"Who Was Burning the Black Churches?" by Joe Holley, in Columbia Journalism Review
(Sept.-Oct. 1996), 101 Journalism Bldg., 2950 Broadway, Columbia Univ., New York, N.Y. 10027;
"Politics and Church Burnings" by Michael Fumento, in Commentary (Oct. 1996),
165 E. 56th St., New York, N.Y. 10022; "Playing with Fire" by Michael Kelly, in
The New Yorker (July 15, 1996), 20 W. 43rd St., New York, N.Y. 10036.
The story raged out of control in the nation's news media last year. Black churches in the South were burning in an epidemic of racist- inspired arson. "Flames of Hate: Racism Blamed in Shock Wave of Church Bumings," screamed a New York Daily News headline. Many accounts hinted that a conspiracy might be at work. President Bill Clinton and other politicians expressed alarm at this supposed resurgence of American racism. And then the story largely turned to dust. How did the news media get taken for this wild ride?
Fumento, a columnist for Reason magazine, charges that the Atlanta-based Center for Democratic Renewal (CDR), a left-wing group that tracks right-wing extremism, perpetrated "a deliberate hoax." In conjunction with the National Council of Churches, he says, the CDR early last year fed the media "a steady diet of 'news' about black-church bumings in the South." Whatever the organizations "had in mind when they started their mendacious cam- paign," it filled their coffers with millions of dol- lars in contributions from appalled Americans. In June, after a black church in Charlotte, North Carolina, burned to the ground (in a fire that, it later turned out, had been set by a dis-turbed 13-year-old), the CDR claimed that since 1990 "there had been 90 arson attacks against black churches in nine Southern states; the number had been rising every year; and each and every culprit 'arrested andlor detained' was white," Fumento writes. This gave a false picture of the situation, he says. The CDR blamed arson for fires that authorities attributed to other causes, for example. And fires at churches in the nation had actually decreased since 1980, and an upsurge in attacks on black churches in 1995 and the first half of '96 "could be largely ascribed to a combination of more reliable statistics and copycat behav- ior," Fumento says.
Holley, a free-lance writer based in Austin, Texas, does not pin all the blame on the CDR. Reporters made faulty interpretations of what was happening. "The black-church-burning story," he writes, "is a textbook example of what can happen, both good and bad, when journal- ists are tempted to connect the dots. It's an example of how the media can be distracted, even misled for a while, but, given time, are able to right themselves, regain their balance, and tease out the complex truth."
Surprisingly, USA Today, though not noted for investigative reporting, led the way in getting at the truth of the matter. (Close behind were the Associated Press's Fred Bayles and the New Yorker's Kelly.) USA Today reporter Gary Fields and a dozen colleagues, notes Holley, "conducted more than 500 interviews, examined fire records in every southern state, and visited the sites of 45 church arsons." They found that while there had been a "surge" of arsons during 1995 and '96 at black churches in two areas in the South, there was no "epidemic of racially-driven arsons" sweeping the region. Of the 64 fires at black churches the USA Today team exam- ined, only four could be conclusively shown to be racially motivated.
The nation (and the news media), Fields and a fellow reporter observed, had stumbled upon an old phenomenon and mistaken it for something new. "The phenomenon: churches of every color are a traditional favorite of arsonists. Although the pace has been declining in recent years, arsonists still torch an average of 520 churches and church-owned buildings a year."