In an era when fake hate crimes are as common as real ones, a little caution is in order before printing the headlines.

There is no doubt that someone spray painted vile graffiti on the exterior of Concord Fortress of Hope Church, but what would make it “racist” is not the images themselves–KKK, a swastika, racial slurs–but the intent of the vandals.

As the Sentinel reported last week, the arrest of Eddie Curlin, an African American, for spray painting the walls of buildings on the Eastern Michigan University campus represented incident #322 on the site

Two weeks before that arrest, University of Maryland Police arrested Ronald Alford, another black man, for painting swastikas on university walls. The announced motive in many of these crimes is not racist in any meaningful sense of the word, but political, the goal being to discredit white people and/or political conservatives.

These vandals keep doing their diabolical work because the media fall for it uncritically. They run the vandalism stories on the front page and bury the arrest of the dirty trickster, if they report it at all.

This phenomenon is not new. In 1996, for instance, the NAACP sent a letter to Bill Clinton’s Attorney General Janet Reno asking her to investigate what the Washington Post innocently described as “a string of suspicious fires at predominantly black churches.”

In one charred Tennessee church police allegedly found racial slurs spray-painted on the walls. “For many people,” said the Post reporter, “the attacks conjured up dark memories of the most violent days of the civil rights movement.”

The two groups pushing this story from the beginning were both hard-left, the National Council of Churches (NCC) and the Center for Democratic Renewal (CDR). To give the story legs, they held a joint press conference in March 1996 at which they released a report on the “huge increase” in black church burnings. “You’re talking about a well-organized white-supremacist movement,” claimed the Rev. Mac Charles Jones, a CDR board member.

From there, the story took wing, generating more than two thousand articles in the next three months, including three huge layouts on consecutive days in USA Today, a two-page spread in the New York Times and incendiary headlines like the following from the New York Daily News, “Flames of Hate: Racism Blamed in Shock Wave of Church Burnings.”

The good guys in the Daily News story were, of course, the CDR and the NCC. Readers learned that these two groups had put aside their radical activism for a moment to team up for the “investigation.” Said CDR program director Rose Johnson none too subtly of the alleged suspects, “Every arrest has been of a white male, age 15 to 45.”

As the church burning saga unfolded, it became increasingly clear which specific targets the CDR and the NCC hoped to brand.”There’s only a slippery slope between conservative religious persons and those that are really doing the burning,” said the Rev. C.T. Vivian, the CDR’s chairman.

Although President Clinton admitted to uncertainty as to whether the church burnings were a national conspiracy, he assured the national radio audience that “racial hostility” was the driving force behind the outbreak. This was an election year after all.

A month after Clinton’s radio address, Fred Bayles of the Associated Press reported his agency’s analysis of six years of federal, state and local data. What Bayles and colleagues discovered was that there had been more fires at predominantly white churches in the south than black churches, that the totals for 1996 were within the normal range, that the numbers of fires had dropped off considerably since 1980, and that there was “no evidence . . . of a conspiracy or of a general climate of hatred.” The suspects included both blacks and whites, insurance scammers, devil worshippers, drunken teenagers, and even bored fire fighters.

Unfortunately, the media were not inclined to un-tell the dramatic story they had been telling all spring and summer. Reporter Michael Fumento, who helped expose the fraud in the Wall Street Journal and elsewhere, asked whether it was “too much to expect any of the pundits and public figures who seized on the CDR’s report as a vehicle for scoring points against their political opponents to register the fact that it was in essence a fabrication.”

Apparently, it was too much. The New York Times, for instance, mentioned the church burnings in more than one hundred stories but declined to mention the fact-checking done by the Associated Press, the Wall Street Journal, or any other responsible party.

So the narrative stood through November. Racist church burners were still terrorizing black America. Church burners and conservative Republicans were cut from the same white sheets. And all that stood between the terrorized southern blacks and the Republican night riders was their stalwart Democratic president.

In the age of social media, the strategy does not work quite as well as it used to, but it still works well enough.

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