Big New Journalism Idea: The Hate Beat


So, Missouri School of Journalism Assistant Prof. Charles Davis, a self-described "near-absolutist First Amendment advocate," is making a splash with this column advocating that newspapers create a "hate" beat. The "best way to beat hatemongering," his subhed advises, "is to report it." I didn't realize that we were now teaching strategies for "beating" various societal phenomena in J-school, but I will admit to a certain unfamiliarity with academia.

Anyway, some of Davis' writing I think illustrates, in an unintended way, why people distrust both journalists and those who deliver lectures on the topic. For instance:

Hate, shuffled off stage in the post-racial haze of the election of the nation's first black president, is back with a vengeance. Hate, if it ever truly threatened to leave the political stage, is most definitely back, larger and nastier than ever.

To get all journalistically theoretical for a moment, what is the definition of journalism? Well, I don't know, but I do know that one thick chunk of the idea is to write or say (or aim to write and say) things that are unequivocally 100 percent true, and hopefully verified in some way. This is even more true, if such a thing is mathematically possible, for those who deliver lectures on all that should be true and good about journalism.

What, class, do we notice about Davis' statement above? IT IS DEMONSTRABLY FALSE. We used to have slavery in this country, and Jim Crow laws, and all kinds of officially sanctioned, legalized discrimination against disfavored minorities. And you want to tell me that hate is "larger and nastier than ever"? We had a CIVIL WAR in this country, where people not only brought their legally licensed firearms to townhalls, but they MURDERED THE SHIT OUT OF ONE ANOTHER. How many people died in racially fueled street riots 41 years ago, compared to how many died in racially fueled street riots in 2009? This little couplet, tossed off without evident concern, as if OF COURSE we all know this is true, is blatantly, sophomorically, and insultingly untrue. It's an advertisement for the author's fundamental lack of seriousness about the very subject he aims to address. More like this:

Somewhere, somehow, the news media have to make the same determination those brave civil rights-era reporters and editors made: This is wrong, deeply wrong, and we must cover it, day in, day out, like any other beat, albeit a more distasteful beat than most.

The same? Really? Let's see, every day in the Jim Crow South (and not only the Jim Crow South), black people were denied entrance to schools, businesses, and various public facilities, and when they attempted to be treated as equals, they were routinely met with official state violence. In 2009? Some loathesome individual citizen, with no official power over anyone, brings a "Death To Obama, Death To Michelle And Her Two Stupid Kids" sign to a political event at which no Obama attended (he is detained by the Secret Service). A man exercising his legal right to bear arms shows up on the periphery of an Obama event and menaces no one (the White House later says it has no problem with citizens legally bringing guns to public gatherings). Fox News alarmist Glenn Beck, ridiculously, claims that Obama has "a deep-seated hatred of white people," (and is rewarded for his omniscience with an advertiser boycott). Slappable broadcast shouter Sean Hannity "openly relishes violence" (this is Davis' claim), while Rush Limbaugh mentions "Obama" and "Hitler" in close proximity. That's the sum of his examples.

To draw any kind of equivalence between the official, police-backed bigotry of the United States–a bigotry that waged violence and worse against patriotic American citizens each and every day of each and every week–with the widely condemned hyperbole of talk show hosts and a scattered few non-violent acts of individual citizens, is not just kind of basically obscene, and an insult to the casualties on the often very lonely right side of the Civil Rights struggle, but it also serves to undermine faith in the very project under discussion. If this is the cavalier attitude with which ever-crusading journalists are going to treat the facts that concern them most, how can those of us who disagree with their basic premise begin to trust the forthcoming product from the Hate Beat?

Meanwhile, I can predict the kind of "hate" that will escape attention by the new desk. It's the kind that assumes, lack of evidence notwithstanding, that we are always–but especially now that liberal Democrats run the country–on the verge of a race war. It's the kind that takes a surface look at current events, luxuriates in historically ignorant alarmism, then proclaims that America itself is "delusional," "irrational," "hysterical." You can't get away with hating a (Democratic) president's policies, or even a single policy, but hating on the country as a whole for failing to get on board? Well, that's just journalism!