by Alan MacLeod
After opening fire at worshipers celebrating the Jewish holiday of Passover at the Poway Synagogue near San Diego, California, 19-year-old John T. Earnest was arrested. Earnest killed one woman and injured three other worshippers before his semi-automatic weapon jammed and he fled the scene, calling 911 himself to report the shooting.
The shooter published an open letter online explaining that his actions were designed to defend the United States and preserve his race from “cultural Marxism,” an idea drawn from the Nazi term “cultural Bolshevism” and propagated by the likes of neo-Nazi mass murderer Anders Breivik and far-right Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro. Earnest claimed to have been radicalized on online forums, and inspired by Christchurch shooter Brenton Tarrant and the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting of October 2018. He also took credit for a March 2019 arson attack at a nearby mosque as well.
Yet much of the media have taken pains to present him in a relatively positive light. In a widely republished article, the Associated Press (CBS, 4/30/19) presented him as a lover of music who was “a nice guy…. Everybody loved him,” according to one source, who said of his family, “They are outstanding. Some of the finest people I’ve ever met.”
The article insisted that he “counted Jews and black people among his friends,” as though to claim the Hitler-idolizing attacker of a mosque and a synagogue might not be a racist. It took pains to present him as a musical genius whose performances “drew audiences to their feet…. Crowds would be cheering his name.”
The original headline on the AP piece, reprinted by many outlets (e.g., MSN, 4/30/19) informed us Earnest was a “Star Scholar and Athlete.” Meanwhile, USA Today‘s headline (4/28/19) read, “California Synagogue Shooting: Suspect Known as Quiet, Smart While Authorities Question if He Was Hateful.”
‘Lone Wolves’ and ‘Gentle’ Killers White Male
Even if you have not followed the story at all, I am sure you can guess the shooter’s race by now. The San Diego shooting is merely the latest example of corporate media normalizing white male extremism, something we at FAIR (e.g., 11/23/16, 11/27/17) have cataloged.
For example, Las Vegas shooter Stephen Paddock, who killed 58 people and wounded over 400 others in 2017, was not depicted as a monster in the press, but as a “lone wolf” (New York Times,10/2/17; London Independent, 10/2/17)—a racialized code word for “white terrorist”—who “does not fit the mass shooter profile” (NPR, 10/6/17), despite the fact that white men commit far more mass shootings than any other group. If white privilege is anything, it is being responsible for one of the worst atrocities in modern American history and being eulogized by major media such as Newsweek (10/2/17) and the Washington Post (10/2/17) as a quiet man who enjoyed gambling and country music.
The New York Times (11/29/15) described the Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood shooter as being “dedicated to his family,” “artistic” and “good to his son,” allowing one source to claim he was “pleasant” and a “good role model,” and even used the word “gentle” to describe the killer of three people (FAIR.org, 11/30/15).
The incongruous idea of a “gentle” killer is a surprisingly common trope for the Times, when discussing (white) shooters. In 2014 (8/25/14), it described Michael Brown’s killer, Officer Darren Wilson, as “well-mannered” and “soft-spoken,” and quoted one source describing him as “a gentle, quiet man.” Wilson’s “gentle” actions sparked months-long protests in Ferguson, Missouri.
On May 6, President Trump pardoned Lt. Michael Behenna, convicted of the murder of Iraqi prisoner Ali Mansur. Mansur was taken into the desert, blindfolded, bound, stripped naked and shot in the head by Behenna, who claimed he felt no remorse and “would do it again,” as he was acting in “self-defense.”
Major media outlets like the Washington Post (5/6/19) and NBC (5/7/19) illustrated their stories with touching images of Behenna embracing loved ones, while the New York Times (5/6/19) featured an artistic shot of him staring thoughtfully in a field. Conservative media were more forthright. Fox News host Sean Hannity described him as “an American hero” who was “defending himself” (5/7/19), as Behenna discussed how he stripped, cuffed, tortured and shot Mansur. Meanwhile, Newsmax (5/7/19) claimed the “brave” Behenna had “finally found some form of justice.”
The Demonization of Black Victims
In comparison, African-American victims of violence are rarely treated with similar respect by the media, especially if the perpetrators are agents of state power. On the same day it was portraying Wilson positively, the Times (8/25/14) smeared Brown as “no angel”; someone who “dabbled in drugs and alcohol” while writing “vulgar” rap lyrics. Thus the Times presented the white killer more favorably than his deceased black victim. If the racial disparity weren’t blatant enough, one guest on CNN (10/26/15) described Brown as a “thug” who “set upon” a police officer.
Freddie Gray, who died of spinal injuries after being brutalized by Baltimore police in 2015, was also dismissed as the “son of an illiterate heroin addict” by CNN (11/30/15), before a public outcryshamed the latter into changing the story.
It’s long been noted that if an African-American or Muslim person commits an act of violence, the media tend to hold their entire group responsible, while white male violence is rarely pathologized in the same way. Earnest’s strong Presbyterian faith will not be postulated as a driver of his actions to the same extent as Muslim terrorists’ religion have been. There will be no ban on white males entering the country to keep us safe. Indeed, when white men like Dylann Roof commit acts of violence, media often frame it as a mental health problem (New York Times, 2/2/17; NBC, 2/3/17; LA Times, 2/2/17).
The point is not that white people should be described as “terrorists,” “thugs” or other racialized words, but to underline the racial biases inherent in mainstream reporting, where corporate media promote sympathy for white mass killers while stoking suspicion, mistrust, or even hatred for black victims of violence.
Featured image: USA Today headline (4/28/19) on San Diego synagogue shooting. (The man pictured is not the suspect, but Oscar Stewart, who helped foil the shooting.)