That loud whacking sound you’re hearing is USA Today slapping itself on the back. In a huge year-end feature, the paper congratulated itself for its superb job in helping get out the truth — in a three-part series back in July — on the so-called "black church-burning epidemic."
Others who have given the paper kudos over its church-burning coverage have included the Columbia Journalism Review, a Wall Street Journal features writer, and the New York Times, which declared that USA Today had at last become "a real newspaper." class="rightimgspacer"
The truth that USA Today’s series revealed is that there was no epidemic. It was a myth. And the great irony is that prior to that series, no media outlet in the country had done more than USA Today to build the myth in the first place.
No single reporter had played a greater role than the newspaper’s Gary Fields, who has written over 70 articles on the issue. Step-by-step, Fields and other reporters at the paper told their readers first that there seemed to be an extraordinary number of black church burnings, then that there clearly was, then that racism was behind it.
Consider the following chronology:
- February 8: Fields, along with Tom Watson, became the first reporter to raise the specter of an actual epidemic in an article titled "Arson at Black Churches Echoes Bigotry of Past." It began, "In scenes reminiscent of the 1960s civil rights struggles, black churches in the South are being set afire at an alarming rate." The article was also the first to make the claim that black churches were being singled out. It quoted the pastor of one burned church claiming "somebody has a grudge in their heart [sic] about black churches." He added that, "out of all the white churches around, nobody has done anything" to them.
- February 16: Fields and Watson now proclaimed that this rate was clearly an increase over the year-in, year-out number of fires at black churches. "A USA Today investigation found that black church burnings have increased dramatically in recent years and are far more numerous than realized by the FBI and civil rights groups," they wrote. (They didn’t tell their readers that perhaps one reason for this is that the FBI doesn’t even keep track of church arsons.) Fields and Watson added ominously, "All the church burnings have occurred in the South."
- March 1: Fields was now ready to quantify just how much of an increase had occurred. "A recent USA Today investigation found that black church fires have risen dramatically in the past 13 months increasing from an average of one a year between 1987 and 1994 to more than one a month since January 12, 1995," he wrote.
- March 6: Fields was now ready to ascribe motive. "It is very clear," he quoted a U.S. Commission on Civil Rights official as saying, that the fires were "merely reflections" of rising "racial and ethnic tension."
- May 22: Fields quoted black activist Mac Charles Jones blaming most fires on "a climate of racial hostility." He quoted U.S. Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights Deval Patrick saying the fires were "an epidemic of terror," spawned by "hate" and "bigotry." There wasn’t the least hint in the article that there could be any other motive.
- May 29: Fields told readers, "the majority [of the fires] appear to be racial in nature," though adding, "authorities said they have found no evidence of an overall conspiracy."
Now what did the newspaper’s three part-July series reveal?
- Far from there having only been "an average of one [black church arson] a year between 1987 and 1994" in the South, as Fields reported, the newspaper now presented a chart showing considerably more — bouncing around from 10 to 16 a year — from 1990 to 1994. There was no evidence of any increase in such burnings until mid-1996, apparently as a result of "copycat" fires, lit by people inspired by news coverage who decided to get in on the act.
- Despite Fields’s February 16 claim that "All the church burnings have occurred in the South," the newspaper now estimated that since 1995, there had been 780 in the country as a whole, of which only 144 took place in 11 Southern states.
- Though the paper had virtually ignored white churches for five months, of these 144 fires, 80 were at white churches and 64 at black.
- Despite the repeated admonitions of Fields and other reporters that the fires were primarily racially driven, the paper now concluded: "Analysis of the 64 [black church] fires since 1995 shows only four can be conclusively shown to be racially motivated." Indeed, about a fourth of all arsonists arrested in the fires have been black.
What USA Today did was the equivalent of an exterminator planting a cockroach nest in your house and later earning your undying gratitude for ridding your home of the horrid things. In the real world, that can get you thrown in jail. In the media world, it earns you praise and — who knows? — maybe a Pulitzer Prize