Feeding the frenzy: the Atlanta murders and anti-Asian racism

Bam. Right out of the gate, national news media, advocacy groups, celebrities and politicians tied Tuesday night’s spa killings by Robert Aaron Long in Atlanta of seven women and one man, six of them of Asian descent, to anti-Asian racism.

“Call the Atlanta killings what they are: racial terrorism,” ran the Boston Globe headline on March 17.

“The killings of eight people, including six women of Asian descent, during a shooting spree in the Atlanta area yesterday have prompted a national outcry, and at a news conference today Biden noted a “very, very troubling” pattern of violence against Asian-Americans in recent months,” The New York Times reported.

The paper went on to cite statistics reported by Stop AAPI Hate, a nonprofit social organization that says it tracks incidents of discrimination, hate and xenophobia against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in the United States. “Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders were targeted in nearly 3,800 hate incidents reported over the past year, according to Stop AAPI Hate,” the paper said.

NBC news even reported Stop AAPI Hate’s numbers as fact on March 17, with absolutely no critical analysis. “There were 3,800 anti-Asian racist incidents, mostly against women, in past year,” ran the NBC headline.

Meanwhile, the left-leaning policy institute, the Center for American Progress, tried to tie the Atlanta killings to not only anti-Asian racism, but to white supremacy and misogny as well. “We…need to be unafraid and unflinching in calling Tuesday’s attack what it was: the result of anti-Asian racism, white supremacy, and misogyny, the Center said. “Anything less would be counterproductive in our fight to dismantle these systems of violence. Increased anti-Asian rhetoric and violence are a tragic reminder of the urgent need to dismantle white supremacy. #StopAsianHate

Others piled on:

  • Atlanta mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms noted that the shootings follow a surge in racial violence against Asian Americans across the U.S. “It is unacceptable, it is hateful, and it has to stop,” she said.
  • Former President Donald Trump bears some responsibility for threats and violence against Asian Americans, said White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki. “There’s no question that some of the damaging rhetoric that we saw during the prior administration…has elevated threats against Asian-Americans.”
  • “The reported shootings of Asian American women on Tuesday in Atlanta is an unspeakable tragedy—for the families of the victims first and foremost, but also for the AAPI community—which has been reeling from high levels of racial discrimination,”  Stop Asian American and Pacific Islander Hate said in a statement.
  • Margaret Huang, president and CEO of the Southern Poverty Law Center, a racial justice nonprofit, argued that Long was motivated by hate because he chose “targets owned by Asians.”
  • Bee Nguyen, the first Vietnamese American to serve in the Georgia house of representatives, said”misogyny and xenophobia” prompted the shootings.
  • Olivia Munn, who recently called out the new Teen Vogue editor-in-chief for her past allegedly racist tweets against Asians, said she’s “struggling” with the latest act of violence. “We are being targeted, we are living in a country that is attacking us simply just for being us,” Munn said. 
  • One news outlet, NewsOne, even tied the resignation under pressure of Teen Vogue editor Alexi McCammond, 27, to the spa murders partly because she sent a derogatory tweet about an Asian teacher when in college. “The move comes as violence against AAPI communities has spiked during the COVID-19 pandemic, culminating in a targeted attack on Tuesday in Georgia where six Asian-American women were killed in massage parlors,” NewsOne, a Black-focused site, reported today.

There’s one problem. All the evidence, including statements by Long, indicates the shootings were not racially motivated.

“He (Long) apparently has an issue, what he considers a sex addiction, and sees these locations as something that allows him to go to these places, and it’s a temptation for him that he wanted to eliminate,” said Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office spokesman Capt. Jay Baker.

But in the current frenzy over purported anti-Asian incidents in the United States, the temptation to tie the Atlanta shootings to anti-Asian racism has apparently been too tempting and the hook too easy.

Part of that is likely because it serves the agenda of some groups trying to draw attention to themselves. Part is probably because too much of the media is lazy, jumping on convenient connections to fill out a story and draw an audience.

And part, in this case, is probably because tying the shootings to anti-Asian racism caters to the predispositions of liberal audiences. They’re the ones now pushing to have the shootings called a hate crime, so they can push the Asian anti-racism connection harder, despite the evidence.

The reaction to the incident involving the Covington Catholic students near the Lincoln Memorial in January 2019 is a case in point of jumping to conclusions that satisfy presumptions.

Media outlets, celebrities and social media leaped on a viral videotaped encounter between a Native American man and high school boys that suggested a clash of racial and ideological differences. The initial media portrayal of the incident triggered outrage at the students in some quarters. The students received death threats and Covington Catholic High School temporarily closed due to fears for its students’ safety.

When more complete video footage emerged, it was clear that the students were not the aggressors in the incident. Reporting on the incident was so egregious that Nicholas Sandmann, the Covington student featured in most media coverage of the incident, filed lawsuits against CNN and The Washing ton Post. Both settled with Sandmann. The terms of the settlements were not disclosed.

All of this squanders the faith and trust of the general public. But in this age of preconceived notions and instant outrage it probably won’t stop.

Media Malpractice: Reporting on Post-Election Hate

stopthehate

There’s not just fake news out there. There’s also a lot of reporting that’s just plain unreliable and biased, but is accepted uncritically by people because it fits their preconceived expectations and those of their like-minded circle.

Tales of hate incidents, threats and intimidation of minorities abound, with many commentators suggesting there’s a linkage between the incidents and Donald Trump’s election.

Much of the recent debate has relied on data gathered by the Montgomery, Alabama-based Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC).

On Nov. 29, the SPLC released reports “documenting (emphasis mine) how President-elect Donald Trump’s own words have sparked hate incidents across the country and had a profoundly negative effect on the nation’s schools”. The reports said that in the ten days after the election the SPLC counted 867 incidents of harassment and intimidation.

Most of the incidents cited by the SPLC involved anti-immigrant incidents (136), followed by anti-black (89) and anti-LGBT (43). A “Trump” category (41) referred to incidents where there was no clear defined target, like the vandalism of a “unity” sign in Connecticut, which the SPLC categorized as “pro-Trump vandalism”.

The New York Times jumped on the report, observing that, “Hate Crimes have surged across the country,” linking that assertion to the SPLC ‘s “hate crimes” reports and denouncing Trump for not being more aggressive in “condemning the hate talk and violence being done in his name.”

The New Yorker, citing the SPLC reports, said, “Since Donald Trump won the Presidential election, there has been a dramatic uptick in incidents of racist and xenophobic harassment across the country.”

“Hate, harassment incidents spike since Trump election”, CBS News reported, basing its report largely on SPLC’s data.

Willamette Week picked up the SPLC’s report, running a story headlined, “Report on Post-Election Hate Incidents Shows Oregon at Top of List; New Southern Poverty Law Center info paints alarming picture of Pacific Northwest.”

NPR’s All Things Considered also had a segment on the topic.

“Since Tuesday (Nov. 8), the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate groups, has counted some 250 incidents…. ,” said NPR’s Eyder Peralta. “While they have not verified all of them, they include anti-Semitic, anti-black, anti-Muslim messages and, in the case of a Michigan middle school, a lunchroom anti-immigrant taunt – build the wall.”

“I think that the emotions that were unleashed by the Trump campaign’s use of bigotry as a tool to get elected has reached every part of our society, “ said Heidi Beirich, an employee of the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) described as an expert on various forms of extremism. “I think that the emotions that were unleashed by the Trump campaign’s use of bigotry as a tool to get elected has reached every part of our society.”

Because the SPLC is widely recognized as a reputable source, or because many media outlets have taken the easy way out and simply parroted the SPLC’s reports, the media have been awash in reports citing the SPLC data.

There’s one big problem. Media don’t note that the SPLC has not verified the incidents it cites so breathlessly as evidence of a spike in hate crimes..

On its website, the SPLC admits the hate incidents it cites came from news reports, social media, and direct submissions via SPLC’s #ReportHate page. “These incidents, aside from news reports, are largely anecdotal” and “…it was not possible to confirm the veracity of all reports” the SPLC says.

And there’s no way for the public to even read the details of all the reported incidents because the SPLC’s website doesn’t provide access to them.

There may, indeed, have been a recent rise in hate incidents, and the SPLC’s reports make for bone-chilling reading. But the reports don’t “document” hate incidents if the word is taken to mean providing hard evidence.

Hanna Goldfield addressed the critical need for writing to be accurate, even if an alternative version is more “beautiful” or makes a story stronger, in a piece she wrote for the New Yorker. “The conceit that one must choose facts or beauty—even if it’s beauty in the name of “Truth” or a true “idea”—is preposterous,” she said. “A good writer—with the help of a fact-checker and an editor, perhaps—should be able to marry the two, and a writer who refuses to even try is, simply, a hack.”

Reporters should also recognize that data sources are rarely neutral observers. the SPLC, for example, has a position to plead, a message to deliver in order to generate contributions, a desire to be quoted so its influence will be enhanced.

Paul Sperry, a former Washington bureau chief for Investor’s Business Daily, also points out that although the SPLC claims to be a nonpartisan civil rights law firm, it receives funding from leftist groups, including ones controlled by billionaire George Soros. And a review of Federal Election Commission records reveals that its board members contributed more than $13,400 to Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaigns.

In summary, there’s a lesson here for current and aspiring reporters. Reporters shouldn’t just accept and promote information that affirms their biases or makes for a story that attracts a lot of clicks.  That’s sloppy reporting that undermines trust in the media, and rightfully so.