LAST HALLOWEEN IN THE Bixby Knolls neighborhood of Long Beach, where neighbors put on a lavish fright fest each year, three young women left a haunted house and found themselves caught in a street brawl with a crowd of teenagers. By melee’s end, one woman’s face was fractured in 12 spots, her teeth were broken and she’d suffered partial loss of sight in one eye. Two of the women suffered brain concussions and assorted broken bones after being kicked, punched and even struck by a skateboard wielded as a weapon.
The story broke on November 3, when local Web site editor William Pearl scooped other media on LBReport.com, quoting Long Beach police spokeswoman Jacqueline Bezart as saying a crowd of black attackers hurled racial taunts (“White bitches!” “We hate whites!”) at the young women, and the police were pursuing it as a hate crime.
At the Press-Telegram in Long Beach, reporter Tracy Manzer quickly landed an exclusive interview with the victims, introducing awkward issues of race and culture rarely seen in California media. Said one victim, identified as Laura: “They asked us, ‘Are you down with it?’ We had no idea what that meant so we didn’t say anything and just walked by them up to the haunted house. They were grabbing their crotches — we didn’t know if it was a gang thing or what.”
Suddenly, newspaper editors, TV-news directors and other media faced an unsettling prospect of their own: If white-on-black hate crime is covered with an apologetic tone and references to the legacy of slavery, what’s the tone for covering black-on-white hate crime? Can a minority be a racist? And how can we, the media, get out of this?
As the Press-Telegram reported on November 3, three white women aged 19 to 21 emerged from a “maze” walk in a house and were confronted by up to 40 black teenagers who pelted them with pumpkins and lemons. The paper said, “The taunts and jeers grew more aggressive, the victims recalled, as did the size of the crowd. Now females joined in, and everyone began saying, ‘We hate white people, f--- whites!’ ”
The bizarre case, now in its fifth week of trial, resulted in hate-crime charges against nine girls and three boys, two of whom will be tried later. Yet the story didn’t run in the Los Angeles Times until November 7, buried inside local news. In that piece, writer J. Michael Kennedy quoted the Press-Telegram’s interview with the victims, watering down the racist language to the vague and more acceptable phrase “a series of antiwhite epithets.”
While some media tiptoed around the story, another outlook was emerging as the fast-tracked trial — required in youth cases — hurtled toward its late-November start date. Well-known black political columnist Earl Ofari Hutchinson, who has explored both sides of the story in a levelheaded manner, was quoted by City News Service as noting that the latest FBI hate-crimes report showed that blacks now commit more than 20 percent of the hate crimes, the majority of victims white.
BUT JOURNALISTS WERE IN unfamiliar waters covering what was, in essence, a “man-bites-dog story.” By late November, nearly a month after the beatings, the only national media reporting the case were Associated Press and UPI, despite extensive coverage in the Press-Telegram. That paper’s executive editor, Rich Archbold, declared to the Weekly, “We cover Long Beach better than everybody. We got onto it. There’s so much more to be done — the paper can take a bigger role.”
From the start of the trial, Press-Telegram reporter Tracy Manzer has offered a detailed picture of the courtroom, the families and the shackled teens in juvie-gray sweatshirts. She has veered into touchy racial territory, telling readers about Karl Rowe, a defendant’s uncle and a fixture at the trial. In a self-published pamphlet, Rowe declared that “ ‘n----r’ for the N word is different from ‘n---a,’ ” insisting that the district attorney didn’t understand that words like “nigga” and “white bitches” are acceptable in some urban enclaves.
But the racial controversies simmering just below the surface didn’t hit national airwaves until November 29. That day, on National Public Radio’s News & Notes, a show touting an “African-American perspective,” Farai Chideya asked three prominent black guests whether, in fact, blacks can be blamed for hate crimes at all.
Said Chideya: “. . . some people say black folks cannot be racist because the root of the issue is power. So what do you make of this crime where you’ve got 12- to 17-year-olds and, you know, black people attacking whites? Is this a traditional hate crime? Should it be prosecuted as such? People in the community are kind of divided about that.”
Incredibly, Chideya’s show was the first mention of the unusual hate-crime case by national broadcast media — this, in a nation of 24/7 news cycles where hot topics like cats stuck in chimneys feed the electronic media maw.