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By Jeremy Schiffres, Daily and Sunday Freeman, Kingston, N.Y.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Racing to sensationalize

Last Saturday, in the wake of Barack Obama winning the Democratic Iowa caucuses, I wrote, optimistically, that perhaps Americans finally were becoming color-blind and might be ready, willing and able to elect a black man as their president.

Three days later, a Hudson Valley newspaper (not the Freeman) proved, sadly, that we haven’t come that far after all -- reporting in a follow-up story about an alleged rape at Kingston High School that the incident was “sparking racial tensions in the city.”

The six suspects were black; the alleged victim, white. And this was, after all, Kingston High School, where an assault by a black student on a white student in 2005 led to a local rally by New Jersey-based white supremacist Hal Turner and a small group of neo-Nazis. So, naturally, the newspaper decided to portray the alleged rape as a bias crime. Too bad there were no facts to back up the supposition.

The sole basis for the newspaper’s story was that one local pastor -- who, wait for it now, “declined to be identified” -- made the comment that the girl in the alleged rape was “just like Tawana Brawley, only white.” (Brawley was the black teenager from Dutchess County who, in late 1987, alleged she was sexually assaulted by six white men, including law-enforcement officers, and said they smeared a racial epithet on her torso using feces. A grand jury later concluded Brawley had fabricated the story.)

The pastor in the newspaper’s story was allowed to hide herself in anonymity, and no one else in the story was quoted as saying the alleged rape at KHS was race-related or that the city was suffering from “racial tension.” In fact, the story had no comments at all about race from students, employees of the school, police officials, the mayor or, for that matter, anyone living in the city of Kingston.

Well, I live in Kingston. I have for more than 20 years. And let me assure you, the incident at the high school (in which the rape charges have been dropped, by the way) did not spark “racial tensions” in the city -- or even at the high school, according to numerous students and parents with whom I’ve spoken over the past several days. And the reason is simple: People of different races generally get along in Kingston. Are there some problems? Yes, of course. Sadly, there will be in any racially mixed population. But, in general, there is no “racial tension” in my adopted hometown. And there never has been during the time I’ve lived here. (For heaven’s sake, most of the 200 people who showed up to demonstrate against Hal Turner at his November 2005 rally were white!)

Alleging that a crime is race-related is serious business and should never be done lightly -- especially by a media outlet that is expected to be thorough and objective in its reporting.

And viewing a crime as race-related simply because the suspects are of one race and the alleged victim is of another is, in a word, bigoted.



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