galilean perspective.” For the record, I was not slow to point that out — I didn’t point it out at all, so I was remiss rather than slow.

Another reader wants to know why I wrote was instead of were in this sentence:

If all you ever saw of Europe was the nice parts of Amsterdam, the nice part of Zurich (which, in fairness, is called “Zurich”), the Louvre, Kensington, etc., then you might indeed share Thomas Friedman’s view of the world, that when it comes to cities and infrastructure, we are the Flintstones compared with the Jetsons abroad.

“I’m sure you have an unassailable reason for using was,” he writes.

Nope. Were is what you want there.

The subjunctive mood in English — how it is written, whether that matters, its relationship to kinda-sorta-but-maybe-not-technically subjunctive forms — is a hotly disputed topic, one of those debates in which grammar and philosophy complicate each other. In general, we use the “bare” or uninflected form of a verb with the subjunctive, to express things that are possible but not actually known to be the case at this time: “It is critical that the president know his talking points,” as opposed to “The president already knows his talking points.” “We asked that he listen closely,” as opposed to “He listens closely” or “He listened closely.”

The conditional counterfactual, as in my sentence above, generally gets a were rather than a was, though some grammarians insist that this doesn’t really matter, that it’s a grammatical-virtue-signaling bugaboo. As usual, I think it’s better to use different words and different forms for different things. “‘Here I raise my Ebenezer’ is one of those hymn lines that would befuddle you if all you knew of the Bible were the lectionary.” Or: “If he were in better shape, then he wouldn’t be wheezing.” This is sometimes called the irrealis were. The irrealis mood expresses things that are not currently known to be the case, as opposed to the realis mood, which is used for statements of fact.

If you want to dig in a little, I recommend this discussion from Merriam-Webster.

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Recommended

After watching the series and on the recommendation of many readers, I’ve been reading Wolf Hall. All the praise is warranted — and I am not naturally sympathetic to people called “Cromwell.” As a fan of A Man for All Seasons, it is fun to see the same story told with the hero and villain reversed.

In Closing

If you are wondering about that “Ebenezer,” it is not Mr. Scrooge but a reference to 1 Samuel 7:12 in the 18th-century hymn, “O, Thou Font of Every Blessing.” The short version: Samuel wins a big battle and drives the enemy back to a certain point at which he erects a stone monument he calls “Ebenezer,” or “stone of help,” saying, “Up to this point, the Lord has helped us.”

There is a kind of wonderful humility — and an antidote to fanaticism — in that:

“Is God on your side, Samuel?”

“So far.”

Continue reading at National Review