In the 1950s and ‘60s it was hard to explain to foreigners and students why Sheriff Bull Connor and his ilk were training fire-hoses and setting police dogs on people who were just trying to eat at lunch counters. Once all that stupid business faded away, one would have thought Americans were ready to behave as sensible, non-judgmental people. But one would have been wrong. It’s all coming back.
I’m not sure when the Stupid Era returned, but one could argue that it never left. After President Eisenhower’s genteel campaigns in the 1950s, I was shocked when Lyndon Johnson slandered entirely honorable Senator Barry Goldwater (R-AZ) in 1964 as a dangerous warmonger who would certainly draw us into a land war in Asia, and who might even push the nuclear button.
The nadir of LBJ’s smear-campaign against Goldwater was the infamous Daisy Girl TV ad* which depicted a young girl innocently picking daisies in a field. Suddenly she is startled by an ominous voice counting down (10, 9, 8…) to a horrific nuclear blast whose image fills the screen. As the fireball rises and roils into the mushroom cloud of doom, Lyndon Johnson’s voice is heard saying, preacher-like, “…we must learn to love each other, or we must die…” As the ad fades out, a narrator sonorously intones, “Vote for President Johnson on November 3rd. The stakes are too high for you to stay home.”
The ad’s glorious career was media-driven. Major TV networks ran it repeatedly until it gained the status of revealed truth. Many voters believed that Barry Goldwater was a dangerous nut who would take us into war. He never had a chance, as Lyndon Johnson took 61% of the popular vote and 486 electoral votes. Political junkies – especially Democrats – still speak admiringly of Daisy Girl as “the most successful political ad in history.”
The vile ad was embarrassing on two counts: (1) that an American political party did this to an honorable public servant and patriot; and (2) that a significant part of the electorate actually bought such disgusting lies.
As for the “warmonger” charge: LBJ launched the Vietnam War in March 1965 by calling for 500,000 troops to defend South Vietnam against incursions by North Vietnam and the Viet Cong. As my colleagues and I sat in our office listening to LBJ’s radio-address, someone remarked how lucky were that Goldwater’s defeat had kept us out of a land war in Asia.
That was my adult-introduction to modern politics, but more “lynchings” lay ahead. One of the worst was the case of Patty Hearst – granddaughter of publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst. Miss Hearst, a college student aged 19, was kidnapped on February 4, 1974, by a gang of domestic terrorists called the Symbionese Liberation Army. Feeble FBI efforts to find her, over several months, were unsuccessful. Indeed, officials acted as though they shouldn’t spend too much time looking for a “spoiled rich girl.” (Probably she just ran away from home.)
All that was disgraceful enough. But when Miss Hearst was spotted in April 1974 on a video-monitor wearing guerilla garb and packing an automatic weapon in a bank-robbery, the FBI split their trousers leaping into action. They made her Public Enemy Number One and launched a nation-wide dragnet. (I’m not making this up!) She was quickly captured and charged with bank robbery. Reporters seemed unable to recall the FBI’s previous inability to find her. Nor was it determined whether the weapon she held in the bank job was actually loaded or even operable.
Patty Hearst (1974)
Media-cries of “no leniency for rich kids” – worthy of a Paris guillotine-mob – drove the Kangaroo Court on. Miss Hearst’s trial began on February 4, 1976. Deaf to pleas that she was violently coerced into the appearance (but not the intention) of criminal behavior, prosecutors and Judge Oliver Carter collaborated in a trial worthy of Saturday Nite Live.
Bizarre aspects of the trial included:
- Prejudicial observations by Judge Carter in a pretrial interview;
- Several changes of defense attorneys;
- The (natural) death of Judge Carter in the midst of the proceedings.
One wiseacre cracked that the trial’s subtext was a “race between reporters, attorneys, and ex-boyfriends to see who could get a book published first.” Another wag said a SNL-skit of the whole fiasco would fail even the credibility standards of modern comedy.
Despite a madcap defense staged by F. Lee Bailey, Miss Hearst was convicted on one count of bank robbery and sentenced to 35 years. Her sentence was judicially reduced to seven years – matching the sentence SLA leader Bill Harris received as an accessory to the murder of Myrna Opsahl during a 1975 bank robbery.
Miss Hearst’s Kafkaesque ordeal finally ended when President Carter commuted her sentence in 1979. Throughout the grotesque media circus, not one statesman was brave enough to stand up and say:
‘An innocent young woman was kidnapped by thugs and terrorists we had allowed to operate within our borders. Our government failed to discharge its fundamental duty to protect the citizenry. Thus, any complicity she appeared to share in her captors’ criminal conduct must be discounted due to her natural fear of injury or death at their hands. We shall now restore her to her family and beg her forgiveness. This travesty has gone far enough…’
A governor, mayor, or judge could have made this entirely sensible statement at any time. But as the Prophet said, “I looked, and there was no man…”
Today, I remain deeply ashamed that we actually prosecuted and imprisoned a victim we had not protected from a violent crime. We let our envy of rich people get the better of us. We shouldn’t have done that, but we aren’t learning anything. Recently, we did it again.
Obviously we have a love-hate relationship with rich, successful people that can cloud our judgment. We are also obsessed with race – including what an individual might have said in the distant past, when much of the country was racially prejudiced.
William Faulkner famously wrote, “In the South, the Past isn’t being relived; the Past isn’t even past…” As a resident of the New South, I can say with some confidence that this is no longer true in most southern locales. But in the media it still is. Race-baiters like to dig back into the past of certain public figures to uncover instances of speech and conduct we now consider unacceptable. It produces salacious copy that excites editors and politicians.
This was done to successful television cooking-show host Paula Deen, after she admitted in a court deposition that she used a racial epithet decades ago. As Miss Deen grew up in the South, this should not have been surprising. But media attack-dogs bashed her until several of her industrial sponsors – including The Food Network and Smithfield Foods – cancelled their contracts with her show. Ballantine Books also cancelled Miss Deen’s new book, Paula Deen’s New Testament: 250 Favorite Recipes, All Lightened Up.
The media bums-rush seemed on the point of entirely ruining her – to the obvious delight of many media figures – when a group called Black People for Paula stepped forward to say that she shouldn’t be punished for something she said decades ago and for which she has apologized. A statement from the group ran thus:
“We want everyone to see that that Black people are for Paula, and that we accept her apology… The Black community has forgiven Paula. It’s time for us all to open our hearts and give this good woman a second chance. [We’re] with you, Paula, and we are going to let the world know!”
Subsequently Hoffman Media announced that it would continue publishing the bimonthly recipe and lifestyle magazine Cooking with Paula Deen.
Am I a Paula Deen fan? Hardly that. I have no interest in cooking shows, and have never watched hers. That such shows come and go concerns me not a bit.
How they come and go does concern me, however. I don’t like media-lynching – especially over something someone said 30 years ago. And I hate the media’s double standard. The late Senator Robert Byrd (D-WV) was much-eulogized for his long service in the Senate, while media hounds remained remarkably silent about his past as a Grand Kleagle of the Ku Klux Klan. Where was his lynching-party?
Miss Deen’s career survived, despite her treatment at the hands of the media. I’m glad her ruin didn’t become another smudge on the American character that causes shame and embarrassment.
The George Zimmerman case was another media-lynching. (No, we are not related.) The case has been rehearsed so much since February 2012, after the shooting of Trayvon Martin, that I won’t rehash it here. The police of Sanford, Florida, decided that there was not enough evidence to charge Zimmerman, and they were prepared to release him.
But as that intention became known, Big Media launched a blitzkrieg to force Florida authorities to charge him. This included NBC News’ infamous editing of a recording of Zimmerman’s comments to a police dispatcher, as he followed the 17-year-old Martin through the streets of a gated community where Zimmerman was a neighborhood-watch volunteer. The recording was altered to make it appear that Zimmerman’s tracking of Martin was racially motivated.
Besides the spurious audio-editing done by NBC News, all print and electronic media organs persistently aired a photo of Trayvon Martin at age 12. It contrasted markedly with how the 6’2” Martin truly appeared at age 17. The jury in Zimmerman’s trial saw the age-17 photo, but the public saw only the age-12 photo.
Trayvon Martin, age 12 (as we saw him)
These outrageous media misrepresentations propelled demands that Zimmerman be charged. Racial agitators – including Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson – descended on Florida, and U. S. DoJ agents were reportedly sent to Florida to foment protests demanding that Zimmerman be tried. (Your federal government at work…) All this finally spooked authorities into charging him.
The situation became a perfect racial storm. News organs routinely referred to Zimmerman as a “white Hispanic” – a previously unknown term – to racialize the incident. Sanford Police Chief Bill Lee was accused of “botching” the investigation, and in June 2012 was relieved of duty. President Obama entered the dispute by saying, “If I had a son, he would look like Trayvon…”
Trayvon Martin, age 17
As the trial – televised for maximum media-effect – proceeded, it became clear why the police initially declined to charge George Zimmerman. There was significant doubt that he had really confronted Martin with the intention of killing him. (This is what 2nd degree murder means.)
Gradually, people realized that in a similar situation they might have acted as Zimmerman had. The tide began to turn. Racial agitators darkly predicted riots if Zimmerman was not found guilty. Reporters began to talk about “manslaughter,” and the presiding judge ruled that the jury could consider that lesser charge. But the hopes of those clamoring for Zimmerman’s conviction were ultimately dashed. After deliberating 15 hours, the six-person jury delivered a verdict of “not guilty.” Zimmerman was freed, and another media-lynching attempt failed.
Some “spokesmen” for the black community said, “the system failed.” People always say this when a trial hasn’t gone their way. I don’t share that view, however. My strong impression is that a jury of six sensible people also wished the incident hadn’t happened. But it had, and their job was to look at the evidence, not to act on feelings or wishes. Having fairly done that, they decided there was reasonable doubt of Zimmerman’s guilt, so they acquitted him.
I’m glad for that result, although I’m not happy about the shooting. It seemed a totally unnecessary waste of a young life. If he remains free, George Zimmerman will be branded for life by the incident. The whole thing was a miserable tragedy.
There was talk of trying Zimmerman, under federal statutes, for depriving Martin of his civil rights. But that went nowhere. I’m not a lawyer, but as a mature citizen I can’t see why giving the same act two different names, so you can try someone twice, is kosher.
Haven’t we had had enough media-lynchings? This isn’t what a decent society does.
[*] See Daisy Girl ad at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dDTBnsqxZ3k