Layers of Fact Checkers

Part of the knock of the Legacy Media on the blogosphere is its supposed inaccuracy, nay irresponsibility.  The just-say-anything-to-draw-the-clicks ethos of the bloggers stands in marked contrast, we are told, to the flaying gauntlet of editors and fact-checkers which even the slightest statement by A Journalist must endure before it sees the light of day.

Thus, we can all assume that everything we see or hear that comes from the Legacy Media is holy writ.  This especially applies to statements which characterize large numbers of people, in large areas, and over prolonged periods.  Because, of course, it would be the height of unethical behavior to make some inflammatory statement about an extremely sensitive topic (irrespective of to whom sensitive), and because it would be unethical we can rest assured that it does not happen.  Not with the Legacy Media.  No sirree.

Then, of course, we have this from CBS News (the same folks who brought you “fake-but-true” with their flagship 60 Minutes show in 2004, when they tried to throw a U.S. presidential election).  It’s a piece about a documentary which re-examines a killing in a small Florida town in 1952.  A black woman walked into a white doctor’s office and shot him dead.  At her trial a very sordid story came out, involving a prolonged sexual liaison between the doctor and the woman, and drugs either taken by or inflicted upon the woman and supplied by the doctor, the effect of which were, either separately or together, sufficiently mind-altering that the woman eventually beat the death penalty with an insanity plea at a retrial.  She’d been sentenced to death at her first trial.  The Florida Supreme Court in State v. McCollum, 74 So.2d 74 (Fla. 1954), reversed and awarded a new trial.  Apparently at that time it was within the court’s discretion to order that the jury physically view the location of a homicide.  The trial court so ordered, but then the judge voluntarily blew off the viewing, such that a portion of the trial proceedings necessarily occurred outside the judge’s supervision.  This was reversible error.

I’ll note, by the way, that this was small-town South in 1952, at the very beginnings of what became the final push in the civil rights movement.  A time during which whites all over the South (and north as well . . . recall that Brown v. Board of Education’s full style continued: “. . . of Topeka, Kansas”) were at general quarters to defend the system of legalized oppression which we all know now as Jim Crow.  At the risk of understatement, were I a defense lawyer I sure wouldn’t want to have to save my black client’s neck with an insanity defense in that place at that time.  Too hard to prove; too laden with visceral antipathy (I mean, think about it: that plea has never had good press, not with any defendant and not at any time).  And yet this defendant, while convicted, was spared the death penalty on that basis.  So maybe the racial dynamics of the place and time weren’t quite as simplistic as the CBS News article implies.  I can’t say for sure, although the two data points, viz. hang-’em-high all-white jury (interestingly the article gives the all-white racial make-up of the first jury, but says nothing about the second . . . you’d think that any high school newspaper reporter would ask — and answer — that question) and successful insanity plea, don’t inhabit the same logical space very well.

What I object to in the CBS News article, however, is this statement:   “The slaying stirred racial tensions in Jim Crow-era Suwannee County, when robed Ku Klux Klansmen regularly marched through Main Street in a show of force and lynchings were common in the Deep South.”  Were they in fact “common”?  Does anyone know?

Someone does know, and it only takes five seconds to type in the Google search term to find out.  The Tuskegee Institute (scarcely an errand boy of the Klan, we can safely assume) began keeping records of lynchings, everywhere in the United States, beginning in 1882.  They tracked it by year and by race of victim.  Here’s a summary of their data.  The last year in their database is 1968, so they covered 86 years total.  From 1882 through 1968 they show 4,742 total lynchings, almost 73% of the victims of which are given as black (I’m surprised the proportion is that small; I would’ve figured somewhere north of 95%).  So we can test whether “lynchings were common in the Deep South” during the years around 1952.  Mathematics and all, dontcha know.  For the twenty-one years centered on 1952 (ten before and ten after, plus the year itself, or 24.4% of the entire period for which the Institute keeps the data), the Tuskegee Institute shows, nationally, 32 lynchings, or not quite two-thirds of one percent of the total, with three of the victims shown as white.  To put it in perspective, almost a full quarter of the years covered accounts for less than two-thirds of one percent.  For the period 1952 through 1968 inclusive the Institute shows ten lynchings.  Suprisingly, three of those victims were white.  That was something that really surprised me when I first looked at their data.

To borrow an expression that’s become pretty commonplace in recent months about the supposed “epidemic” of rape on college campuses, “Even one is too many.”  That’s certainly true of rape, and it’s equally true of lynchings.  On the other hand, you cannot look at the data and come to any conclusion other than that by 1952, lynchings were very nearly if not absolutely a thing of the past, all but vanished from the American landscape.  Inclusive of the year that Ruby McCollum whacked either her rapist or her paramour (depending on whose story you believe), there remained a further ten to record, just over two-tenths of one percent of the total lynchings since 1882.  I defy anyone to make an argument that they were therefore “common” anywhere in the United States in 1952, or even terribly frequent during the twenty-one years including and surrounding that year.

But hey, who cares about mere numbers, when you’ve got a narrative to get out there?

Layers of fact-checkers my left foot.

Leave a Reply