This nation remains mired in racial disparity and discrimination. Not for lack of effort. More for lack of any idea how to navigate an intellectually honest middle ground. That dream space is lost in all modern political debates. A distant memory of a time when smart men came together to find positions of agreement. Or not smart men, but ambitious men with their invisible hands finding mutual self-interest. Cocktails were served and everybody went home mildly happy. Now every response to a social ill is a counterproductive overreaction or an under-reaction by partisan fiat. Hence, for racial issues, you have nationwide blowups over a black guy being denied a bathroom key at Starbucks until he buys a five dollar muffin while systemically black males are being barely educated, imprisoned, and finding long term unemployment at astoundingly high rates with little to no fanfare.
In our culture, popular media drives the national narrative. This is nothing new to common sense or common research that has provided fairly precise science into the power of media in this nation to drive opinion. What’s changed in the past decade is the rise of the Internet and omnipresent, pushed news and information. There is no turning the channel any longer, let alone turning off. The sources are dubious, the motives are unchecked, and the corporate control is masked. The media isn’t necessarily more powerful today than in the past, but it’s far deeper embedded in the culture. Nobody under thirty reads the newspaper anymore, but they all have news and opinions fed to them very nearly direct to brain.
The notion that public information on the World Wide Web comes from thousand of disparate sources is pure myth. The bulk comes from a half-dozen or so mega-media interests who control almost all of the digital distribution. Hence, an oligarchy of media thought and opinion, that whether you agree or not with its bent, ought to give you pause as to how the machine works exactly. Someday the bell will toll for thee.
One of the numerous hard to miss upshots of our tightly manicured media landscape is the fact that dead black kids don’t receive nearly the media sensation and coverage as dead white kids. You can ascribe an entire range of origins to this phenomenon. From deeply rooted racism to a cold response to the audience marketplace. Media outlets representing both the Left and the Right proscribe to this racially biased perspective on what news to produce, distribute, and market. This ought to let you know this phenomenon is probably rooted somewhat in both. Does CNN hate black people and respond coldly to their tragedies as a demographic? Probably not, well, not consciously.
On March 26th, Jennifer Hart and her wife Sarah Hart, drove at least three of their six adopted black children, over a cliff’s edge in Mendocino County, California, plummeting all to their deaths in the rocks and Pacific Ocean below. The authorities are reporting three of the six kids only as deceased as the other three children’s bodies have yet to be found and identified. They have not been found alive anywhere else in the subsequent time period so it’s almost a certainty they perished in the fall and their bodies were swept away from the crash scene by the waters. The race of the adopted children is relevant in that both lesbian parents were white, and raising six black kids. That demographic originality provides you public recognition, at least locally.
The Hart moms and their kids were well known in the various places they settled in the Pacific Northwest, largely for the multiple incidents of child abuse investigations prompted by complaints from multiple neighbors. More than one set of neighbors noticed that the Hart kids were often bereft of food and climbing out windows of their current abode to seek sustenance from nearby homes. According to various neighbors’ accounts, the children were routinely punished with food depravation. That’s a weird one, outside of Stephen King movie parents. There were other accounts of seemingly intentional neglect and abuse of the children that seemed to keep this family forever on the move, from small rural area, one to the next. In fairness, the moms had tons of happy smiling photos of the kids, granted largely at social protest and Bernie Sanders rallies, but it’s always possible the kids were indeed happy. Outsiders rarely know the truth. Which is why investigations are at times necessary.
By weird coincidence, one of the adopted kids, Devonte Hart, had made the national news at age 11, when he was captured in an AP photo hugging a Portland police officer during a weekend protest over the then, 2014 shooting of a young black man in Ferguson, Missouri. The photo was interpreted at the time as a young black boy hugging a white cop to express a message of unity. With some hindsight, it’s now quite possible Devonte was hugging the police officer in a misread cry for help. That’s one that will keep you up at night.
Earlier this year, the Hart moms once again found themselves under investigation for child abuse in the State of Washington. This seemingly prompted the Hart moms to develop a plan to pack up the kids into the SUV and drive southward. Little is known about the final trip, other than at some location along a high cliff in Northern California, Jennifer Hart turned the family car in the direction of Heaven and, according to data from the vehicle, accelerated. Subsequent toxicology reports show Jennifer Hart had thrown back a couple of three drinks prior to the plunge, and her wife and at least two of the kids had a healthy amount of Benadryl in their system. Suicide. Or murder depending on the perspective of front seat versus back seat occupants.
On the media news eruption scale, if the Parkland school shooting was a 10, and the recent YouTube corporate office shooting was a 5, then the murder by at least one if not both Hart moms of their six helpless, long-time abused, and blessed adopted children registered a 1. Seventeen innocent teenagers didn’t die that day in Mendocino, but six did. More than most mass shootings. And talk about a horrific death, at the hands of your own parents, flying over a cliff to the rocks below. That’s heavily demonic. This story had every single sensational element in the Pantheon of screaming headlines and still received almost no national news coverage. But why?
(This is the point in our conversation where people who don’t like to think about how the real world works ought to stop reading. For those that appreciate a foray into The Whole Truth, stick around, because the disparity in coverage, outrage, and media elevation of the Hart family murders is going to make you a bit sadder about this world, but wiser and better for your knowledge.)
First, the method of the murder did not involve a firearm. We’ve previously discussed the relative rarity of school shootings in this country, and the related hysterical hyping of such events in the news media, and the relation therein to personal political believes as to gun ownership rights. By way of summary, the news media collective parked largely in our nation’s cosmopolitan hubs, despise guns, the people who own guns, and more wholly justified, gun violence. It’s akin to the feelings of rich white people in the pre-Civil War North who looked down upon the rich white hayseeds of the South who owned black slaves. Granted, the rich white people of the North paid overworked and abused immigrants a few cents a day to carry out similar grunt work, but their righteous principle remained intact.
Firearm crimes fit a narrative many in the media wish to promote for their own sense of nobility and social bubble recognition. When this trickles into celebrity morality signaling with dozens of famous people with tens of millions of social media followers piling on, you have a thing all right. Ergo, murder by gun trumps murder by SUV crashing into rocks, bones and bodies being crushed to internal bloody deaths and drowning. Some in the media are perpetrating an excuse that the Hart family tragedy was thought to be a vehicular accident in the early hours of the breaking story. Perhaps. But not in the hours, days, and weeks since then, with still limited to zero coverage. There’s no missing the conscious decision by the vast majority of major media not to popularize this tragic family murder.
The second element working against the media elevating the Hart murder story is the family composition. Most notably, lesbian parents. There’s no evidence to suggest that lesbian or gay parents are more or less likely to plunge their conceived or adopted children to a gruesome death. By all accounts, gay parents are equally as good or equally as horrible parents as their heterosexual counterparts. However, there is a bias in the media against stories that might appear to be denigrating, demeaning, or in any way casting a negative light on gay people, gay couples, or gay parents. It’s not a malicious motive; it’s a natural reaction to supporting a cause you believe to be just and righteous and often attacked by those not so just or righteous. If you happen to believe that gay people have been treated historically unfairly, even cruelly, you may believe that the remedy is to do the opposite. Not merely a remedy, but your personal contribution to righting the wrong. Therefore, you choose not to cover stories that might cast gay parents in a poor light. The same might be true if you didn’t feel that strongly about this principle, but did wish to keep your job in any of the major media capital cities.
Everybody characterizes social motivations to bias the news as insidious, thereby forcing a harsh conflict over their existence, resulting in an endless repeat cycle of accusations and denials. This rather than accepting how tribalism leads people to both conscious and unconscious decisions that may be unjust, but hardly rooted in an intent to hurt. These are people looking out for their own tribe or own tribal causes. They may be aware of their prejudice, they may not, but it’s real all the same. As perhaps gay men and women were mistreated by the press for many generations, so too are they now being treated with kid gloves currently. Killer lesbian moms isn’t running in 24-point font breaking news lower thirds on any major news network.
The third and final reason for lack of coverage of the Hart children’s deaths, and the most egregious, is the manner in which minority children are treated by the news media in times of tragic circumstance. Multiple articles and studies have been written about the phenomenon often referred to as Missing White Girl Syndrome. The studies highlight the news media’s fascination with missing, cute, and often-privileged white girls while minority girls who represent a sizable number of the overall missing receive almost no national media attention. Certainly never wall-to-wall, 24×7 cable news and tabloid coverage. Some assign the cause to the fact that minorities are underrepresented in the news media, therefore, they have less sway in evening out the color of victim kids highlighted in the news. I’m more inclined to believe it’s a response to either real or perceived expectations of what stories will track better. Though one look at the zero black members of the all-white Huffington Post editorial board would indicate it’s probably both soft racism and cold calculation of ratings.
The Stoneman-Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida was a home run for the news media. It touched all the bases, including celebrity hyper-involvement and social media mania. The climax in the March for Our Lives on March 24th, 2018, provided a solid six-week news cycle that scored in the ratings. If a porn star named Stormy hadn’t appeared, it might’ve been top dog even longer. While seventeen innocent teens lost their lives on February 14th in Parkland, it’s hard not to note that the notoriously violent minority neighborhoods of Chicago tend to see many multiples of those numbers on gunshot deaths, 630 such shootings this year to date, with 106 dead. Almost entirely young black males, some Hispanic as well. They receive no special reports, no blanket coverage, no Town Halls, let alone the resulting national marches, political call to arms, and questions shouted by reporters from morning to night at relevant government officials. What of these dead? Where are the anointed of the press and media and celebrity commentators with millions of followers crying foul? Dead Black Guy Syndrome? Probably. Ask Clooney.
Not only were the victims in Parkland relatively upscale and relatively white, the follow-on student activists were thoughtfully skinned, extremely well spoken, and meticulously groomed. Drama and media backgrounds didn’t hurt these teens transition neatly into national news segments, interviews, filmed social media rants turned viral, and massive media support. The urban and underprivileged kids in Chicago can’t match this media sophistication. Nor compete with the story that innocent white kids are being slaughtered in our nation’s schools. It pains me as a rationalist to resemble in argument people who emotionally or passionately or opportunistically decry all racial disparity as clear signs of racism. But there’s no shame in your finely tuned watch matching a broken clock when they both are telling the correct time twice a day. Nobody gives a damn, or gives far less of a damn, about dead poor black kids.
Without a control study, it’s hard to say exactly how the Hart moms’ murder of their six children would’ve played out if they had been a well-heeled white suburban family with kids with perfect smiles and honor society pins to match. The dramatic variance in news coverage is not only a racial issue, it’s a class issue, and the Harts were wandering woodland hippies of some sort. Still, lesbian parents fly off a cliff to intentionally kill their six adopted children. This is the stuff of movies. This is a story with huge legs. This is a story that never received coverage, for reasons all above, none of them noble or earnest.
The solution to the media bias in the ranking of tragically killed young people is not more coverage of everything they’ve been missing. God no. There’s no way to objectively review the media coverage of Parkland past the initial incident and come to the conclusion it was in any way edifying, instructive, or intelligent over the course of the subsequent month. It was cheap and exploitative and repetitive. Nobody benefits from more of that, even if more demographically diverse victims are the subject matter. The solution lies in part in having less spectacle made of the death of young people, beyond that which is informative. Even more helpful, though almost entirely unlikely, and broadening and smartening up media coverage to discuss the larger social and societal issues causing and framing this violence. Urban blight, broken education, systemic poverty, mental health issues, and yes, to some extent, access to weapons, in the context of how the tools of war complete the picture of destruction. This will never happen because “if it bleeds it leads” is too powerful a motivation for increasingly profit-centered media news outlets; you already the underlying social and corporate bubble biases are not going anywhere. Fake corporate diversity efforts aside.
A good part of the reason I pen these Terrible Words pieces is for personal therapy. This isn’t about turning around the human condition. The sport of trying to change the world is for those under 25. Hopefully, it’s about alerting enough people to real injustice that we can all shout together. There’s some value in not being alone, even when fighting the tide.