Yes, They’re White and Muslim

The Boston-bombing suspects show that it's time the media and the public redefined their view of Islam.

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev (handout/Getty Images News); Tamerlan Tsarnaev (Glenn DePriest/Getty Images)
Dzhokhar Tsarnaev (handout/Getty Images News); Tamerlan Tsarnaev (Glenn DePriest/Getty Images)

(The Root) — The American story has too long been told through a racial lens and always vis-à-vis “whiteness.” This is a dangerous premise — fortifying the principles of white supremacy, entirely incongruent with the nation’s democratic values. In no area is this problem more apparent than the American media — and news reporting in particular. The Constitution’s First Amendment protection of “freedom of the press” has morphed inexplicably into a safe haven in which stereotypes, falsehoods and outdated racial codes are protected under the law — allowing poisonous lies to masquerade as fact.

Last week the media coverage of the Boston Marathon bombings led to numerous instances of misinformation being reported. In the wake of confusion following the events, there was a rush to judgment as many desperately searched for answers. (Sophisticated online-media platforms and the ability to receive information in real time have no doubt created a new filter for defining journalistic integrity standards in the 21st century.)

But a blatant display of Islamophobic rhetoric and racial profiling became a benchmark of many reports, proving what some had already suspected — that xenophobia and racially tinged, anti-Muslim sentiment have become tacitly accepted byproducts of post-Sept. 11 American society. Most disturbing was that these attitudes were readily articulated by standard-bearers of credible news outlets, whose profession it is to disseminate “facts” without bias.

The most widely (and embarrassingly) covered misstep occurred at CNN. Senior correspondent John King erroneously reported that the FBI had made an arrest and that the suspect was “a dark-skinned male.” This led MSNBC’s Chris Hayes to ask, “What news value exists in the adjective ‘dark-skinned’?”

King was widely criticized for a lack of due diligence and catering to latent racial animus. His words relieved those looking for an easy target to blame — namely Arabs from the Middle East or North Africa — and cast a shadow of doubt and suspicion upon every black and brown male in Boston’s metropolitan area.

Unsurprisingly, Fox News host Bill O’Reilly — an occasional “accidental” racist himself — came to King’s defense, claiming that it was an “honest mistake.” Meanwhile, the New York Post (a subsidiary of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp.) ran a cover story with a photo of what appeared to be two nonwhite males, under the headline “Bag Men: Feds Seek These Two Pictured at Boston Marathon.”

The truth? Both were innocent — never implicated in the bombings. Salah Barhoun, whose face the Post distributed both in print and online, turned out to be a 17-year-old high school track star interested in running the marathon. Murdoch and the Post issued statements but no apology.

And the misconceptions weren’t limited to conservatives or the right wing. MSNBC’s Chris Matthews wondered aloud if there was a way to identify the suspects’ race just by looking at the photo. “Are there people at the FBI that can look at the picture, study it ethnographically and figure what the odds are on a fellow like that being from different parts of the world — say, Yemen or any other parts like that?” Matthews had prefaced his question by saying, “Not to be racial profiling, but … ” Naturally.

Sadly, King and Matthews are hardly relics of their time. The Federal Communications Commission reports that American media — from owners of television and radio networks to reporters on the beat and newsroom — is becoming less diverse. Former trends showing more women and minorities being hired are strangely reversing. That phenomenon is not lost on the viewer, as white reporters, relying on white editors and producers, often tell stories through a narrow, biased lens.