'Jena Six' Story Gained Momentum Online The "Jena Six" are still in the national spotlight, but it took several months for the racially charged story to get picked up by the mainstream media. The story simmered on blogs and social networking sites for months, gradually building an online life of its own.
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'Jena Six' Story Gained Momentum Online

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ANTHONY BROOKS, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Anthony Brooks in Washington.

Last week, several thousand protestors traveled to Jena, Louisiana to show their support for the so-called Jena Six, a group of six black teenagers accused of beating a white classmate last December. That protest was all over the news - on the cable news networks, in most national newspapers, and on NPR as well.

But it took a while for the story to get picked up by most major news outlets. In fact, it took months. The Chicago Tribune broke the story in May - five months after the assault took place. USA Today and the New York Times ran their first pieces on the story just two weeks ago. NPR first mentioned it in July.

Why did it take so long for the Jena story to make national news? Why did so many media outlets miss the story? And what does it say about how the mainstream media cover race? Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255, that's 800-989-TALK. Our e-mail address is talk@npr.org. And you can comment on our blog at npr.org/blogofthenation.

And joining us now from a studio in Dallas, Texas is Shawn Williams, also known as Dallas South Blogger. He's one of the many African-American bloggers who wrote about Jena online.

And, Shawn Williams, welcome back to the TALK OF THE NATION.

Mr. SHAWN WILLIAMS (Founder, dallassouthblog.com): Thanks for having me again.

BROOKS: Do you believe the mainstream media missed this story?

Mr. WILLIAMS: The mainstream media definitely missed this story. Like you said, the Chicago Tribune ran the story back - few months back, and you know, I had comments from Europe - all over, hearing BBC coverage - way before I heard any of the national publications picking up on the story.

BROOKS: And why do you think that was? Why do you think that they missed it?

Mr. WILLIAMS: I think that people naturally gravitate towards stories that they associate themselves most closely to. And since the majority of the media is not black - and this is a situation which is involving African-American youth -they kind of see a fight, they see - as soon as they see, you know, the young man going to jail and it just doesn't strike them as anything different. And so, I think that the African-American blogging communities associate it with the story much more and felt a more connection. And so, that's why we kind of kept it going over the last few months.

BROOKS: And yet, it's curious because stories about racial conflicts and the criminal justice system and injustice often attract all kinds of people to it. I'm curious why you think in particular this story sort of flew under the radar for so long. I mean, I take your point about people identifying with stories that are about them but, again, stories about racial conflict are often, you know, fall under that unfortunate heading: if it bleeds, it reads. If it bleeds, it leads, excuse me.

Mr. WILLIAMS: I understand that and I think that there are numbers of stories still flying under the radar. And I think most of the ones that eventually come to national attention, generally, the national media is late to it. There's the Megan Williams torture case in West Virginia, which involved six people in West Virginia who held her captive for a period of a week. She was raped. She was tortured. And, you know, you got one story maybe one day where that was covered and it's pretty much gone off the national conscience. So, I really do think that the point is that once people no longer feel the connection with the people that they see that it kind of goes by the wayside.

BROOKS: Mm-hmm. Now, as we mentioned, you did a lot to advance the story online in the blogosphere. How did you, living in Dallas, hear about it? What brought you - your attention to this story?

Mr. WILLIAMS: I was made known to the story in the Chicago Tribune by the Howard Witt article, that really was one of the first national articles related to the Jena Six. And after that, I posted it that same day on my Web site and, you know, basically a lot of the people in the Afrosphere Bloggers Association group that I'm associated with also posted the same story on their site. And that's when many of us saw just what type of case this was. And for us, it never went away.

BROOKS: Mm-hmm. Interesting. An editor might say of a story like this that this - or might have said before this sort of burst on the national - into the national - into the nation's attention that this is a local story, not a national one. How would you respond to that?

Mr. WILLIAMS: I think in many ways they're probably correct, but I think, you know, again for the majority of my readers - for the African-American community, you know, you see this in every community, you feel like you see this all over the country. And so, whenever we see this type of injustice, it's not really local because you can feel it wherever you are.

And, you know, there was this situation in Paris, Texas, with a 14-year-old girl that drew a lot of attention. And so, whenever you see these stories, you feel a kinship too. And I think that's why the African-American community, over the entire nation, have gravitated to the story. And again, when you look at those editors - and again, very few of those editors are African-American -they would not feel the same kinship to the story or feel, because many of the people you hear talk about it feel like that in African-American community, this could be their son.

I heard Mayor Ray Nagin say that in Jena. One of the reasons why he was there is because he has sons this age and this could be his son. And so, I think that's why the community, again, feels so closely to this.

BROOKS: We're talking about how the mainstream media cover race, and in particular, why they missed the story about the Jena Six for as long as they did? Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255, that's 800-989-TALK. You can also e-mail the question to talk@npr.org.

Let's go to Yosef(ph) who's calling from Los Angeles. Hello, Yosef?

YOSEF (Caller): Hi. I'm - I live in Los Angeles now, but I've lived in the South for a while before I moved here to get into the entertainment business. I was wondering if they got to comment on the fact that the location - I mean, as well as the racial issue, that fact that the location was a small town in the South and whether that could deal with media prioritization in certain regions of the country. Thank you.

BROOKS: It's a good question. All right, thanks for the question, Yosef. What do you think about that, Shawn?

Mr. WILLIAMS: I think that is part of why it might take longer. But you can look at the case of the young groom in New York, Yosef…

BROOKS: It's not going to bring…

Mr. WILLIAMS: …who is shot on the day of his wedding. And, you know, that was another person who, you know, it was not necessarily race-related, but it was a big story about a mistaken identity, a young man who was shot and killed on the day of his wedding. But that was a story that didn't get very much national publicity.

So, I mean, I think that there are number of reasons and each individual situation why you could say, well, this is why this particular story does not make the news. But I think what happens in the media coverage, what happens in the judicial system, where African-American youth are sort of six times longer sentences with similar crimes is that when you look at the collective, it paints a picture that's broader than any particular instance that you can bring with each case.

BROOKS: Mm-hmm. I want to bring another voice into the conversation. We're joined now by Steven Holmes. He's a national editor at the Washington Post, and he's with us from a studio at the Post headquarters here in Washington.

Steven Holmes, welcome back to TALK OF THE NATION.

Mr. STEVE HOLMES (National Editor, The Washington Post): Thank you very much. Thanks for having me.

BROOKS: Yeah. Thanks for being here. Do you buy this basic premise that this story was missed by the mainstream media?

Mr. HOLMES: Oh, yeah. Absolutely, I do. As you mentioned, it was - it occurred actually in 2006 and really didn't make the consciousness of the national media until, at least, mid of - middle of this year. As you mentioned, the Chicago Tribune did it in July, we here are the Post did the story in August, and then a number of other major national outlets didn't do it until a few weeks before the demonstration.

BROOKS: And why? We've heard a couple of theories as to why. Why did a story like this fly, you know, it exploded into the national consciousness but flew for so long under the radar?

Mr. HOLMES: Well, I think we don't do as good a job as we can in covering communities of color. And a lot of these stories or too many of these stories do fly underneath the radar because we tend to be so focused on stories that are very familiar to people who run newspapers. They tend to be, especially this year, this - at this time of year, presidential politics and national security, which takes up so much of our attention.

And so you have these instances, unfortunately, where some of these stories fly underneath the radar and we get surprised. I really liken this particular story not only to some other stories that your guest mentioned, such as the 14-year-old girl in Paris, Texas, or the Genarlow Wilson case in Georgia, but also to the immigration rights marches of last year.

So many of us were really surprised when, you know, hundreds of thousands of people turned out in cities like Dallas and Chicago and Los Angeles. We just didn't - it just really took us really by surprise because we don't pay enough attention to these communities and especially the voices within these communities that are not, if you will, mainstream voices, you know, bloggers, DJs, community newspapers and just word of mouth.

BROOKS: Mm-hmm. Well let's let some of our callers, who are standing by patiently, get in on this conversation. To join the conversation, you can call us at 800-989-8255. That's 800-989-TALK. And let's go to George(ph) who is calling from Kansas - no, from Lenexa, Kansas. Hi, George. You're on the air.

GEORGE (Caller): Hi. We have a local sports columnist, then, he's turned into somewhat of a social activist by the name of Jason Whitlock. He is also black. And he reported on this several months ago. And he said that when the mainstream press started reporting on this that it would be twisted away from what actually happened there, and that was that six thugs beat up one kid who is not associated in any way with the nooses that they found in the tree several days earlier. And they said that the mainstream press would use this to their advantage to try to do whatever they do.

And he started out to be right because now, they've all picked it up, they twisted it to try to make it sound like this is related to the nooses that were in the tree, and it's not. It's just a fact that six thugs beat up another kid.

BROOKS: Mm-hmm. Shawn Fox(ph), is that a fair reading of the story?

Mr. WILLIAMS: Well, I don't think that's a fair reading of the story. I think that there were six young men who were involved in a fight with one student and no one has condoned those actions.

GEORGE: That's (unintelligible) there.

Mr. WILLIAMS: No one has condoned those actions, but there are the series of events that led from the nooses. It didn't just go from there. There were the nooses one day, and there was the fight between the six students, and the one the next. There was a series of events that, you know, led the town into a lot of racial tension, and this was just, you know, one those events. No one's saying that they shouldn't have punished, but the outrage is against the original second-degree attempted murder charges that there eventually filed against them.

GEORGE: It's possible that they didn't overcharge people that they charge all the time. It's not unusual for that to happen anywhere against a white, black, Mexican, or whatever.

Mr. WILLIAMS: The numbers, though, I think is the point…

GEORGE: (Unintelligible) absolutely, there's absolutely nothing here…

BROOKS: Okay. Wait a minute, George. Let Shawn respond, okay?

Mr. WILLIAMS: I think that the point of the matter is that the numbers bear out is that it is different. The numbers show that African-American youth receive different penalties for the same punishment. Crack cocaine gets longer sentencing than powder cocaine. And that's just what the numbers say.

BROOKS: We're talking about the Jena Six and why it took so long for the mainstream media to pick up the story. More on what that says about how the media covers race in a moment, and your calls at 800-989-8255. You can also send us e-mail. The address is talk@npr.org.

I'm Anthony Brooks. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

BROOKS: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Anthony Brooks in Washington.

We'll give you a chance to talk with secretary-general of NATO a little later in the hour. If you have questions about its role in Afghanistan or Iraq, NATO expansion, or its relationship with Russia, go ahead and e-mail them now to talk@npr.org.

Right now, the Jena Six. Did the mainstream media miss the story? And what does this say about how the media covers race in the U.S.? You're welcome to join us by calling 800-989-8255. The e-mail address is talk@npr.org.

Still with us is Shawn Williams. He blogs at dallassouthblog.com. We're also joined by Steven Holmes, a national editor at the Washington Post. Steven Holmes, before the break, I want to come you. We heard a caller, George, who was talking about an interesting take on the story that, you know, this has been overblown. That this was just really a case of a bunch of thugs who beat up a white guy.

Mr. HOLMES: Well, you know, it does sort of play into some of the reasons why the story may have been not as covered as quickly as it might. I mean, I think many of us in the media like simple tales. And it's been - maybe even when it comes to race-stereotypic tales, you know, of a group of victims, if you will, of an oppressive system. And I think that you may have had elements of that here in the Jena story, but, you know, also it's a little complicated.

After all, these were six guys who did beat up one white guy - knocked him unconscious. And it might lead to a little bit of reluctance to try and jump on the story. Your guest also mentioned the situation in West Virginia, where you had the woman who was held for a number of days. And many of us jumped on that story because it seemed at first that she was just sort of snatched off the street. And it sound like it's a, you know, a ready-made story. But the fact of the matter is that it turns out she had a romantic relationship with one of her tormentors.

Now, I'm not saying that these aren't stories. And I'm not saying that we shouldn't do them. What I am saying though is that sometimes, these stories have complications that sometimes lead to reluctance to cover them or at least cover them as quickly. I think that becomes a factor as well.

BROOKS: Interesting. Steven Holmes, we're going to let you go and thank you for joining us today - very grateful.

Mr. HOLMES: Thank you for having me. Bye.

BROOKS: That was Steven Holmes, national editor at the Washington Post. He joined us from a studio at the paper's headquarters here in Washington.

Let's get some callers back in - onto this conversation. Randy(ph) is calling from Columbia, South Carolina. Hi, Randy.

RANDY (Caller): Can you hear me?

BROOKS: You are on the air. What's on your mind?

RANDY: I just would like to hear, I guess, a comparison to the media coverage and community reaction in this case, versus the, I guess, the Duke rape case, where the media basically just crucified the kids, you know, right from the start.

BROOKS: It's a big question, Randy, and I appreciate it. I don't know, Shawn, Fox, do you want to take a stab at that?

Mr. WILLIAMS: You know, the media jumped in - again, like the previous guest said, it seemed like he was just a ready-made case, and they jumped in and didn't do all the research and all the facts, you know? And I think it's like an opposite effect of what happens in the case like the one in Jena. You know, you overanalyze. You just make sure that every I is dotted and every T is crossed.

And, you know, for the most part, the people missed it on the Duke rape case, and there was the folks who jumped and didn't get all the facts. And I think that's one thing that's been important, with this case and a lot of the other cases like Genarlow Wilson, is to get all the facts and see what's really going on before you start levying charges.

BROOKS: Randy, thanks for the call.

We're joined now by Keith Woods. He was a writer and an editor at the New Orleans Times Picayune. Now, he is dean of faculty at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Florida. And Keith Woods, good to have you with us.

Dr. KEITH WOODS (Dean of Faculty, Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Florida): Glad to be here.

BROOKS: I'm really anxious to get you in on this conversation. First, a word in general about this Jena Six story. You've been listening to a lot of the programs so far. What's your take on the way the national media responded to this?

Dr. WOODS: Well, I - first I didn't, of course, and I think it's important to say a couple of things right out the bat. The Alexandria Daily Town Talk covered this story from beginning to end. And they would count as mainstream media, so I think that they may feel left out when we say that they missed the story. And the Associated Press picked up a good deal of that coverage and did some of its own from the very beginning as well.

And I think that that leads you to something else. You asked a question: how did the media miss the story. And I would suggest to you that it wasn't missed. There was an option taken here to pass on it in many ways. This is a good story, as a story goes, because it begins with a black student asking the principal of a school, may I sit under a tree where white people sit? And if you didn't go any further than that, there's a tale to be told if you're a journalist that must be incredibly interesting.

And the national media had a number of opportunities from that point forward to step in - the fire that destroyed a good part of the school in December; the fight that follows it that led to these charges; the charges themselves and the escalation to attempted murder - a very unusual event; the growing voice that you heard on a radio and now on the blogosphere; the trial itself, conviction - overturn of conviction; the march. Each one of those moments, if you are a journalist, is an opportunity to get in and tell a good story. And I think the big question to ask is why - not why did you miss it, but why did you pass?

BROOKS: Hmm. And what do you think the answer to that is?

Dr. WOODS: We've heard some of it. I think Shawn makes some very compelling arguments for why the media might pass. And, you know, it didn't, you know? The old it-didn't-look-like-a-media-story that both of your guests have suggested, I think, is a part of it. You know, when the story takes on a familiar narrative, then, we find a comfortable place to tell it. And it became the Jena Six story - not coincidentally - at exactly the moment that it became a huge national story.

And I think it's ironic that we are talking today about the 50th anniversary of the Little Rock Nine because that is the narrative. It is the narrative of the oppressed black men, essentially, the oppressed black America.

And unfortunately, that desire to fit it in to neat box pushes away from the complexities that some of your callers have suggested - that make this not a less interesting story, but a more interesting story.

BROOKS: 800-989-8255, that's 800-989-TALK - to join this conversation about the Jena Six and how the mainstream media cover race in general.

Let's go to Lee(ph) who's calling from St. Louis. Lee, hi, you're on the air.

LEE (Caller): Hi, thank you.

BROOKS: Thank you.

LEE: I just want to say that in my opinion, coming from a male wasp from the Midwest, there's no question that this story was missed and it wasn't missed by mistake. I think that there are - institutionally, the mainstream media in this country is completely dysfunctional. It's not just on race, and it's not something that happens every once in a while. It's every day.

Look at the headlines. How disconnected journalism is overall - TV, radio and imprints on all of these. Thank God for the blogosphere and especially the black bloggers who brought this out, because otherwise it wouldn't have been known. And it's time for the media to admit that the ivory tower is no longer on the campus. It's in the newsroom.

BROOKS: Interesting.

LEE: It needs to cover stories that are important, not that are good stories in the sense of good reading in the morning while I eat my breakfast.

BROOKES: Keith Woods, Lee in St. Louis is suggesting the mainstream media is somewhat isolated, locked away in an ivory tower, out of touch. Fair criticism?

Dr. WOODS: Well, I think it's - of course, there's no good answer to that question, is there?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. WOODS: I think that the - we are in fact disconnected from some important corners of our constituency. You know, yeah we missed the immigration marches a year ago because we weren't listening to Spanish language radio. We weren't reading the writing on the wall in the Latino community. We missed it a week ago again, when the march on Congress happened - a smaller affair, but equally traceable.

My barber knew about this story in the spring and was asking me about it because he was listening to the radio and picking up bits and pieces from the blogosphere. That's why I agree, again, that it may not be that there was a conscious decision to ignore this, but there was a decision at some point by a producer, by an executive producer, by a, you know, a wire editor in the print newsroom to see it, know what it is, and decide not to do anything about it.

LEE: Well, I think there's a whole set of assumptions that go into those decisions that say that the people in the newsroom who what's good for us out here in the hinterland. And you can see the disconnect - go back in the '90s, look at the disconnect between what was on our TVs, in our living rooms, in our cars, and what we're reading in morning - every single day, for years, about Clinton and the impeachment versus public opinion on that. Look at the war today versus the kind of coverage it gets. It's outrageous.

BROOKS: Mm-hmm. Well, Lee, I want to thank you for the call. And I want to actually throw your point over to Shawn Williams. Shawn, do you feel that you, as a member of the black blogosphere, are more in touch with these kinds of stories than the mainstream media? I mean, in this particular case, it seemed you were.

Mr. WILLIAMS: I think, definitely on any story dealing with African-Americans, it's going to be for years. You've heard people in our community talk about, well, these missing women, that are white women - that come up that you see on TV, the names that you know - why is it that they get so much coverage for weeks when they're missing? And then, there are so many black females that come up missing and you hear nothing about it.

And a young lady started a blog. It's called Black and Missing but not Forgotten. And she - I saw on her blog all over the country, young African-American women and children who come up missing and who are missing. And many of these stories are college students that, you know, you think about the most recent student that came missing in Utah. And you've heard nothing about that African-American student, who's been missing in Florida. And so I think the main - we are closer to those scenarios. And I think the main lesson that we are learning is if we really want the stories to be told, we are going to have to tell them ourselves.

BROOKS: Mm-hmm. Interesting. Let's take a call from Rochelle(ph) in San Francisco. Hi, Rochelle.

ROCHELLE (Caller): Hello. How are you?

BROOKS: Very well. Thanks. Thanks for the call.

ROCHELLE: Okay. I'm sorry. I was on my cell phone. I just need to take you off the speakerphone and I've done that. I've really - you know, I have a question that's really in two parts. The first thing I wanted to comment on was the fact that we don't have - well, just the way the story has been covered now at the mainstream medias there, and that is whether or not, you know, we're focusing a lot on what the black community is doing, what should be really commended to bring in the story to the forefront.

However, we have to keep in mind that a civil rights story is not really just a minority community story. We're all Americans - all those soldiers out there on the frontlines. We're all Americans. We're one people. And I think the media really needs to move beyond looking at our population in segments and question even, at this point, where are the whites? I mean, the league a great example of whites standing up and saying this is really outrageous.

We're going to stand up and we're going to speak about injustice in the same way that whites did during the '60s that left their family and their homes to go down there and fight what was an obvious injustice that was going on in the society.

BROOKS: Okay. Well, listen, you put a lot on the table for us, Rochelle. And I want to put the point over to both of our guests, so just stand by.

But first, I want to say that you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let me come to you, Keith Woods, and pick up on Rochelle's point. And I think what she might be talking about is sort of the overall question of how the American mainstream media does in covering race. What - how can we do it better? She talked about sort of segmenting it essentially…

Dr. WOODS: Right.

BROOKS: …rather than making it part of the whole fabric of who we are.

Dr. WOODS: I think that there are competing truths here, that we are in many ways as a nation living these issues separately, and we'll only talk about it in any kind of substantive way separately. So in Jena, the story that you wind up getting is the story that the black people tell you, the story that the white people tell you, and they often don't sound like the same story. When we are together, it's harder to reach some measure of candor.

I don't know, for example, why the white students hung the nooses, because I haven't heard from them. Nor do I know of the opinion that Lee expressed, whether that opinion is widely shared in Jena because I haven't heard much in general from white people, unless there are officials responding to claims of racism - and there's going to be a lot more nuance to it than that there. And I think that's what your caller is getting to, that we are living this - all of us - in fairly complex ways. And if we insist that people talk about this in simple black and white - and I mean that in the euphemistic way and not in the literal way - then, we don't get very far.

BROOKS: Mm-hmm. What you make of, Keith Woods, about this issue? First of all, I want to thank you - Rochelle, thanks so much for the call. I appreciate it.

I'm interested in this idea that has come up in the course of the show, of the bloggers really sort of stepping in and, you know, filling the void where the mainstream media has left it empty. I mean, what do you make of that, Keith Woods? Is that the future?

Dr. WOODS: Well - yeah. It's the present, for sure.

BROOKS: The support, right.

Dr. WOODS: And I think, in some ways it is so reminiscent of the, sort of, community conversation that the black press was able to carry on and the word of mouth that preceded even that. It's the barbershop. It's the hair salon. It's all of the places were black America has gathered to talk about the issues that don't seem to make it into the larger national conversation. But it doesn't have to be the replacement for what ought to be.

And one of the things that I hope comes as a result of this is the result of what Shawn Williams and others have done, is that the national media figures out that there is another wonderful listening post now available to tap into this conversations on the front-end of them - back in September of 2006, and not in September of 2007 - on a story that we are all, in some way, going to be living at some point.

BROOKS: Shawn Waynes - well, I mean, Shawn Williams, last point to you. How do you see - what would you like to see, I guess, in the future? What does this story teach us about the way we need to cover it?

Mr. WILLIAMS: Well, I think the main thing, again, for the African-American community is that we have to understand that if we don't feel that the stories are being told, then I don't think going and asking our local news paper, our local TV station to cover them is going to be the way now to get that done. Now, we have our own media outlet, sources, in the way of blogs and even some of the radio stations that have picked it up. And we have to - rather than waiting on other folks to tell the stories for us - to tell our own stories. But I am hopeful that at some point, I still continue to keep my newspaper subscription here in Dallas.

Dr. WOODS: I hope…

Mr. WILLIAMS: I hope that there is a time when we can get the stories that do represent America but, unfortunately, I believe that the divide, and the lesson that he talked about, about the students asking to sit under the white three. I think that divide in our country is the reason for the divide and the news.

BROOKS: Very interesting. Well, on that point, we're going to have to leave it there.

Shawn Williams, thanks so much for helping us stay abreast with the story over the last few days and for joining us today. I appreciate it.

Mr. WILLIAMS: Thank you.

BROOKS: That's Shawn Williams. He's a blogger at dallassouthblog.com.

And, Keith Woods, thank you for joining us.

Dr. WOODS: My pleasure.

BROOKS: Keith Woods is dean of faculty at Poynter Institute, and we thank him for joining us.

Coming up, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, the secretary-general of NATO takes your calls on Afghanistan, Iraq, expansion, and Russia, among other issues.

You can call us at 800-989-8255 or e-mail us at talk@npr.org. Stay with us. I'm Anthony Brooks. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Copyright © 2007 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

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