Taking Issue with AJR's Jena 6 Story  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   April/May 2008

Taking Issue with AJR's Jena 6 Story   


While I appreciate that Raquel Christie, in her article "Double Whammy" (January/February) about media coverage of the Jena story, properly credits me as being the first national reporter to write about the case, I am distressed that she mischaracterized my reporting to make it fit her questionable thesis that the media got the Jena story wrong.

I suspected that there might be problems with Christie's story back when she first interviewed me in November and it became apparent from her questions that she was accepting at face value the allegations of Craig Franklin, an editor at the local Jena Times newspaper, that the national media was perpetuating 12 "myths" about Jena.

But when I finally read the piece, it was even more wrong-headed than I could have imagined. Here is just some of what Christie got plainly wrong:

-- Christie quotes several prominent black bloggers, among them Wayne Bennett and Shawn Williams, blaming the national media for ignoring the Jena story. She selectively chose to ignore what those bloggers have said about my Jena reporting:

"It would also be a shame if I didn't mention one newspaper reporter, Howard Witt, from the Chicago Tribune, who was on top of this story from day one, and who was the first in the main stream media to bring attention to Jena. Yes, long before Jessie, Al, and all the usual civil rights camera hounds, Mr. Witt was on this shit like Skippy on Wonder Bread." - Wayne Bennett, The Field Negro, 9/20/07

"Anyone who has visited this site for any length of time is familiar with Mr. Witt's work on the ShaQuanda Cotton case and in the Jena 6 story. He was the first person in the national media to report on either issue." - Shawn Williams, Dallas South Blog, 1/24/08

-- Christie asserts that "no major papers" reported the fact that Jena 6 defendant Mychal Bell had a juvenile record of four violent offenses, and she employs this accusation to bolster her case that "mainstream news organizations are misrepresenting pertinent facts and unjustly skewing a story about justice." Yet later in the story, Christie contradicts herself and concedes that eight stories allude to Mychal Bell's prior criminal record and then allows that two of those stories were published in the Chicago Tribune. In fact, I wrote four stories in the Tribune that included descriptions of Bell's prior offenses, on 10/13, 10/17, 10/23 and 12/4. This is hardly evidence that I was guilty of "unjustly skewing" the story.

-- Christie quotes Paul Carty, the executive editor of the Alexandria Town Talk, claiming that "reporters are not talking to sources on all sides of the story....What about the residents of Jena? The judges? Justin Barker?" While this accusation may apply to other reporters who followed me to Jena, it can scarcely be applied to the 20 stories I wrote about the Jena case. In my very first report from Jena, on May 20, 2007, I quoted one mother of a Jena 6 defendant; two white town officials (the mayor and the school superintendent); a white preacher; a white civil rights activist; and two black Jena residents who were unconnected to the Jena 6 defendants or their families. My subsequent stories included the voices of many other Jena residents both black and white who were not directly connected to the case.

As for the question about the judges, well, as Carty himself surely knows, the judge at the center of the Jena case routinely rebuffed requests for comment from me, his own reporters and many other journalists throughout the many months that Jena was in the national spotlight. And Justin Barker and his family denied my repeated requests for an interview during my frequent trips to Jena, which is why I was never able to report on their son's medical bills-another supposed omission that Christie cites as criticism of my coverage. Interestingly, although the Barker family chose not to speak with me or other mainstream journalists, they did choose to grant an interview to a notorious white supremacist, Richard Barrett, and in fact hosted him overnight in their home on the eve of the September 20 Jena march.

--Christie alleges that I downplayed the injuries suffered by Justin Barker, the white student who was attacked by black students at Jena High School. She claims that my first story said only that "he spent a few hours at the hospital" and that my next story said he was knocked unconscious and did not require hospitalization.

In fact, my first story gave this much more detailed description of what happened to Barker: "Finally, on Dec. 4, a group of black students at the high school allegedly jumped a white student on his way out of the gym, knocked him unconscious and kicked him after he hit the floor. The victim--allegedly targeted because he was a friend of the students who hung the nooses and had been taunting blacks--was not seriously injured and spent only a few hours in the hospital."

Also, what is wrong with reporting that Barker spent only a few hours at the hospital and was treated and released? That is what happened. In fact, later that day, after he left the hospital emergency room, Barker was well enough to attend a ring ceremony at the high school.

--Christie lumps my coverage in the Chicago Tribune together with that of the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times and flatly declares that "all four papers link the events in Jena multiple times, without ever explaining why they're linked." That is plainly false. My first story about Jena--the one that every other national media organization followed--laid out in great detail why all of the events in Jena, starting with the nooses in the tree and culminating with the attack on Barker, were linked in a months-long continuum of escalating racial tensions in the town.

--Christie claims that Jena District Attorney Reed Walters is quoted in only five stories in the Tribune, the Post, the New York Times and LA Times. She conveniently neglects to mention that fully three of those five quotes appeared in my stories, on 9/20, 9/28 and 12/4. And she omits the fact that Walters declined every media request to be interviewed before he made his first public statement about the Jena case on 9/19.

--Christie asserts that American newspapers have abandoned the race beat, and she quotes Gene Roberts, the former executive editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer, saying that "a lot of papers...are shortchanging the race story." This is an untrue assertion as regards the Chicago Tribune, which has long devoted considerable resources to covering nuanced racial stories. And it is doubly false as regards my work in 2007, which included more than three dozen stories about the unfinished business of civil rights in America.

Howard Witt

Southwest Bureau Chief

Chicago Tribune

Houston, Texas

Raquel Christie responds:

Contrary to Howard Witt's assertion, I didn't try to fit facts into a thesis, questionable or otherwise, or accept anyone's assertions at face value. I reported what I found. I laid out the criticism of the mainstream media's Jena coverage, compared it with the coverage itself and obtained rebuttal from those who were criticized. The "mistakes" Witt cites are often statements attributed to critics of Jena coverage that are subsequently knocked down in the story. That was the case, for example, with the question of whether major papers reported on Mychal Bell's criminal record.

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