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American Journalism Review
Double Whammy  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   February/March 2008

Double Whammy   

February/March � It took an awfully long time for the national media to catch up to the racial turmoil in Jena, Louisiana. When they did, the results were not exactly a clinic in precision journalism.

By Raquel Christie
Raquel Christie ( is an AJR editorial assistant.      

Correction appended

To think of excellent reporting on racial issues, Gene Roberts must reach back 40 years, back to the Orangeburg massacre, when South Carolina State Police shot more than 20 students protesting segregation outside a bowling alley. Three students died. Surviving students insisted the police were the aggressors, but police swore they were attacked by the students.

Public opinion and the press sided with the officers � it was seen as an unfortunate side effect of upholding the law. And so the story went, until Jack Nelson decided there must be more to it than that. The Los Angeles Times reporter went to the local hospital and got a hold of the medical records.

Virtually all the students had been shot in the back, and some had bullets in the bottom of their feet. They weren't attacking the police � they were running away.

Such dogged, skeptical reporting, so common in the civil rights era, is what's missing from racial reportage today, says Roberts, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of "The Race Beat" and former executive editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer. It is an absence that has come back to haunt us in the case of the Jena 6.

The turmoil in Jena, Louisiana, began in late August 2006, when a black student asked at an assembly if he could sit under what some refer to as the "white tree" at Jena High School. The next day, nooses were strung from that tree � black and gold nooses, school colors. The students responsible for the nooses were disciplined but not expelled.

The atmosphere at the school grew tense. In November, the school's main building was severely damaged by a fire. Then a white kid beat up a black kid at a party and a white kid pulled a shotgun on black kids at a convenience store. Black on white, white on black, black on white, white on black, but the presses were largely silent.

Then, on December 4, 2006, white Jena High School student Justin Barker was beaten up by black students and knocked unconscious; three days later, six black students were charged with attempted second-degree murder. That day, 35 area religious leaders from black and white churches gathered to promote peace, and less than a week later 600 Jena residents filled the Guy Campbell Memorial Football Stadium for a prayer service.

And for five more months, the presses were silent.

Until last spring, until a May 20 article appeared in the Chicago Tribune, not a single story, not one column or comment, was published in the national media about the racial incidents in Jena. In a search for Jena on LexisNexis, "Jena Malone" pops up plenty, as does a "Jena" band of Choctaw Indians, but the town is entirely absent until mid-2007.

The Washington Post's first story on the situation ran on August 4, 2007. The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times published their initial pieces on September 15, 2007 � a day after defendant Mychal Bell's second-degree battery conviction was overturned because, the court said, he was improperly tried as an adult.

U.S. News & World Report weighed in on September 20. Newsweek first mentioned Jena on June 4, but only as a blip in its "Perspectives: Quotes in the News" section. (The magazine didn't publish a story on Jena until August 20.) Time magazine first mentioned Jena in a September 27 story on Barack Obama.

Television missed out, too. CNN first addressed Jena on "Paula Zahn Now" on June 25, 2007. CBS News waited until September 15 to do its first segment, a 567-word interview with some of the parents of the defendants and a school board member. ABC News waited until the same day, and reporter Ron Claiborne almost acknowledged the folly: "[M]ostly by word of mouth, by e-mail, and yes, by the Internet, the case of the Jena Six, six black high school students originally charged with attempted murder in the beating of a white teenager, has been bubbling, or more like boiling for months, provoking accusations of racism and unequal justice."

Yet the story was out there. From September 7, 2006, to October 12, 2007, the Associated Press distributed 74 stories about the Jena nooses, 52 on state wires, 38 on national wires, 22 on North American wires and five on southern regional wires. In the same time period, "Jena High School" appeared in AP stories 77 times. Three AP stories covered the high school arson. Mychal Bell first appeared in an AP story on May 3, 2007 � more than two weeks before the mainstream media bothered to mention the person who became the most recognized member of the Jena 6.

All this awful bait, but the national media didn't bite. The story, instead, was the property of black bloggers and radio hosts, two local papers and activists. Only after they had interpreted it, only after they had dissected it, only after they had decided the right and the wrong of it � and dedicated a movement, the Afrospear, to it � only after big names like Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson stepped into the fray last summer did the news media give it to us.

And when the media got it, they often took it as it was told to them. They let the citizens do much of the journalism, instead of piecing it together for themselves. They took Jena as a handout, not as an opportunity. They ignored the shades of gray, and kept what could have been the most complex, most challenging racial story, the one that would drive thousands to march and thousands to question the media and thousands to question the American justice system, black and white.

Why? What happened to the race beat?

"Race is still an issue in society, but it's difficult for newspapers to get handles on it," says Roberts, who now teaches journalism at the University of Maryland. "These usually aren't the kinds of events that lead to sort of inverted-pyramid, hard news kinds of stories. They're more ooze-and-seep racial stories. And it requires a lot of time and attention to do them with the nuance they deserve. And a lot of papers, in an era of cutbacks and short staffs, are shortchanging the race story."

Last summer, Jena became a major national story, inspiring a thousands-strong march, protests, calls for equal justice and a flooding of the national media.

But not before Alan Bean got to it.

Bean is not a journalist. He's the cofounder and executive director of Friends of Justice, a grassroots organization designed "to create media scandals around questionable prosecutions as they unfold," according to its Web site ( In January 2007, Bean began receiving phone calls from a few parents in the small Louisiana town, complaining of racial injustice in the case of six young black men.

Bean researched. He read the local papers. He visited Jena and met the defendants and their parents. He developed a sense of mission. "It became clear that if business as usually practiced was going to play out..then these kids were going to be dragging felony convictions for the rest of their lives," Bean says. "That would probably mean they'd never go to college, never have a professional job, never have a chance at the American Dream. The Jena defendants had a lot of support, but [there was also] a lot of fear, and a lot of people felt they didn't want to speak up."

After more than a month, Bean spoke up for them. He wrote a six-page, "media-friendly" report titled "RESPONDING TO THE CRISIS IN JENA, LOUISIANA." Here is some of what it says.

� "The competence and independence of investigators is seriously in doubt."

� "The behavior of school officials and school board members reflects a breathtaking insensitivity to the mixture of anger, intimidation and horror inspired by the hate crime of late August."

� "The ethical lapses and flawed professional judgment of LaSalle Parish District Attorney Reed Walters call for strong remedial action."

Bean concedes he connected many events: the noose hangings, the December assault on Barker, the fight between black and white students. He also says he set out clear characters in his story. Walters, who charged the boys with attempted murder, and the school officials, who Bean says did not give the white students harsh enough punishments, are cast as the villains. The six defendants are described as "good kids."

"I made it very clear that I tried to present this as a human drama," Bean says.

In April 2007, he sent his report directly to those he thought would cover Jena the way he wanted it covered: Howard Witt of the Chicago Tribune, Tom Mangold of the BBC and Jordan Flaherty of Left Turn Magazine. Shortly after, Witt broke the story in the national media on May 20; Mangold broadcast "This World: 'Stealth racism' stalks deep South" four days later.

Flaherty's first Jena piece, on May 9 (, begins with a quote from Alan Bean: "'The highest crime in the Old Testament,' he declared, 'is to withhold due process from poor people. To manipulate the criminal justice system to the advantage of the powerful, against the poor and the powerless.'" It continues with emotional quotes from the Jena defendants' parents: "When asked how her life has changed, [Bryant] Purvis' mother described the sadness of having her son taken away from her without warning. 'You wake up in the morning and your son is there. You lay down at night and he's there. Then all of a sudden he's gone. That's a lot to deal with.'"

"Racial demons rear heads," reads the headline over Witt's story, and the story begins: "The trouble in Jena started with the nooses. Then it rumbled along the town's jagged racial fault lines. Finally, it exploded into months of violence between blacks and whites.

"Now the 3,000 residents of this small lumber and oil town deep in the heart of central Louisiana are confronting Old South racial demons many thought had long ago been put to rest."

While Bean played a prominent role in Flaherty's story, Flaherty, who lives in New Orleans, says he had also heard about the case from other sources.

From "Stealth racism" by Tom Mangold: "The bad old days of the 'Mississippi Burning' 60s, civil liberties and race riots, lynchings, the KKK and police with billy clubs beating up blacks might have ended.

"But in the year that the first serious black candidate for the White House, Barack Obama, is helping unite the races in the north, the developments in the tiny town of Jena are disturbing." It goes on to recount many examples of a so-called "stealth" racism in Jena: a barber who won't cut black people's hair but insists he's not racist; the fact that Caseptla Bailey, mother of Jena defendant Robert Bailey, can't get a job as a bank teller. And it echoes Martin Luther King Jr. in calling Sunday mornings "perhaps one of the most segregated times in all of America," noting that a church in a white Jena neighborhood only has one black member.

Soon, the blogs were afire with cries for justice in Jena � and for media respect.

"I make a final plea to the American media," wrote black blogger Shawn Williams on the day of Blogging for Justice, created by dozens of black bloggers who latched on to the Jena movement. "I'd ask that you raise your right hand and admit under oath that you just don't give a damn about black people. Your non-coverage of missing black women and children, your demonization of hip hop culture, your initial labeling of Katrina survivors as 'refugees' and your daily lynching of black athletes called sports talk radio is evidence of this fact. The Jena Six deserve justice." (

Wrote D. Yobachi Boswell on The Black Perspective: "The Afrosphere Jena 6 Coalition 'ask that the mainstream traditional media step forward and discharge their duty to provide coverage of this vitally important event to their viewers and readers and act as "the fourth institution" of governmental "checks and balance" that constitutional framers intended the press to be.'" ()

Says Wayne Bennett, who wrote about the lack of national media coverage on his blog The Field Negro: "I don't think it was a sexy story. Stuff like that happens all the time, especially in Southern towns. That's not something the mainstream media would chase... They got on the story because Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton got involved, then the big march, then it became sexier." (

"I think it goes back to the difference of how the general media feels about an issue and how African Americans might feel," says Williams, author of Dallas South Blog. "It's because the media is made up of non-African Americans in general, and because of that they cover the stories from their personal point of view and that point of view is not shared by everyone. That's why I've really enjoyed what's happened lately with the blooming of bloggers. People can use their own spin to report what happens and how they feel about it."

After the bloggers were well into their crusade, in late summer, Jackson and Sharpton visited Jena. The Washington Post's first story came shortly after they announced their plans for demonstrations; others gradually trickled in. Coverage boomed the week of the September marches, held steady in some papers in October and decreased markedly in November.

Many bloggers credit themselves with bringing the events in Jena into the national spotlight.

Bennett wrote on September 20, the day of the marches: "For those of us black activists who use the web as a tool for change, we have been e-mailing each other, blogging about Jena, calling each other, and organizing on the web for months about this travesty of justice down in Bayou country. Now, finally, the rest of America has caught on. This is now national news, and the Jena 6 has springboarded into our national conscience. It also reinforces my belief that the Internet and the world wide web can also be used as a tremendous tool for activism and organizing for social change."

With so much percolating in the blogosphere, why did it take so long for the national media to jump on the Jena story?

"I certainly didn't become aware of it during much of that time," says Washington Post Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr. "Apparently there was a growing communication about it on the Web and on radio, but it didn't reach our attention until later. Then when it did reach our took a while to nail it down."

Says Darryl Fears, who covered Jena for the paper, "I found out about it the same way marchers did, through e-mail blasts. I didn't read any of the blogs, but there were these e-mails about a story of injustice in Jena... Then my editor said 'Hey, have you heard about this thing in Jena? Maybe we should go down there.'"

The Chicago Tribune's Witt says he "didn't know anything about [Jena] until April," when he got an e-mail from Alan Bean.

Keith Woods, dean of faculty at the Poynter Institute, says that the problem wasn't that journalists didn't know about Jena, but that they failed to see the deep implications of the case in terms of race relations and the black community, which has doubted the fairness of the criminal justice system for years. At last, a flesh-and-blood example, and nobody caught it.

"What's at work here, I believe, is a journalistic news judgment process that remains invisible even within news organizations, but certainly invisible to the public, that somebody is deciding the guilt or innocence of these young men or the level of their guilt or innocence or the level of justice they deserve before they tell the first story � and that dictates whether they send a reporter to answer the first questions or not," Woods says.

Catherine J. Mathis, senior vice president of corporate communications for the New York Times Co., said Times editors declined to be interviewed for this article. Los Angeles Times Editor James O'Shea did not return phone calls.

At a panel titled "News Coverage of Hate Crimes" at the University of Maryland in November, participants agreed the media's slow response to the developments in Jena can be attributed to the death of the race beat � and the death of sensitivity to small stories with deeper meanings.

"I wish we still had race beats in this country now, because we miss the continuity of coverage we used to have," Gene Roberts said. "The people I wrote about [in 'The Race Beat'] would have been right in the middle of it."

"I think that we do need a race beat," said University of Maryland journalism professor and former Washington Post journalist Alice Bonner during the discussion. "We get caught up in episode and event coverage because we fail to take them up routinely. We need to cover race because it's a live, active, dynamic part of society. If we covered it routinely we wouldn't have to be so frenzied when something like this happens."

A race beat won't solve anything, Bonner said, if hiring patterns don't change. "The biggest problem with journalism," Bonner continued, "is journalism is still too white... It's too white for a society that is increasingly brown... It is too white for its own good."

But diversifying hiring won't help, the panelists said, if cultural sensitivity isn't instilled in reporters and news gatekeepers. "I don't want us to think racial hiring is the answer. Having two, five, 10 people of color is not even going to make a dent," Bonner said. "The way you stay there is you conform. And conformity is staying with the status quo."

At the Post, Fears is the only reporter specifically assigned to cover race, Executive Editor Downie says. But he says other beats, such as politics, regularly touch on racial issues, like immigration.

And the Post is trying to diversify. "Our staff is around 25 percent journalists of color, and we do have targets for our hiring, and diversity is a very important priority for us," he says. "But diversity is large territory... You have gay readers, readers of different backgrounds. We're trying to match the diversity of the [Metro] area, which we're a long way away from, like most newsrooms, because this area is more diverse all the time."

Has any of this hindered the Post's Jena coverage?

"For our readership," Downie says, "our coverage [of Jena] has been relatively thorough."

On August 24, 2007, a LaSalle Parish judge made one of the heaviest decisions in the Jena 6 case: Mychal Bell would not be granted bail. The 17-year-old would stay behind bars until the end of his then-undetermined sentence � until, we know now, September 27, for more than nine months, longer than any other member of the Jena 6.

Only two local reporters showed up to witness the proceedings. One of them was Abbey Brown, 26, of Alexandria, Louisiana's Town Talk newspaper. And at the hearing, she learned more than Bell's fate: She learned he had a prior criminal record.

Her story the following day said that record included four previous violent crimes, including two Bell committed "while on probation for a Christmas Day battery in 2005, according to testimony." He was adjudicated � the juvenile equivalent of conviction � for three of the crimes, the story says. It goes on to explain why Judge J.P. Mauffray Jr. decided to hold Bell without bail; the reasons included Bell's criminal record.

But no major papers reported this fact, Brown says � not that day, not that week, not for months, not, in some cases, ever. "A reporter for the Jena Times and I were the only two people at that hearing," Brown says. "I know that we thought it was important to go to every single hearing that we heard about, but even after we reported it, it wasn't something the other media were picking up."

The two local papers that have covered the case vigorously from the beginning insist mainstream news organizations are misrepresenting pertinent facts and unjustly skewing a story about justice.

The Town Talk, a 32,000-circulation daily that routinely covers Jena as well as a number of other small towns, published its first story on the Jena 6 case on September 6, 2006, a short piece about the hanging of the nooses at Jena High School.

As of last November 15, the paper, based 37 miles from Jena, had published more than 140 additional stories on the episode, all easily accessible from its homepage ( A click on a sizable black, yellow and white box with JENA SIX takes you to the paper's Jena Web page, with links not just to all its coverage of the case but also to 21 photo albums, downloads of videos and court filings, a Jena map, a Jena timeline, a message board and a list of frequently asked questions about Jena and its coverage.

Paul Carty, the Town Talk's executive editor, has his own list of gripes, gripes that have positioned him as the enemy of those who insist coverage of the Jena saga has been just and groundbreaking:

� The national media routinely refer to the jury that prosecuted Mychal Bell as "all white" without explaining why it was so. Carty says that explanation is simple � as well as enlightening. A Town Talk story on June 27 said that, according to court officials, the court summoned 150 people for the jury pool, but only 50 showed up, and those 50 were white. According to the story, Bell's attorney, Blane Williams, said some of the 100 who didn't show up were black � which is important to consider in such a racially charged case, Carty says. "I think there's an obligation there that if you say there's an all-white jury, that should raise some concerns as a writer, because talking about an all-white jury in the Deep South in a case that has to do with race, that's fairly inflammatory writing, unless you provide context."

� The labeling of the tree a black student asked to sit under, and the nooses were subsequently strung from, as the "white tree" is "unfair and unsupported." "We've never referred to it as the 'white tree' because it's not an official name for the tree, and it's kind of like one side says white kids just sat under, others say black and white sat under we've left it alone," Brown says. "I'm kind of a purist as far as sourcing things, and people have shown me pictures of white students sitting under the tree, of white and black students sitting under the tree.... We've kind of left it as [the] tree where nooses were hung."

� Jena has been unfairly portrayed by the media as a racist town. "One thing that just about knocked me out of my chair was when a TV reporter did a live shot in September, the day of the demonstration, and he asks a member of the community, 'How long has Jena been a racist town?' That's not to say that Jena doesn't have some racial problems, but Jena has the same kind of racial problems that every other community in this country has," Carty says. He declines to name the reporter or the news outlet.

� Feeding this portrayal is the fact that reporters are not talking to sources on all sides of the story. They either talk to the Jena 6, their parents or civil rights activists, Carty says. What about the residents of Jena? The judges? Justin Barker?

� Poor descriptions of Barker's condition. Brown reported on June 11 that Barker's initial medical bills totaled $5,467 and that students described the fight in statements with phrases like "stomped him badly," "stepped on his face," "knocked out cold on the ground," and "slammed his head on the concrete beam." "I've seen pictures that were taken of him and I've got to tell you this, this was no normal schoolyard brawl, this was a kid with blood coming out of his ears," Carty says. "Where it gets reported that he was treated at a local hospital and released, that's true, but I can tell you right now that he's sitting at home with internal injuries."

Carty is not the only one who believes Jena coverage has been inadequate. Similar charges have been brought by Craig Franklin, assistant editor of the Jena Times, a small weekly that has covered the town since 1905 and the Jena 6 case since the nooses appeared. In an October 24 column in the Christian Science Monitor titled "Media Myths About the Jena 6," Franklin, the paper's sole reporter on the case and a 20-year Jena resident, lists 12 of the fundamental things the national media got wrong about the Jena 6. Some echo Carty's critique.

Franklin says the plethora of errors has led Jena residents to stop speaking to national reporters. And if the media continue to get it wrong, such boycotts will become commonplace, he says.

"What I'm fearful of is the more that these types of cases are exposed in the public's view" � such as the Duke lacrosse case (see "Justice Delayed," August/September) � "and the national media does not do its job and report its facts and not just go with the person who cries the loudest or gives the best headline, I think we're going to lose our purpose. Right here in Jena, Louisiana, you can walk down the street and pick out any person and ask them, 'Do you trust the national media?' And they'll say, 'No.'"

An independent assessment of the critics' main arguments shows many of them to be largely true.

An analysis of all news stories and briefs about Jena in four major newspapers � the Washington Post, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune � from the beginning of their coverage until November 15, found the following. Out of 57 stories:

� Only eight stories allude to Mychal Bell's prior criminal record, and only three � two October stories in the Chicago Tribune and one short, late-September story in the New York Times � mention the specifics. The Washington Post's first major story on Jena incorrectly says "Bell had no prior criminal record." On October 17, it mentions that Bell "was recently re-incarcerated on a probation violation" but gives no hint that his record included violent acts.

� Ten stories use the phrase "all white" to describe the jury that found Mychal Bell guilty of aggravated second-degree battery and conspiracy to commit aggravated second-degree battery. None explains why the jury was all white, though the Town Talk laid it out in June. Only the New York Times does not use the description.

� Multiple stories describe the tree the nooses were found on as a "white tree," either directly calling it a "white tree" or using a more rounded term: "tree that was a traditional gathering place for whites" or tree "on the side of the campus that, by long-standing tradition, had always been claimed by white students." No stories question if the description is correct, and none asks students about the tree. Only the L.A. Times does not describe the tree as "white."

� Descriptions of white student Justin Barker's medical condition vary from paper to paper and from story to story. The first Post story to discuss Barker's injuries says he had "two hours of treatment for a concussion and an eye that was swollen shut." The concussion is never mentioned again, and subsequent Post stories simply say he was knocked unconscious and released from the hospital. The first New York Times story to mention Barker's injuries says he was "treated at a local hospital and released." The next says he was knocked unconscious and kicked. The last just says he was "knocked unconscious." The L.A. Times' first story says Barker was "kicked in the head and knocked unconscious" and "taken to the hospital and treated for injuries to the ears, face and eye." The next mention simply says he was "beaten and knocked briefly unconscious." The Chicago Tribune's first story mentioning Barker's condition says he "spent only a few hours at the hospital." The next story says he was knocked unconscious and did not require hospitalization.

� The Washington Post, the L.A. Times and the Chicago Tribune never, in months of coverage, mention Barker's medical bills. The New York Times mentions them in only two stories, the first on September 22, more than three months after the Town Talk reported them in June.

� The phrase "schoolyard brawl" or "schoolyard fight" is used multiple times to describe the December 4 beating. Many times, it is the only description.

� All four papers link the events in Jena multiple times, without ever explaining why they're linked. The Washington Post calls them a "chain of events." The New York Times says the nooses "set off a series of events."

� Thirty stories quote civil rights activists, organizations or advocates. Eight stories quote Jesse Jackson; twelve quote Al Sharpton; others quote the ACLU, the Southern Poverty Law Center and the NAACP. Six quote Alan Bean of Friends of Justice � five of them in the Chicago Tribune. Many times these are the only people quoted.

� District Attorney Reed Walters is quoted in only five stories. Many of the quotes are paraphrased. The New York Times is a notable exception here � it printed a column by Walters on September 26. Only six stories quote the parents of the Jena 6.

� A point not raised by other critics: The L.A. Times, the Washington Post, the New York Times and the Chicago Tribune repeatedly say the white students accused of hanging the nooses were "suspended for three days" or "were suspended from school" or "received brief suspensions." None addresses additional facts, like these, reported in an October 8 correction by the Atlanta-Journal Constitution: "The students [who hung the nooses] were disciplined with nine days of alternative school, two weeks of in-school suspension, Saturday detentions, attendance in discipline court, evaluation before returning to school and participation in a state intervention program for families."

Part of the problem with the coverage, says Kansas City Star columnist Jason Whitlock, is that the national media relied too heavily on Jena According to Alan Bean. In a piece titled "How One Man Fired Up Jena 6 Case," Whitlock wrote that the media blindly accepted Bean's story � to the detriment of the truth. Why? Because it was easy, he says.

"If you're part of the mainstream media, I think that you see the story as something that should win you a lot of acclaim," Whitlock says. "The media is so lost right now. In the '60s, we were very important..and we don't know how to be important anymore. So if we can hop on some explosive case and appear like we're championing the right cause and protecting the defenseless or whatever, we will."

"He called attention to Jena with his agenda as a point of entry," Carty, the Town Talk editor, says of Bean. "He was spoon-feeding to the media what the story was all about. His perspective on the story is a partisan perspective; he thinks an injustice has been done, and that's his starting point, and it's picked up in the mainstream."

Jena Times Assistant Editor Franklin wrote in a column: "First, because local officials did not speak publicly early on about the true events of the past year, the media simply formed their stories based on one side's statements � the Jena 6. Second, the media were downright lazy in their efforts to find the truth. Often, they simply reported what they'd read on blogs, which expressed only one side of the issue."

Bean knew the media would bite. They did in 1999, when he told them about incidents in his hometown of Tulia, Texas. He exposed a corrupt cop and helped overturn more than a dozen drug convictions against minorities. Tulia was quickly labeled a racist town.

"I knew that it was probably the kind of case the media could be talked into covering because it had so many spectacular features: The fire � something that was terribly significant that nobody was picking up � the nooses and the racial tension. I thought that if the story was framed properly and people could see the connective tissue they could see how one thing led to another," Bean says.

While he is critical of the coverage, Whitlock doesn't cast Bean as the villain. "I'm not saying it's Bean's fault � that's unfair to him. If there's any bad guys in the Jena 6 story it's the media. We blew this."

The Chicago Tribune's Witt defends his coverage of Jena and says Bean was a reliable source. The reporter says he found factual problems with one story promoted by Bean, "and there's certain aspects of it that he was certainly trying to push one way or another, but, for me, that's no different from what other sources do. And the job of journalists is to listen, to try to find the good story in there, but not to be led by the nose with a particular spin. But by and large..he was a credible source."

As for his own work on Jena, says Witt, "I don't see where I've been inaccurate in anything I've described."

He acknowledges that he did not mention Barker's medical bills but stands by his description of Barker's condition: "I don't know what his medical bills are; I've seen some claims from his family that he had medical bills. But he was knocked unconscious, and he was in hospital I believe for three or four hours. That's all true."

He says his description of the punishment for the students who hung the nooses as a "three-day suspension" is incomplete, but says it is the fault of the school superintendent, who did not explain the depth of the students' punishment. The superintendent "did not reveal any of the other details about this other type of discipline," Witt says. "I know that subsequently when people started focusing on the story he gave a press conference in which he did detail the other dimensions of that discipline..but if he had chosen to tell me about the rest of discipline, I would have reported that, too."

What about the all white jury? Readers don't need an explanation of why it was all white, Witt says. "I guess that's a salient detail, but I'm not sure in the scheme of things it makes that much of a difference."

Shortly after his interview, Witt sent AJR an e-mail, with "a couple of additional points." Part of it: "It's also inaccurate to intimate that I was somehow partisan in my reporting of this story. I have accurately reported all sides of this ongoing saga. You should note, for example, that last month I wrote a highly critical story about questions surrounding the fundraising for the Jena 6 families and how those funds were being accounted for... I can assure you that story won me no fans among the Jena 6 families and their supporters, who believe that by writing that story I damaged their cause, even as it elated many right-wing bloggers and commentators. [Bill] O'Reilly invited me onto his Fox News show to talk about it. As a journalist, my role is not to support any particular cause but to report all the significant developments in the story without fear or favor."

In late October, Witt's Tribune, along with several other major news organizations, sued to force the courts to give the media access to all legal proceedings involving Mychal Bell, "whose prosecution had been shrouded in secrecy on orders of the trial judge," he wrote. The media won.

Post reporter Fears defends his reportage on grounds similar to Witt's. Why didn't he clarify the punishment for the students who hung the nooses? Because the suspension is the only part that matters, he says. "We weren't going to get into any long litany of things these students had to undergo. We wanted to look at one, the three-day suspension being out of school, versus what the parents [of other students] wanted, which was their expulsion."

Why didn't he correct his statement that Bell had no prior criminal record? "There was no correction because..I made several attempts to verify it. One, I flew to Jena and looked at Bell's court jacket, and it wasn't in there. And the prosecutor [Reed Walters] was not talking to the press. He didn't talk to press before the march... That rests squarely on his shoulders.

"It's interesting to me that these explanations were out after Jena came squarely in public eye, after these marches. They could have come very early on but they didn't... Someone needs to ask, 'Why is that happening just now? Why didn't you explain that before?'"

New information is coming out now. There are conflicting reports. Why doesn't Fears report on it? Why hasn't he investigated what really happened with the Jena 6?

"For a national newspaper, you don't generally go back and try and follow all of that out," he says. "I do think the Jena story was a very interesting story, but to go back and investigate in Jena based on this flashpoint incident... It just didn't rise to that type of story. It wasn't Hurricane Katrina. It wasn't so many things. It just wasn't the biggest story that a newspaper like the Washington Post or even the New York Times or the Boston Globe would do."

Carty admits the story was easier for the Town Talk because of its proximity to Jena and its familiarity with the town. But it was far from a breeze. At times, the small paper had a dozen reporters � a good part of its staff � working on the story, limiting its ability to cover other things.

And at times, people were very unsatisfied with its coverage. Lead Jena reporter Abbey Brown has received threatening phone calls and e-mails. But Brown stayed on the story � if anything, because the efforts of the national media left her disenchanted. "I guess it just kind of disappointed me a little. I'm a young journalist, and I've always been sort of an idealist," Brown says.

"I know our goal as journalists is to be fair, and I've seen some things that I kind of thought weren't so fair," she continues. "I don't think it was malicious, but there was just not enough effort. I had to talk to more than 30 people to get five people to go on record, but if that's what it takes then that's what it takes. At least that's how we feel."

Sometimes, the facts came quite easily.

"We just walked into the courthouse and said, 'Can we see the court documents?'" Brown says. "I've got countless calls from people saying, 'Who's a good person to talk to for this and that' and I've directed each of them to go into the courthouse and ask for the documents... There's a wealth of information for both sides; if one side isn't talking it doesn't mean that's the end of it."

Gene Roberts recalls the sit-in movement of the 1960s and the Montgomery bus boycott. Like Jena, they were initially brushed off, and early reporting was hearsay, Roberts says. But they ended up being turning points of the civil rights movement.

"As journalists, you have to get up and use shoe leather and talk to people and do the story in all its roundness. Constantly people of authority, no matter what race they are, will give you the established line of what's going on, and you have to dig beneath that... It's just not one side said this, one side said that... You have to dig beneath and see what's right. The truth doesn't always lie between them."

At a "Covering Immigration and Race" discussion at the Poynter Institute, dean of faculty Keith Woods wanted to focus on Jena. So he spoke to the Town Talk's Carty and Williams from Dallas South Blog. What he found was a serious disconnect � two very different perceptions of the Jena story.

"The most profound realization coming out of those two conversations was how utterly differently two people could see the same story," Woods says. "To essentially paint it as the participants did, in the case of Paul [Carty], a story about overblown and incorrect media coverage, as much as it was about Jena, and to Shawn [Williams], it was a story about injustice."

Which is it about? The media should tell us, he says.

"First, I do think that the national media � and this is a phenomenon of the national media, not specific to Jena � tends to come in and sweep broadly in its reporting. And I would say it's subject to cast things inaccurately by not delving down deeply enough into individual details of the story," Woods says. "We wind up with bickering over whether there were three nooses in the tree or two, whether white people alone sat under the tree or whether there was a period when black and white people sat under the tree, and that's because national media doesn't climb down and check on those facts itself. It tends to rely on previous reporting. In this conversation, those inaccuracies have become the implicit argument against national coverage or a more just treatment of the young men in the story, and I think both of those are illogical conclusions.

"But here is the thing: If we are a nation of paranoid people, we need to know that. And so if it is pure paranoia that's driving the busloads of people that drive down to Jena, some of us need to report that, and if we believe it's paranoia, our belief needs to be taken to the journalistic test of reporting, and not simply dismissed, while we go off and cover O.J. And if it's not paranoia, who but journalists to help us understand it and see the injustice? Either argument deserves national attention before [the first story appeared] May 20."

Raquel Christie ( wrote about coverage of onetime professional football player Pat Tillman's death in Afghanistan in AJR's October/November issue.

Jena Timeline


Late August/early September � A black student asks at an assembly if he can sit under a tree known as a gathering spot for white students in the high school courtyard. Two or three nooses are then found hanging from the tree. The principal recommends expulsion for three white students, but the LaSalle Parish School District instead imposes a series of suspensions and detentions. Several black parents and students attend a meeting at a local church to discuss the noose incident. The local daily newspaper reports on the meeting, and area television stations follow up. Law enforcement officers are posted at the school after reports of tensions.

September 7 � The Associated Press runs its first Jena report.

November 30 � The main building of Jena High School is badly damaged by a fire determined to be arson and is later demolished. In December 2007, the sheriff-elect says the fire was unrelated to the turmoil at the school; instead, it was set to destroy records of bad grades. Eight people, black and white, are charged with arson.

December 1�2 � Several fights occur that police say are racial in nature.

December 4 � On the first day back after the fire, black students beat up a white male student who is knocked unconscious and treated in the emergency room. Six are later charged with conspiracy to commit second-degree murder and attempted second-degree murder. Five are expelled from school. The attack victim also is later expelled for having a firearm in his truck on school grounds.

December 7 � About 35 religious leaders from black and white area churches meet. Prayer services are held at Jena schools a few days later.

December 13 � Approximately 600 Jena residents fill the football stadium for a unity and prayer service.


March 8 and May 2 � Rallies for the Jena 6 are held at the LaSalle Parish Courthouse in Jena and draw a few dozen people each, including representatives of the national ACLU and state NAACP.

May 20 � The Chicago Tribune runs its first article on Jena.

June 25�28 � Mychal Bell, 17, is the first of the Jena 6 to go to trial, in adult court because of the nature of the charges. He is convicted of reduced charges of aggravated second-degree battery and conspiracy to commit that crime. Eventually charges against the remaining five also will be reduced to battery. CNN first reports the story on June 25.

Mid-July � The tree in the school courtyard is cut down.

July 31 � About 300 people from around the country rally for the Jena 6 at the courthouse.

August 4 � The Washington Post publishes its first Jena story.

August 5 � Rev. Al Sharpton visits Jena. Martin Luther King III joins him there on August 14.

Late August to mid-September � Bell retains new attorneys, working pro bono, who seek to move his case to juvenile court and to free Bell on bond. The judge denies bond, citing Bell's prior criminal record involving battery and criminal damage, and sends the conspiracy case to juvenile court. He upholds the battery conviction. Rev. Jesse Jackson visits Jena and calls for a major rally for September 20, the sentencing date for Bell's battery conviction. An appellate court overrules the judge, vacating the battery conviction and sending that case to juvenile court.

September 15 � The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, ABC and CBS run their first reports on Jena.

September 20 � An estimated 20,000 people from around the nation hold peaceful rallies and marches in Jena.

December � Bell pleads guilty to second-degree battery in juvenile court and agrees to testify in upcoming Jena 6 cases. He is sentenced to 18 months, to be reduced by time already served, in state juvenile custody. He is also serving a separate, partially concurrent 18-month sentence for three earlier crimes.


A white-power group has sued the town of Jena to march against the Jena 6, the civil rights movement and Martin Luther King Jr. Day. The rally had been planned for January 21, when Jena residents hold a march to honor King.

The parents of the December 4 attack victim have filed a civil lawsuit seeking unspecified damages from the school board, the Jena 6 parents, the defendants who are legal adults and a seventh student who was not charged.

Correction: The original version of this story incorrectly described Jordan Flaherty as a blogger. He is in fact the co-editor of Left Turn Magazine. Also, while activist Alan Bean played a prominent role in Flaherty's story, Flaherty says he did not hear about the case from Bean.



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