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The BYU Racial Slur Incident Shows How the Media Fans the Culture War Flames
The press is failing at its duty to properly vet serious accusations. But why?
The headlines left nothing in doubt. “Brigham Young fan banned after directing racial slurs toward Duke volleyball player,” USA Today pronounced.
“BYU bans fan, relocates volleyball match after racist slurs, threats” the Washington Post informed readers. According to Reuters, “Duke volleyball game in Utah moved after racist abuse hurled at Black player,” apparently a reasonable move. And the Old Gray Lady herself saw fit to print “Racial Slur During College Volleyball Game Leads to Fan Suspension.”
In retrospect, the headlines were, to reconfigure the cliche, never in doubt, but wildly wrong. An investigation involving repeated, detailed reviews of audio and video recordings and inquiries of 50 or more individuals yielded no evidence that any such verbal racist attack had occurred.
The particulars of the incident sounded horrendous. A black women’s volleyball player from Duke, Rachel Richardson, was loudly and unrelentingly subjected to racial slurs, harassment and threats during a game against Brigham Young University in front of a record crowd of over 5,500 at BYU.
Initial stories on the incident were largely based on a Tweet from Lesa Pamplin, a candidate for County Criminal Court judge in Fort Worth, Texas, and statements from the targeted player’s father based on a phone call from his daughter. Inexplicably, in spite of the enormous crowd and the immediate attention from law enforcement and athletic officials from both schools, the serial racist abuser could not be stopped or even identified during the remainder of the game even though the slur was hurled “every time she served.”
Inexplicably, that is, to a media conditioned to give credence to such accusations on the thinnest of evidence. The familiar standard for such incidents is guilty until proven innocent. The Jussie Smollett affair is perhaps the highest profile case, but is by no means isolated. Last August, a Colorado Rockies fan was branded as a “despicable” racist until it was determined that what the man actually shouted was the Rockies mascot’s name. And in 2017 and 2018, I documented multiple cases of racial incidents and even crimes that turned out to be nothing like they were originally reported.
The responses of Duke and BYU, the two schools involved in the recent volleyball incident, give clues about what drives the credulous media reporting in such cases. A few days after the event, BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe wrote [emphasis added], “Regardless of whether we were able to identify racist statements during the event, my first concern remained for the student athlete who felt unsafe in our venue.” A kind sentiment, no doubt, but one that makes no distinction between perception and reality.
This need to show “zero-tolerance” has spilled over from the parties involved to the reporting itself. An article by sports journalist Mike Freeman made the argument explicit, writing that to even question Richardson’s account was to side with the “right-wing media ecosystem” who “believe that Hollywood liberals eat babies. Or the Parkland students were crisis actors. Or that JFK is alive.”
Although failure to take credible accusations seriously is part of what launched the #MeToo movement a few years ago, the media still have a responsibility to vet accusations that can result in irreversible damage to reputations and even livelihoods. Clearly such incidents are not beyond the realm of possibility.
Individuals driven by hatred, anger, racism, or even just alcohol, still engage in such acts. But as public, profligate use of slurs grows more and more unacceptable in most places in American society, the power of accusation centered on them grows in tandem. The media would do well to remember that though there was a time when the hurler of the epithet undoubtedly held greater cultural power, that time is no more.
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