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When White Folks Mess Up 

Race, class and media bias

In recent years, Americans have been embroiled in numerous public and private discussions about the role that money and status play in how certain events are covered in the media.

Everyday people, pundits and scholars bemoan the fact that media outlets have become safe havens for the rich ... as if this is some novel phenomenon. Media bias is nothing new and has been occurring since the beginning of the trade -- when newspapers in particular were supposed to be a mouthpiece for the masses, but, in fact, were owned by the elite. This began a precarious relationship between owners and readers/consumers, both of whom depended on each other for survival. The owners needed money for circulation and the readers/consumers needed knowledge, having learned that knowledge is power in a literate society. The romantic notion that the media somehow was ever fair, unbiased and equal is a false one. But it is refreshing to observe the willingness of people to discuss how class biases impact media and society.

What is even more interesting is the unwillingness of everyday people and pundits to acknowledge the role that race biases play in media coverage. One can examine this topic from a legion of perspectives, including ownership patterns, aesthetics, modes of production and content. What seems to be most available by observation is content and not only who gets covered, but also how they get covered.

There is clearly a double standard that exists in media coverage, and many times it falls along issues of race and class. People will acknowledge the impact of class on an issue, while ignoring the impact of race.

For instance, world-class tennis player Martina Hingis "quietly" retired from tennis after testing positive for cocaine at Wimbledon. Once a five-time Grand Slam singles champion and the youngest No. 1 ranked tennis player ever, Hingis walked away from tennis without much fanfare, hysteria or outrage. She was a beast on the court and only semi-retired previously because of foot and leg injuries.

A "golden girl," some speculate that Hingis wanted to preserve her spot as a future hall-of-famer by eluding the mandatory two-year suspension that accompanies a positive test (which has only happened once in the history of women's tennis). One could argue that it is a good thing that the media did not make this into a spectacle or drawn-out soap opera -- much like that of Marion Jones. The media exercised restraint that would never have happened if say Venus Williams had tested positive for cocaine or steroids. If it was Williams, we would be hearing about it for years to come; that's partly because the dominant narrative of sports news is the downfall of the "great athlete" -- which in recent years has become synonymous with black athletes. America loves to see black people who are considered "exceptional" fall from grace and take their rightful place at the bottom of the pyramid, alongside their brethren that are most often highlighted as criminals on the local news. White athletes, with the possible exception of Pete Rose, not so much.

The recent arrests and conviction of Philadelphia Eagles Coach Andy Reid's sons Britt and Garrett is another example. Coach Reid's "boys," who are 22 and 24 respectively (which makes them "men" in most spaces), had run-ins with the law. One was involved in a car crash while high on heroin with drug paraphernalia in the car, and the other was involved in a road-rage incident in which he waved a gun at a fellow driver. Subsequent searches of Coach Reid's home, where both "boys" lived, found more drugs and guns. Garrett Reid, an admitted drug dealer, dealt drugs in poor Philadelphia neighborhoods.

Media coverage of these events varied, but many sports commentators pooh-poohed Reid's involvement, stating that it was a family matter. When you allow your sons to live at your house and to deal drugs and run illegal guns out the house, it then becomes a legal matter. If these boys were poor or black, the whole family would have been charged and gone to jail because that is what usually happens -- even to those who claim that they did not know that their children were drug dealers. If you are black and rich, the family goes to jail, as was the case with Frank Lucas, Rayful Edmond and even the infamous Michael Vick. The media and society that has no trouble positioning teen black "boys" as "adults," and charging them as such, quite easily positioned Andy Reid's sons as "boys" even though they are actually "adults." Coach Reid's assets were not frozen or seized. And the media did not discuss the disparity in treatment of Coach Reid and his wife by the law but focused on the disparity in penalties in the NFL.

There are numerous examples of bias in the media. Where is the outrage of the acquittal of music legend Phil Spector? A hung jury for a man with a history of stuffing guns in people's mouths, including his children's, for decades? The intelligence of the jury was not assailed by the media, as was the case of O.J. Simpson ... I guess because the majority of them were not black. Since the hung jury, there has been little to no coverage of Spector's activities. Spector has faded into the background while we are still hearing about the Simpson acquittal a decade after the fact. I loathe bringing up O.J. because I believe that he is guilty. And if he did not kill his ex-wife and Goldman, then he is certainly guilty of being an idiot. Nonetheless, his is an example of how media coverage is not objective.

It seems to me that when white folks mess up, they get the benefit of the doubt or more leeway in their coverage, whereas when black folks mess up, that's your ass. Hopefully one day we will be able to discuss the role that race plays in society and media with the same zeal that we discuss class.

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