Accuracy in Media

We have previously commented on the media’s handling of the Mike Espy case. The former Agriculture Secretary was acquitted by a Washington jury of all charges of accepting illegal gifts. There was general agreement in the press that this was a big setback for the independent counsel, Donald Smaltz, who had brought the charges. Initial stories about the verdict ignored the fact that, with one exception, the jury was black. Could this have had something to do with the acquittal of Espy, who was also black?

Not only did two of the major weekly new magazines not fairly deal with it, one of them suggested Espy was singled out for prosecution because he was black. This feeds the fires of racist conspiracy theories. In Time magazine, Jack E. White said that because Espy was the first black secretary of agriculture, he was supposed to meet the Jackie Robinson standard of conduct. By that, he meant that Espy would have to uphold “superhuman” standards and be a “kind of saint.” White said Espy had committed “a few nitpicking ethical lapses” that provided an opportunity for an “overzealous prosecutor” to go after him.

On the contrary, the evidence indicates that Espy violated the law and that a mostly black jury declined to convict him because he was black. The fact is that Espy acknowledged receiving gifts in violation of federal law and regulations. Those who had given him the gifts acknowledged doing so and were prosecured, convicted and paid fines totalling $11 million.

Jack White, in Time magazine, never mentioned the largely black composition of the jury. In Newsweek, reporter Matt Bai noted it, at the end of a story about the Espy case, and then tried to throw it aside. Here’s how he handled it: “A spokesman [for Smaltz] said no one disputed the facts if the case, and he speculated that race played a role in the verdict; virtually all the D.C. jurors were black. Espy dismisses that…” Dismisses that? On what basis?

Jack White’s column was not that much different in tone and substance than the coverage of the Espy verdict in The Final Call, the newspaper of Louis Farrakhan’s Nation of Islam. This paper insisted that Espy was among several Clinton cabinet officials who are or were being investigated or prosecuted because they are minorites. The president of one group complained about “this brother”—meaning Espy—being subjected to a trial because he was trying to help some black farmers, He called the verdict in the case “outstanding.”

Something similar happened in the O.J. Simpson murder case. There, the jury decided that racism on the part of a police officer and other factors undermined the case against Simpson and they let him walk free. Later, however, he was found guilty in a civil case of being liable for the murders of his ex-wife and her friend. First, Simpson; now Espy. We need commentators in the media who will stand up to a form of racism that lets blacks off the hook for breaking the law and committing murder. Where is the media outrage about guilty people going free?




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