Another Tragedy Mishandled by the Media


No one can argue with the Asian community’s long-simmering anger over the significant increase in violence against Asians over the past year—up 149 percent—and the timid response of society and the media.

It is understandable that the senseless murder of six Asian Americans caused an eruption of that anger across the country. The shooting spree was a display of unspeakable brutality that just defies comprehension.

The agony and anxiety of Asian Americans, however, is no excuse for the national media’s unwarranted campaign to portray Atlanta as the work of a racist white guy motivated by former President Donald Trump’s incitement of blame on the Chinese for the spread of the coronavirus, and Trump’s own timid response to white supremacy.

The coverage has been consistent with radical new paradigms in news dissemination. One of them is that if facts get in the way of a righteous narrative, the facts can be ‘reimagined’.

The accused shooter told police his motive was sex addiction, not race, and he thought Trump was a jerk. The Atlanta police said there was no evidence of a racial motive. FBI Director Christopher Wray said, “it does not appear to be racially motivated.”

The Washington Post and other news outlets, members of Congress, and, of course, Hollywood comedians turned criminologists, raised the specter of white racism again and again and again. The Post has run thousands of words focusing on that cause above all others. “Not racially motivated? The Atlanta spa shootings show why the media should be wary of initial police statements,” rang out the headline of Margaret Sullivan’s commentary, arguing that the police information was “flawed.” The paper raised the issue of Federal hate crime use in the prosecution and found a former FBI agent to contradict Director Wray.

Vox wrote that white supremacy fueled “black-Asian racial hostilities” and an Oakland council member wrote in an op-ed that ‘anti-black and anti-Asian violence comes from the same root causes: white supremacy and capitalism,’ according to an article in American Spectator. The accusations don’t hold up.

An Associated Press story by Kate Brumback and Angie Wang led with the words “A white gunman was charged Wednesday with killing eight people, most of them women of Asian descent…” The story’s second paragraph quoted the accused killer but jumped in the third graph and much of the remaining script right back to the narrative, quoting a state representative that the “shootings appear to be at the ‘intersection of gender-based violence, misogyny, and xenophobia”.

The violence against Asian Americans cannot be pigeonholed as simply white bigotry and if it is approached as such, Asian Americans will be shortchanged.

What the media has too often ignored in the horrible Atlanta and Boulder tragedies is the specter of mental illness and our failure as a nation to educate the public about its complex nature and profound ramifications. It is integral to understanding and dealing with violent behavior. It is integral to our ineptness on gun control. It is integral to the emergency response of law enforcement.

Until we recognize the need to incorporate mental health in our thinking and advocate for more research, better diagnoses, and treatment, we will never give mental health the priority it deserves in fighting senseless mass murders like those we’ve just witnessed, again, for the umpteenth time. In Colorado, fortunately, there has been more attention paid to the psychiatric state of the suspect.

Finger-pointing blame, snap-judgments, and the exploitation of tragedy just gets us nowhere and assures us that there will be more tragedy in our future.

Editor’s Note: Mike Johnson is a former journalist, who worked on the Ford White House staff and served as press secretary and chief of staff to House Republican Leader Bob Michel, prior to entering the private sector. He is co-author of a book, Surviving Congress, a guide for congressional staff, co-founder and member of the Board of the Congressional Institute, and a participant in the Congress of Tomorrow congressional reform project. Johnson is retired. He is married to Thalia Assuras and has five children and four grandchildren.