Charleston Massacre Media Coverage – Recognizing the Crime, Ignoring the Causes

(This article is published in FAIR.)

When a white male kills people in a mass shooting in the US, the corporate media follow an algorithm not unlike the Kübler-Ross model of the five stages of grief.

First, media deny that the attack constitutes terrorism. In their view, acts of political violence carried out against civilians are indisputably terrorism when they are committed by a Muslim, but this is not necessarily the case when they are committed by a white person.

This is the stage in which most media coverage of shootings by white Americans remains stuck. When Elliot Rodger massacred six people and injured 14 more in May 2014, he was not classified as a terrorist—even though he explicitly stated that his attack was motivated by an intense hatred of women, and that he sought to “punish” women, collectively, for “rejecting” him in the past.

Yet, because of mounting pressure and criticism from independent media, activists, and social media, in the wake of mass shooting after mass shooting carried out disproportionately by white men, the corporate media are no longer able to remain in a state of such denial.

The T-Word

This is what separates the media response to the Charleston shooting. On June 17, 21-year-old white supremacist Dylann Storm Roof murdered nine people during Bible study at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal church in Charleston, South Carolina.

cnn terrorism charleston

The Raw Story (6/18/15) revealed that Roof had shouted “You rape our women and you’re taking over our country — and you have to go” at the black victims while he shot them. This was the first publication to openly refer to Roof as a terrorist.

The New York Times (6/18/15), although not outright referring to it as a terrorist attack, reported that many people were asking “Why Not Call Church Shooting Terrorism?”

CNN (6/19/15) was the first large corporate media network to openly argue that we should “call it terrorism in Charleston.”

Several other publications additionally agreed to use the term. The Philadelphia Daily News wrote the word “Terrorist!” in large letters on the cover of its June 19 issue.

Not every publication adopted the t-word, nevertheless, and the coverage was still underwhelming.

FAIR counted the first-day US newspaper stories and found they were approximately one-fifth as likely to refer to terrorism in their reports on the Charleston massacre as they were in their first-day coverage of the Boston Marathon bombing—in spite of the fact that the political motivation was, right away, much clearer in Charleston and that more people were killed by Roof.

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Writing in The Intercept (6/19/15), Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Glenn Greenwald argued that the refusal of some media and of the US government to call the Charleston massacre “terrorism” again shows it is “a completely malleable, manipulated, vapid term of propaganda that has no consistent application whatsoever.”

Reuters avoided the term for a different reason: as official policy, it does not label events or people terrorism or terrorists. The international news agency recognizes that “terrorism” is a political term, and simply chooses to avoid it.

Writing in Reuters (6/23/15), Masha Gessen argues that, although the Charleston shooting is “almost certainly” a terrorist attack, it should not be referred to as such precisely because of the political exploitation of the term.

Here, however, even the media that recognized the slaughter as a terrorist attack encountered the limitations of their second stage: An inability to grasp, and thus accurately report, what exactly made Roof into a murderer. Although the corporate media have taken steps in a positive direction, their overall coverage leaves much to be desired.

The “Post-Racial” Myth

Dylann Storm Roof in his Facebook profile pictures, wearing apartheid flag patches

Dylann Storm Roof in his Facebook profile pictures, wearing apartheid flag patches

It was known from the profile picture on Roof’s Facebook page that he was a white supremacist. The photo depicted the young man with a jacket on which were sewn patches of the flags of apartheid-era South Africa and Rhodesia during the time of colonial white-minority rule. This, in conjunction with the fact that a survivor recalled him accusing black people collectively of raping white women and taking over the country, made it clear that Roof’s motivations were racist in nature.

The corporate media, nonetheless—and the right-wing media in particular—remained in utter denial, refusing to even acknowledge race. In fact, some publications propagated an antithetical narrative: the “post-racial” myth.

The editorial board of the Wall Street Journal (6/18/15) went out of its way to claim that racism is dead and that Roof’s motivation “is a problem that defies explanation beyond the reality that evil still stalks humanity.”

The “system and philosophy of institutionalized racism identified by Dr. King no longer exists,” the renowned publication claimed. Instead of recognizing the racism that motivated the killer, the Wall Street Journal appeals to an “evil” that is presumably inevitable—and yet apparently does not manifest itself with the nearly the same frequency in other “advanced nations.”

rick perry charleston drugs

On Steve Malzberg’s conservative Newsmax television program (6/19/15), Republican presidential hopeful Rick Perry claimed that the shooting was an “accident” caused by drugs.

Without evidence, on the morning after the shooting, Fox News (6/18/15) claimed the attack was religiously, not racially, motivated—although nothing is known about Roof’s religion or thoughts on the subject. In their coverage, the Fox & Friends hosts do not even mention that the people killed were all black. They refer to the church as “a historic church,” not “a historic black church,” and the killing as a “horrifying attack on faith.” “If we’re not safe in our own churches, then where are we safe?” the Fox News hosts ask.

The New York Times removed “white” from the headline and “hate crime” from the lead in its June 18 article about the shooting, downplaying the racism involved in the attack.

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Pathologizing

When Roof’s white supremacist manifesto was discovered on his personal website, along with 60 photos of him posing with neo-Nazi and white supremacist symbols, there remained no doubt whatsoever that his goal was fundamentally racist. In the typo-ridden document, Roof details his white supremacist ideology and blatantly declares that, by attacking black civilians, he hoped to instigate a race war.

Neo-Nazi white supremacist Dylann Roof, in a photo he uploaded to his website

Neo-Nazi white supremacist Dylann Roof, in a photo he uploaded to his website

“I have no choice. I am not in the position to, alone, go into the ghetto and fight,” Roof wrote.  “I chose Charleston because it is most historic city in my state, and at one time had the highest ratio of blacks to Whites [sic] in the country.”

In the manifesto, Roof also reveals that he was radicalized by searching the internet for reports on “black-on-white violence.” He says he googled the phrase and came across the Council of Conservative Citizens, a racist organization that has ties to the Republican party. This organization, a recognized hate group, radicalized him.

A double standard here is obvious. If a Muslim extremist said he were radicalized by an organization, the media would instantly dub the group a hotbed of terrorism. There would be talk of terrorism indictments in the government, and potentially even of drone strikes.

Yet, in lieu of pointing out the role of the US right wing and the conservative media in radicalizing Roof, the corporate media preferred to pathologize him as a distraught young man, as a mere product of a troubled childhood.

The Daily Mail emphasizes that Roof's father is "tattooed with nipple rings"

The Daily Mail emphasizes that Roof’s father is “tattooed with nipple rings”

The UK’s right-wing tabloid the Daily Mail—which has a long history of incredibly problematic behavior, most notably its support of the Nazis and Fascists in WWII, and which still today runs overtly racist anti-refugees pieces and whitewashes Blackwater mercenaries who massacred Iraqi civilians—went out of its way to humanize the killer.

It titled a piece (6/19/15), in its trademark long headlines, “Charleston killer Dylann Roof grew up in a fractured home where his ‘violent’ father beat his stepmother and hired a private detective to follow her when they split, she claims in court papers.”

In the first line, the tabloid refers to Roof as “the white loner.” The Daily Mail details the ghastly ways in which Roof’s father abused his partner, drawing undue attention to his tattoos and nipple rings, yet appears to suggest that this is a factor in turning the son into a white supremacist murderer. It mentions that Roof “spent his days taking drugs and playing video games,” but scarcely acknowledges his involvement in racist movements.

The New York Daily News (6/19/15) also reports that Roof “was raised in a home destroyed by domestic violence,” implying his father is guilty for the violence. “Roof had one chance at a stable family life — and his abusive dad ruined it for him,” the publication writes. The New York Daily News also goes out of its way to mention that the shooter’s father is “tattoo-covered.”

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Media went so far as to blame the internet for the violence Roof carried out. NBC (6/20/15), quoting Roof’s family, reduced the attack to “internet evil.”

Humanizing

In addition to riffing on pop psychology and treating the killer as if he were a mere victim of unfortunate circumstances, not as the proponent of a violent white supremacist ideology that he is, media fumbled over themselves in their desperate attempt to humanize Roof. All of the leading media networks and publications participated in this humanization process.

daily beast roof black friends

The Daily Mail (6/18/15) describes the shooter saying that “friends have spoken out to paint a picture of a demonic character who fantasized about massacres so openly that people thought he was joking” and that his constant threats to kill people were just a product of his “deadpan sense of humor.” It would be hard to imagine a news source reporting that a person of color, particularly a Muslim person of color, was “joking” when openly fantasizing about massacres.

AP (6/19/15) verged on the farcical by quoting an acquaintance of Roof who said he didn’t know Roof was a racist—in spite of his apartheid flag patches and Confederate license plate—as “he had black friends.”

The Daily Beast (6/18/15) emphasized this infamous “black friends” trope.

AP also indicates Roof was a skateboarder with long hair when he was growing up and quote an acquaintance saying “He was pretty smart.”

Another acquaintance is quoted by AP (6/19/15) saying the killer “was a really sweet kid. He was quiet. He only had a few friends.” AP only mentions in the third-last paragraph that Roof is a “disaffected white supremacist.”

mother jones normal kid

Reuters (6/18/15) quoted Roof’s uncle, describing the shooter as “quiet and soft-spoken.”

In spite of the fact that Roof wore patches with the flags of colonial apartheid regimes, Mother Jones (6/18/15) quoted the shooter’s former lawyer, who said he had seemed like “just a normal kid.”

Many publications note his affinity for video games and drugs, referring to as a “pill-popping” killer.

People Magazine (6/19/15) even dragged in Roof’s sister, reporting that she cancelled her wedding in the wake of the massacre.

And, of course, the infamous mental illness trope lay in the background of much of the discussion.

Conservative publication Newsmax (6/19/15) wrote that “media reports are already debating whether the 21-year-old man is deranged or merely a bigot with a gun.”

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Newsweek (6/19/15) also attributed the violence to mental illness, writing “if history is any indication, the shooter most likely has a history of severe mental health issues that have either gone untreated or undiagnosed.”

In spite of this common excuse vis-à-vis mass shootings by white males, scientific studies have found that people who are mentally ill are more likely to be victims, not perpetrators, of violence.

Recognizing the Radicalizers

Absent from this discussion were the forces that turned Dylann Roof into a white supremacist, far-right radical who posed with “heil Hitler” symbols. There are obvious actors who regularly espouse the “black-on-white violence” narrative that ultimately inspired Roof’s attack.

The right-wing National Review (5/12/12) argues that there is a left-wing conspiracy to cover up black-on-white crime. “A censored race war” is already ongoing, the publication avers, and “the media ignore racially motivated black-on-white crime.”

examiner black on white crime

“Conservative Examiner” Anthony Martin argues the same, writing in Examiner.com (5/15/12).

Breitbart regularly warns of “black-on-white” violence and has constantly depicted (4/25/15) the Black Lives Matter civil rights movement as an anti-white hate movement.

In fact, when one googles “black on white violence,” among the first results that come up are David Horowitz’ far-right FrontPage Mag (9/13/13) (the motto of which is “Inside every liberal is a totalitarian screaming to get out”), the right-wing American Thinker (4/8/15), and more. Neither of these publications is, by any means, on the fringe of US politics. Both have large readerships among the American right-wing.

Roof says in his manifesto that it was paranoid media coverage such as this that made him believe that white Americans are under attack. He claimed the news was “blowing up the Trayvon Martin case while hundreds of these black on White [sic] murders got ignored.” Roof’s media paranoia was compounded by right-wing demagogues’ fearmongering about a supposedly impending “race war.”

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Alex Jones, whose website InfoWars (5/7/15) is popular among right-wing conspiracy theorists, warned that Obama is going to “deputize and arm gang members such as the ‘Crips and the Bloods'” in order to fight a race war. “The guillotines are ready and they are greasing the blades,” InfoWars warned.

Right-wing pundit Michelle Malkin regularly warns that black Americans are calling for a race war.

Libertarian idol Ron Paul has also forecast a violent race war.

And Roof pointed to the shooting of unarmed black teen Trayvon Martin as a concrete example of an instigating factor. Conservative publications such as The Daily Caller (3/26/12) constantly claimed that the cards were stacked against George Zimmerman, the man who killed Martin, and that black people were exploiting the shooting in order to threaten whites.

In his Fox program The O’Reilly Factor (6/19/15), right-wing pundit Bill O’Reilly insisted that “far-left rhetoric is far more hateful these days than what the hard right puts out,” implying that leftist speech is worse than right-wing terror attacks. AlterNet writer Zaid Jilani remarked in response “The far-right blows up government buildings, what does the far-left do, vicious drum circles?”

bill o'reilly far-left rhetoric

Like Roof, O’Reilly insists that “white suppression” and oppression of black people is the “far-left’s newest propaganda” and “a big lie.” “Basically, the anti-American zealots are trying to convince people that we have an unjust society,” O’Reilly claimed on The O’Reilly Factor (4/18/15). O’Reilly, like much of the conservative press, pointed to the April Baltimore Uprising as an example of black people’s supposed assault on white America.

These are the media outlets and demagogues that spread the myths that ultimately lead white supremacists like Dylann Roof to carry out horrific acts of violence. Right-wing publications routinely warn of an impending “race war,” ostensibly instigated by black “aggressors,” yet the media has failed to openly connect the dots.

Boston.com‘s coverage is exemplary of this trend. The website published a maudlin thinkpiece (6/18/15) that argued “Everyone and no one is to blame for the killings in Charleston.” The op-ed does blame racism for the attack, but devotes more attention to “our country’s appalling lack of gun control”; harangues “ourselves for electing leaders who have failed to protect our own people”; and, engaging once again in the classic excuse, speculates that mental illness may be responsible.

Steps Forward

The ultimate irony is that, the day before the Charleston Massacre, the New York Times (6/16/15) warned of “The Growing Right-Wing Terror Threat.”

nyt right-wing terror threat

In spite of the constant warning about Muslim extremists, the newspaper notes, “headlines can mislead. The main terrorist threat in the United States is not from violent Muslim extremists, but from right-wing extremists. Just ask the police.”

Roof, not just a white supremacist but a far-right extremist who posted photos to his website of him with neo-Nazi symbols, is emblematic of this very real and very dangerous, rapidly growing threat. Yet, even when the right-wing threat manifests itself before the corporate media’s very own eyes, they are unable to recognize it.

The next step the media must take is to spend less time investigating white shooters’ allegedly lonely lives and drug habits and more time detailing what exactly turned them into extremists.

Thanks to pressure from independent media and activists, the press may slowly be acknowledging that white Americans can indeed be terrorists, but they continue to refuse to scrutinize what exactly made them that way. When a Muslim extremist kills civilians, the media virtually instantly attribute the violence to radical Islam, in a knee-jerk response.

Dylann Roof poses on a beach with "1488," a neo-Nazi symbol

Dylann Roof poses on a beach with “1488,” a neo-Nazi symbol

When a white extremist kills civilians, on the other hand, even if the corporate media admit that that person is a terrorist, they pathologize him and blame it on “mental illness” or friendship problems. Roof, and fellow white male shooters, are invariably seen as “lone wolves.” The fact that Roof is part of a larger white supremacist movement, the fact that he was radicalized by an organization that has ties to the mainstream right-wing party and by myths that are propagated by popular conservative media, is largely ignored.

In short, the media response to the Charleston shooting may in some ways represent a step forward, but it is still miles away from being ideal. Media may now recognize the crime, yet they continue to ignore its causes.