It didn’t come up this time, perhaps because attention quickly shifted to the suspects. But it’s a question that has been asked before and will be asked again. It’s not a bad question.
An early morning worker on the campus of the University of Mississippi on Feb. 16 saw a knotted rope with a flag entwined around the neck of a statue on campus. Here’s the question: What if the worker had removed the rope and flag, walked 100 feet to the nearest trashcan, tossed them in and gone on to his job?
After all, that’s what would happen to an empty pizza box or plastic garbage bag.
The answer, of course, is that if the rope and flag used in the symbolic lynching of the James Meredith statue had been picked up and pitched, no police report would have been written and the ensuing round of local, regional, national and international media reports would not have followed.
No satellite trucks.
No new fodder for the debates about whether the South or Mississippi or its flagship university had changed, still needs change, would never change or was the same or a sharply different place from 1962. (That’s the year state officials agreed, pretty much with guns at their heads, to obey court orders to admit Meredith, an honorably discharged veteran qualified for college life in every way except being white.)
The point of the question is that if the worker simply trashed the rope and the flag containing an emblem of the Confederacy, the miscreants who did the deed would have been denied “publicity.”
“That’s what they want you know, publicity.” People have chastised the media countless times through the years. “Look. All these people want is publicity and the only place they can get it is from you reporters. You ought to just ignore them.”
It’s a tempting thought.
But it would be wrong.
Ask yourself this: If there were a series of break-ins at homes around yours, would you be safer if you didn’t know about them? Or would you just feel safer?
Not to be overly preachy about it, but information – almost any information – is useful. More useful, however, are the conversations – painful as they can be – that follow bad events, tragic events, sad events.
Are there legions of folks inside and outside the media who use events to reinforce what they already believe?
Those so inclined will claim the acts are absolute proof that wickedness is prevalent, as prevalent as ever and perhaps more prevalent. They will use this or similar events as prime evidence that America and the American South in particular are perpetually hostile to minorities.
At the other end of the spectrum will be those who characterize the act as something not to be taken seriously. They’ll say it reflects mere stupidity, prankish showing off by out-of-the-mainstream goofballs unwilling or unable to understand that their hostility (or fun) wracks the soul of legions who have struggled and are struggling to create, as the founders termed it “a more perfect union.”
But, as always, there’s a vast middle – sometimes listening, sometimes joining the evolving conversation. Many will make sincere efforts to try to understand where we are as a people. They’ll think about where we want to be. They might even come up with better ways to get there.
None of that can happen unless we know.
None of that can happen without people finding out that something has happened.
It’s a mistake to think that in newsrooms around the world, there are shouts of glee when there’s a bombing, a plane crash, a death or, as in this instance, word is received that another act reflecting the inhumanity of humanity has taken place.
We might all feel better if we didn’t know about it.
But we wouldn’t be better.
True enough, there’s comfort in finding out who likely did it – that it was apparently an isolated act of stupidity, not a concerted, grassroots effort.
We all would have had a more pleasant day if the police weren’t notified and the campus press didn’t pick up on the report, followed by every media outlet, large and small, around the globe.
The bottom line, though, is that the media, collectively, believe in the power of conversation – that the public is better off knowing.
It’s the only way anything ever changes.
Charlie Mitchell is a Mississippi journalist. Write to him at Box 1, University, MS 38677, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.