To Print Or Not Print An Alleged Victim's Claims p.12

By: Larry Timbs South Carolina editors say that while blacks have every
right to be angry the press unknowingly published a bogus
description of an alleged kidnapper, they shouldn't be
up in arms because the media was simply doing its job sp.

WIDESPREAD, REPEATED newspaper publication of the most often seen black face in the nation last month ? a composite police sketch of a man falsely identified as a suspect in the carjacking of two small children in South Carolina ? may have angered some blacks, but from a newspaper standpoint, it had to be done.
At least, that's the sentiment of Don Wilder, publisher of the 7,000-circulation Union Daily Times ? a community inundated by the national print and broadcast media when 23-year-old Susan Smith, sobbing and apparently devastated, reported that her two little boys had been kidnapped by a carjacker on a desolate Union County road on the evening of Oct. 25.
Pictures of Michael, 3, and Alex, 14 months, ran on the front pages of newspapers across the nation, touching the hearts of millions of Americans who prayed for their safe return.
Also widely published was the sketch of a black man wearing a cap. Police artists drew the likeness of the suspect, based on a description given to them by Smith, who is white.
On Nov. 4, Smith confessed to authorities that she herself had drowned her two sons. The stunning headline-flagged confession by Smith, charged with two counts of murder and faced possibly with the death penalty, has done little to satisfy some hard-line critics, who claim news media coverage of the story helps reinforce the stereotypical view of black men in America as dangerous or evil.
Critics ? among them sociologists and black leaders interviewed in the national press, as well as writers of letters to the editor that have been published in numerous newspapers ? point to the widely circulated bogus sketch as another example of bias and prejudice against blacks.
Wilder's six-day-a-week, 24-full-time staff newspaper played a key role in helping supply pictures and news of the country's most gripping recent story to papers, such as USA Today, and to other national publications. He defends publication of the police sketch.
"We ran the picture of the sketch the first day," he said, "and we ran it just one day ? at the time that the alleged carjacking had taken place. That was the description she [Susan Smith] gave.
"Journalistically speaking, at that point in time, we had no reason to believe that she was lying. What they told us was 'This is the description we have.' It was freely given to us by the authorities," added Wilder.
He noted that the population of Union is about 40% black, and it was that segment of the community that started distribution of flyers with the sketch of the black male suspect. He said a print shop in Union made up the flyers, "and a lot of people just made copies off the copy machine."
The black community in Union was instrumental, he said, in distributing those flyers ? a fact, he suggested, that is either ignored or dismissed by some national tabloids that insist on portraying Union as a haven of racial tension.
"You have to remember," Wilder said, "the paramount thing in the whole situation was getting these children back safe . . . . Stories came out of here that there were riots and everything else. That's not so.
"What the black people are saying is, 'She identified a black person, and it's bad she identified a black person.' And what you have to realize is, if she knew her two children were dead and at her hands were dead ? if she is fighting for her life ? she is going to blame it on someone exactly opposite her.
"If she were living in a community where there was Chinese or Hispanics, she might well have chosen a Chinese, the exact opposite of what she is," Wilder continued.
He said the black community in Union understands this, "but the national media keep trying to play it as a racial issue."
National media and TV talk shows focusing on Union throughout the Susan Smith story included Oprah Winfrey, Phil Donahue, CNN, ABC, NBC, CBS, "Larry King Live," the New York Times, Washington Post and the Atlanta Journal and Constitution.
While Wilder doesn't indict all the national media descending upon Union, he said it was clear some publications or shows were "trying to perpetrate this thing as a race issue.
"Why else would they be sending Oprah down here?" he asked. "You have to realize this community has been inundated by every sleezoid tabloid there is out there, by every yellow journalist there is."
As to why so much national news coverage has focused on the racial dimension of the Susan Smith story, Wilder has his own theory: "People want to read blood, guts and gore. They like controversy . . . . But the facts are colorful enough."
According to Wilder, while Union is not a perfect city and may have some racial problems, the way the press ? especially the local press ? treated the Susan Smith story did not heighten those problems.
"We're sitting here, told by the authorities it's a carjacking committed by a black man. This is information you have as a journalist. Is this germane to the story? We thought it was. She could have said it was a pointed-ear Vulcan, and we would have put it in there that he [the suspect] was a pointed-ear Vulcan.
"It was a piece of information we acted on. Is that not what everyone is asking us to do? If it had been a white man, we'd have printed it as a white man, "2" he added.
One of Wilder's colleagues in the South Carolina press community, Terry Plumb ? editor of the 29,000-circulation, seven-day-a-week Herald in Rock Hill, a town about 45 miles from Union ? also published the police sketch of the black male.
Accompanying the sketch in the Herald was a steady stream of news stories coming out of Union throughout the massive search for the missing boys, as well as for the black suspect and for Smith's 1990 Mazda Prot?g?. Screaming, 144-point, front-page headlines informed readers of the Herald on Nov. 4 and Nov. 5 that Smith had lied and fabricated the description of the black male to police, that she had confessed to drowning her two sons, and that her whole previous story had been a cruel fabrication.
Even though Plumb thinks in retrospect that the Herald, like so many other newspapers, was a dupe of the young mother's lie, the newspaper's sales skyrocketed.
"Our single-copy sales probably went up by several thousand over the last few days," he said. "We put out a lot of extra papers, and we got darn few back. If anything, the unfairness of her lie has been big news."
Plumb agrees with Wilder that newspapers had no alternative but to print the sketch ? which ran prominently in at least two different issues of the Herald.
"I don't think any of us had a choice not to print the description given by the mother," he said. "Who are we to say there wasn't a suspect? This was a creation of the mother? Try to imagine what would happen if no one had put out a description, and it turned out there was a kidnapper.
"Imagine what would come back on the news media if it refused to disseminate information because some editor had determined it wasn't politically correct."
Plumb said that while blacks have every right to be angry, they shouldn't be angry at the police or the news media because they were simply doing their job. "If we decided to downplay that story because we didn't want to offend someone," said Plumb, "we would look like total idiots."
Plumb says that he's been keenly attuned to the backlash coming from the black community, as a result of the news media's publication of Smith's lie. The Herald, he stressed, is trying diligently to give blacks a voice in the newspaper.
"A lot of papers have given space for African Americans to vent their complaints on this," he said. "Look at our paper and other papers. We have been writing about that angle ever since she confessed. If anything, if the news media were biased against blacks, we wouldn't have done that . . . . We're well aware of the sensitivity of that issue."
Despite being upset, some blacks in Union County have, nevertheless, given the news media high marks for coverage of the story.
"I think the media did an excellent job," said William Free Jr., 72. Employed at the Union Community Funeral Home, Free thinks that the print and electronic media's dogged persistence at getting to the bottom of the story "may have helped force a confession out of her.
"By being as thorough as they were, the media and especially newspapers went into the whole matter . . . . They took all aspects to try to get something done."
However, Free ? who has lived in Union all his life ? said locals were happy to see the satellite trucks and out-of-town journalists leave.
The Rev. A.L. Brackett of St. Paul Baptist Church in Union said he thinks many blacks in Union would praise the media for its coverage, "but you had many blacks also that did feel offended by that sketch. But the media had to go on what Susan [Smith] told them. You don't have that many that were offended, and you had a number of them that had a great deal of relief that no black was involved."
Brackett, pastor of a church with about 400 black members, was himself thrust into the media spotlight by the controversy, appearing in two or three TV interviews, including one with Harry Smith of CBS.
Brackett also was interviewed by Jet Magazine and featured on "Larry King Live," the "Oprah Winfrey Show," the "Sally Jessy Raphael Show," "Inside Edition" and several radio talk shows.
A number of stories in local, state and national newspapers included comments from the pastor.
"Imagine what would come back on the news media if it refused to disseminate information because some editor had determined it wasn't
politically correct."
?(Timbs teaches journalism at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, S.C. ? about 45 miles from Union, S.C.) [Caption]
?(In-depth coverage by the Union (S.C.) Daily Times, since the confession by Susan Smith last month that she drowned her to sons, has done little to satisfy some hard-line critics, who cite initial news media coverage as reinforcing the stereotypical view of black men in America as dangerous or evil. Smith originally told police that the children were kidnapped by a black man-information that was reported before Smith confesed.) [Photo & Caption]


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