This week contained a watershed moment for me and my relationship with the media. Although I have been critical of missteps, I have nonetheless been generally supportive of the media. There's a lot of good journalism out there and it isn't fair to overly generalize when the wheels get wobbly on the bandwagon.
But that all changed this week. I'm reasonably sure that I will never again take at face value anything that I read in a major newspaper, hear or see on radio or TV news. The media's burden of proof just got much higher with me.
The impetus for all of this was the Bubba Wallace debacle. For those of you who may not be up to speed on what transpired, the short version is that Mr. Wallace, who is currently the only Black driver in NASCAR, was informed by NASCAR officials that he'd been the victim of a hate crime. Someone on his team spotted a hangman's noose, a potent symbol of lynching in some contexts, in his garage at the Talladega Superspeedway in Lincoln, Alabama.
The discovery of a symbol of lynching in the garage of the only Black NASCAR driver immediately became a headline in every major newspaper in the country. It was a lead story on every TV news broadcast — for days. I fell for it myself. I was angry as hell. Things like this do not represent progress. If true, this was an awful story.
There was a rebellious atom vibrating in the back of my noggin that kept whispering to me about not getting too carried away until all of the facts were in. I wondered why there was no picture of the noose in any of the stories, but rationalized that away knowing that authorities often withhold pictures of evidence in the midst of an investigation.
Besides, I thought to myself, the Times, the Post, CNN, SI, ESPN, et al, have to be asking the same question — and they have direct access to those who can answer it. It all seemed overwhelmingly legitimate to me. So much so that I abandoned my normal skepticism and jumped on the outrage bandwagon myself.
The problem was that it wasn't an entirely true story — and that's a charitable assessment. It took the FBI less than a day to conclude that no hate crime had occurred. That the “noose” in question had been used to open the garage door to which it was attached for almost a year.
Unless you believe in time-travel or psychic predictions there's no way that anyone could have known that Bubba Wallace would eventually end up in the garage in question. The racial outrage angle ended up being bogus.
In earlier times, responsible elements of the media would have issued an apology for dropping such a bombshell of inaccurate reporting, on a racial issue, in the midst of considerable social unrest over racial issues.
But not anymore. All I've seen in the wake of a rather terse FBI statement denying that any hate crime had occurred is doubling down in the major media. Not even so much as a “whoops.”
Early photos of the “noose” in question showed two things. The first is that it looked a lot like the kind of knot that I and many others have used for similar purposes; i.e., one that works for closing a garage door or window shade. The second is that many similar knots were found on other garage doors.
But the current media spin is accompanied by a single photo, released by NASCAR (who apparently are unsatisfied with the FBI's investigation and are pursuing their own), which shows a much neater knot that does look remarkably (and conveniently) like a hangman's noose. NASCAR also claims, despite evidence to the contrary, that every other garage door at at Talladega is closed by a rope with no knot in the end.
There are knots just like the one I've seen in all of the pictures besides the NASCAR shot in my own shop. They have nothing to do with lynching or racism or anything other than pulling down a shade or overhead door. It's a loop to make pulling on something easier.
And even if the knot in question was a crude hangman's knot, so what? The list of reasons why whoever tied it did so could have a lot of entries besides racism. Who, as a youngster, didn't try tying one just to see if they could?
I've seen a lot of hangman's knots and it never occurred to me that any of them came from junior racists. Are we going to start sending every kid who plays a game of “hangman” to sensitivity training?
The fact of the matter is that this story took off simply because it fit the prevailing narrative that NASCAR is popular with white, southern hillbillies who are all presumed to be Trump-supporting racists. There were a lot of people who wanted this to be true because it fit their perspective on a whole bunch of people they don't know and a sport of which they probably disapprove.
I looked up everyone who wrote an outrage article that I read, or who I saw on TV, concerning this. So I'll play, too. Most of them looked like liberal urbanites not too far removed from college. The rest looked like liberal urbanites who just acted like they were not too far removed from college.
Well, no offense to anyone's minutes of experience with all of this, but most of these people had no idea what the hell they were talking about. They should all be contrite about now. But I doubt that many of them have the sense for that.
Associated Press and Idaho Press Club award-winning columnist Martin Hackworth of Pocatello is a physicist, writer, consultant and retired Idaho State University faculty member who now spends his time raising children, llama farming, riding mountain bikes and motorcycles and playing guitars. His video blog, “Howlin’ at the Moon in ii-V-I,” may be found at facebook.com/HowlinattheMoonin251 and on YouTube at bit.ly/2SN745k.