The Republican Terrorist and Media Bias
Did you hear about Charles Bishop? In 2002, this Tampa Bay Republican Party activist decided to show support for a defender of traditional values. Not George W. Bush. Not Ronald Reagan. Not Pat Robertson.
Osama bin Laden.
Mr. Bishop was described by his family as "a patriotic American," but he deeply believed the Palestinians were being mistreated by the liberal Jews of Israel, and he felt bin Laden was a hero for expressing anger against Israel's great supporter, the United States of America, on September 11, 2001.
To show the depth of his support for bin Laden, Bishop committed a terrorist act of his own. He seized the wheel of an airplane and flew it strait into the Florida Bank of America building.
Surely you heard about this on the news. No? What if I mentioned Charles Bishop was fifteen at the time? Aah, now we remember. Yes, the fifteen-year-old who flew a Cessna into the Florida high-rise.
Why is it we remember this terrorist's age but not his political affiliation? Why do we think of him as "the 15-year-old" and not as "the Republican"? The answer, of course, is that the media announced his age to us over and over, but barely whispered a word of his political background. Bishop left behind a note explaining that the crime he was about to commit was politically-motivated, but the media decided his politics were less relevant than his age.
A Lexis-Nexis search turned up over 300 newspaper articles written about Charles Bishop. All of them mentioned Bishop's youth. Only one article — one — mentioned Bishop's political affiliation. The St. Petersburg Times (Jan. 12, 2002, pg. 1B) mentioned this fact once, in passing, in the article's third paragraph, writing, "He belonged to the Young Republicans Club, had read all of Tom Clancy's books, liked to travel and took pride in caring for his three dogs ..." The same article identified Bishop, in the headline, as a "teen boy" and specified in the first sentence this terrorist was a "15-year-old."
The other 300+ articles emphasized his age just as strongly but never once mentioned he was a Republican. If media had emphasized his party as much as they emphasized his age, Republicans across America would have screamed about media bias. And they might have had a point. Connecting this act of terror with the Republican Party would hurt the Party's image. Yet the media feel free to connect this crime to the younger generation.
What if Republicans were treated as teenagers are? Imagine for a moment how different our society would look if, every time a Republican committed a crime, the media announced his party (REPUBLICAN RAPIST CAUGHT or WOMAN MUGGED BY REPUBLICAN, etc.) but every time a Democrat did the same, his party was left unmentioned. This would amount to demonization. Americans would constantly hear of Republicans doing awful things and would seldom imagine Democrats being as bad. Americans would soon call for harsher treatment of Republicans, tighter restrictions on them to protect society from Republican rapists and killers, and there would be little sympathy for their rights or dignity when Americans came to see "Republican" as synonymous with "criminal."
Since we agree it is wrong to demonize Republicans this way, why is it acceptable to demonize youth? Whenever the media tell us of a crime committed by someone young, they announce his age prominently. When the criminal is older, his age is left unsaid or is mentioned once in passing near the bottom of the article.
Defenders of the news media sometimes argue it is okay to emphasize the age of young criminals because their youth is newsworthy. It is unusual and shocking for a criminal to be young.
But if this is the true reason, why do news stories almost never point out that young criminals are the exception? They, in fact, give viewers the opposite impression, leading people to believe it is common for crimes to be committed by youth.
I'm sure we can agree it is shocking, surprising, and ironic for a Republican to emulate a foreign terrorist whom the Republican Party's leader, President Bush, has denounced as a man of evil. Surely this is at least as surprising and shocking as the fact that a teenager emulated the same. Yet only one newspaper bothered to mention the political party of this politically-driven criminal.
When the Killer is Old
Speaking of newsworthy surprises, isn't it surprising when a student shoots up his school and it turns out the student is 43 years old? That's exactly what happened only a week before the Republican terrorist struck. A Virginia law school was shot up by a 43-year-old student. The media gave this little attention, certainly less attention than they gave Columbine and other shootings committed by teenaged students. They gave even less attention to this student's surprising age.
The Washington Post (1/17/02), for example, covered this shooting with only a single article and waited until the eighth paragraph to mention the shooter was 43. Readers who read just the first few paragraphs (and that's most of us) knew only that the shooter was a "student," and readers probably assumed he was younger. By contrast, when the Washington Post covered the Columbine High School shooting with multiple front page stories (4/21/99), no one could have missed reading about the perpetrators' youth. One front-page article announced in its first sentence the shooters were "young," while another waited until only the third paragraph to inform us the killers were "teenagers." The Washington Post was hardly alone in this ageism.
The news media fail to deliver the objective reporting we deserve and need in order to properly shape our democracy. They are neither balanced nor fair. Like a funhouse mirror, they make some things look huge and make other things look so small they can barely be seen. What is most unfortunate is that the news media are what we rely on for information about the world around us. We rely on this mirror to show us the problems and help us find solutions. Voters use this mirror's reflection to guide them in shaping our nation's policies.
Without accurate information for the public, a democracy cannot properly function. The media have a responsibility to present an honest image of reality. And it is time they accepted their responsibility.