On November 13, 1988, an Ethiopian student living in Portland, Oregon ran into the wrong people. Mulugeta Seraw had no idea that the handful of young adults who set upon him and two friends talking in the street early on a Sunday morning were out looking for blacks to attack. By the time they were done, Seraw had been beaten to death with fists, baseball bats, steel-toed boots, and other weapons.
The perpetrators belonged to a home-brewed skinhead gang calling themselves East Side White Pride. As police rounded up members of the gang, a story emerged of an instigator, following the lead of a white supremacist publisher named Tom Metzger.
Morris Dees of the Southern Poverty Law Center represented Seraw’s son in a wrongful death lawsuit against Metzger, linking his organization and newspaper, White Aryan Resistance (WAR) to statements that SPLC alleged “incited violence against blacks and Jews,” in a wrongful death lawsuit filed a year after Seraw’s death. The lawsuit was awarded a judgment of $12.5 million in October, 1990.
Question No. 2 of the judgment form asked the jury: “Did one or more of the California defendants [Metzger, his son John, and WAR] — through their agents — substantially assist in, or encourage, the conduct of the Oregon defendants [Kenneth Mieske and Kyle Brewster] that caused the death of Mulugeta Seraw?” The answer was yes, for all three California defendants.
Which brings us to the New York Times.
On May 26, the Times published an Editor’s Note about its coverage of issues leading to the war in Iraq, admitting “…a number of instances of coverage that was not as rigorous as it should have been.” It goes on to state: “In some cases, information that was controversial then, and seems questionable now, was insufficiently qualified or allowed to stand unchallenged. Looking back, we wish we had been more aggressive in re-examining the claims as new evidence emerged — or failed to emerge.”
The Times‘s incomplete coverage helped foster a climate of pro-war sentiment in this country. As an increasing number of critics have pointed out over the past eighteen months, its reportage of Iraqi WMD capabilities by the Bush administration and others was often reliant on unprovable and even demonstrably false claims. In this, the Times Editor’s Note says the blame lies not only with individual reporters (such as Judith Miller, who is not named in the note by who is the co-author of several of the indicated articles), but also editors “at several levels who should have been challenging reporters and pressing for more skepticism were perhaps too intent on rushing scoops into the paper.”
The Times, of course, was far from alone in this. Few if any of the major news outlets in this country were even slightly skeptical about even the most outlandish claims made by the Bush and Blair governments. Some, such as the FOX News Channel, actively promoted the war, and derided critics. They still do.
As the SPLC’s suit against Metzger shows, persons advocating violence in the media have been held responsible even for acts they didn’t specifically orchestrate and were not directly involved in. In fact, the suit filing claimed only that Metzger’s materials “
incited violence against blacks and Jews, specifically encouraging skinheads, and the Oregon defendants in particular, to use baseball bats and steel-toed boots as weapons against blacks and Jews.” No claim was made in the filing that Metzger knew Seraw or the perpetrators of the murder.
Freedom of speech and the press are the most important right we have as citizens in the United States. That’s why they’re right up there in Amendment I of the Bill of Rights. Press freedom should be attached to a certain amount of responsibility, though, particularly when people’s lives are at stake.
How far would the administration have gotten with its war plans if the Times and other news organizations had given stories exposing WMD claims as frauds the same weight as the original claim? What if they’d waited for verifiable sources before they printed a story claiming Saddam had nuclear capabilities? Tracing sources is what led to the exposure of Jayson Blair at the Times and Stephen Glass at The New Republic. But nobody got killed over their stories.
There have been over 800 American casualties in Iraq as I write this, with over 4,600 wounded. That’s an awfully large number of potential lawsuits. If the American media thought the climate was bad after the FCC’s crackdown over Janet Jackson’s nipple, what will the reaction be when someone gets the bright idea to accuse news organizations of causing the battlefield death or disabling of their child, spouse, or parent by filing a suit that asks “Did one or more of the media defendants — through their agents — substantially assist in, or encourage, the war in Iraq that caused the death of Pvt. _____?”