On Wednesday, the man suspected of planting bombs around Austin, TX — which killed two Black men, 39-year-old Anthony Stephan House and 17-year-old Draylen Mason, and injured several others — died in a standoff with police, detonating an explosive in his vehicle.
Authorities identified the suspect as 23-year-old Mark Anthony Conditt, a white man the Associated Press described as an “unemployed college dropout.” Other reports detailed how Conditt expressed conservative opinions online about same-sex marriage and abortion, and his thoughts about why the sex offender registry should be abolished. Details are still emerging about Conditt, with police suggesting that the bombings could have been racially motivated as they seemed to target prominent Black families.
Despite the fact that Conditt had been terrorizing the people of Austin for three weeks, leaving communities of color in particular on edge, The New York Times published a story describing him as a “nerdy” young man who came from a “godly” family.
The Austin bombing suspect was a quiet, “nerdy” young man who came from a “tight-knit, godly family,” said Donna Sebastian Harp, who had known the family for nearly 18 years https://t.co/psiAniAMuK
— The New York Times (@nytimes) March 21, 2018
“He was always kind of quiet,” one woman quoted by the Times said. “He was a nerd, always reading, devouring books and computers and things like that.”
This is my friend Anthony Stephan House. He was killed by the first bomb on March 2. A beautiful soul whose life was ended too soon. Photos provided by & credited to his brother brother, Norrell Waynewood (wearing yellow shirt in last pic). #AustinBombings pic.twitter.com/98BfILuAe9
— ❄️Space Force Captain Tiffany❄️ (@tiffanyclay) March 14, 2018
— Black Lives Matter (@usblm) March 14, 2018
Another person quoted by the paper said he didn’t know Conditt personally, only knowing that he was “nice, young kid.”
Conditt, who murdered two men and very well could have killed many more, was given a sympathetic profile by the Times — something that rightfully angered many on social media.
But, this is not an unusual narrative for the Times — or any media outlet — to take.
— New York Daily News (@NYDailyNews) March 21, 2018
It didn’t stop there: After it was revealed that Conditt left behind a 25-minute confession video, Austin’s interim police Chief Brian Manley said at a press conference Wednesday, “It is the outcry of a very challenged young man talking about challenges in his life that led him to this point. I know everybody is interested in a motive and understanding why. And we're never going to be able to put a (rationale) behind these acts.” Manley went on to say that Conditt didn’t mention anything about terrorism or hate in his confession.
That shouldn’t matter.
There’s nothing wrong with law enforcement officials showing empathy for a suspect who may have been troubled. However, that same empathy is not usually granted to suspects — or even victims — of color. Remember how the Times referred to Michael Brown, who was unarmed when he was killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, as “no angel”? Or how the paper painted Trayvon Martin as a delinquent drug user?
The Austin Police Chief referred to the serial bomber as a “challenged young man.”
Murdering multiple people and being called “challenged” is the height of white privilege.
— Kumail Nanjiani (@kumailn) March 22, 2018
Conditt committed a horrific crime, killing House, who was a father of a young daughter, successful professional, and graduate of Texas State University; and Mason, a college-bound talented musician. Why is the media so eager to paint him as a victim?
According to Jason Silva, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice with research specializing in media and crime, there’s a clear difference in how the media covers crimes when it comes to race.
“In general media and crime research, white victims receive more coverage, especially if the perpetrator is Black. However, 'Black on Black' crime is considered 'normalized' within the public social construction of criminality, and thus receives less coverage,” Silva told Refinery29. “A perfect example is the Central Park Five, whom Donald Trump suggested we sentence to death. Numerous other women were raped in NYC that night, however, none of them received much, if any, coverage. This is because the Black 'perpetrators' — I am sure you are aware they were completely innocent — and white female victim provided an excellent case for newsworthiness.”
The media bias is apparent in cases of domestic and foreign terror, too.
Though Conditt was using explosives and bombs to carry out murder, the White House and law enforcement officials have not labeled him as a terrorist, a title rarely ascribed to white perpetrators of murder. While the word "terrorism" does have a criminal definition, its social and political meaning is less clear-cut, leaving many to wonder why it's only used when the perpetrator is Muslim.
“In general, research finds that far-right terrorism incidents receive less coverage than jihadist-inspired incidents, despite being more common,” Silva says. “In addition to this, the framing of white terrorism perpetrators is more sympathetic than perpetrators of Arab descent.”
As journalist Sulome Anderson noted on Twitter, radical Muslim terrorists are rarely humanized.
The New York Times: White serial bomber who targeted black people was quiet, nerdy, from a good family, loved books and his motive is still unclear
Also the New York Times: A Muslim terrorist did a good thing once in his life how is that even possible pic.twitter.com/4eRdvdbjqv
— Sulome Anderson (@SulomeAnderson) March 21, 2018
So, how do we reverse course? It starts with us, the reporters. It’s our job to do our due diligence when asking questions, when deciding who to interview, and deciding what quotes are worth running. The Times ran a quote from someone who stated they didn't even know Conditt, but that he was nice. Did the reporter push back on this? Why did they find the quote worthy of using?
It’s even more important for us to confront our very own implicit biases.
“It seems difficult for a reporter to address long-held bias and socially constructed views of criminality,” Silva says. “However, they can choose who to interview and what is worthy of reporting.”
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