When They See Us, Ava DuVernay’s harrowing retelling for Netflix of the false conviction of the five New York youths who became nationally known as the Central Park Five, has reignited discussions about race, stereotypes and how America’s penal system has historically brutalized black people under the banner of “criminal justice.”
Yet this conversation would be incomplete without a serious reckoning with corporate media’s role in fanning the flames of racist hysteria and misinformation, which condemned these innocent youth—Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana and Korey Wise—as guilty in the court of public opinion long before the official verdict was handed down. “The press response to this, and the press failure around this case, is something really important to interrogate,” DuVernay told The Root (5/28/19).
While the highly publicized antics of Donald Trump and the coldhearted manipulation of lead investigator Linda Fairstein have received a great deal of condemnation, less attention has been paid to how prominent media outlets, like the New York Times and the New York Daily News, fell in lockstep with the myth of five deranged black youths randomly attacking white cyclists and joggers in Central Park.
Take, for example, a Times article written by David E. Pitt (4/25/89). Under the headline “Gang Attack: Unusual for Its Viciousness,” Pitt indulged all of the now disproven cliches that accompanied the public vilification of the five young men, including the media buzzword of “wilding” and the reference to the brutal rape of Trisha Meilia—in a phrase borrowed from New York prosecutor Peter Reinharz—as a “wolf-pack attack.”
Aside from disregarding the elementary fact that it had yet to be established that the rape was carried out by more than one person (DNA testing later found evidence of only one rapist), the use of the “wolf pack” label to describe a rape allegedly carried out by black youth was disturbingly consistent with the general trend of dehumanization that prevailed in mainstream discussion of the five defendants.
Some of the most flagrant examples of this brand of dehumanization occurred in the pages of the Daily News, which ran fear-mongering headlines like “Marauding Packs Have Run of the City” (4/25/89). News writers Adam Nagourney (who now writes for the Times) and David J. Krajicek exemplified this mood, writing:
Bands of marauding teenagers similar to the one that ran wild in Central Park last week are creating pockets of anarchy in the city by taking over subway trains …. Cops call them wolf packs; merchants call them rat packs. A social worker says they rampage because “there are no more rules.”
These alarmist portrayals of young people of color, often accompanied by highly dubious psychiatric diagnoses of the teens as uniquely remorseless and cruel, helped to create a climate of mass panic that ensured once the suspects were punished, there would be no serious reflection on the ethical, moral or legal reasoning that informed judicial decision-making.
Tragically, this absence of reflection is more the rule than the exception in current media treatment of the case. Although these outlets ran numerous propagandistic and highly misleading stories—neglecting even to use the word “alleged” to describe the accused in 95 percent of news articles—barely any instances of contrition can be found today.
One exception is an article by New York Times journalist Jim Dwyer (5/30/19), who accepts personal accountability, wishing he “had been more skeptical,” and “had shouted, rather than mumbled, the doubts [he] did express.” Interestingly, he notes in the next sentence:
The enormity of what went wrong was first revealed to a broad audience in a 2012 documentary, Central Park Five, by Ken Burns, David McMahon and Sarah Burns.
This was a full ten years after the sentences against the five exonerees were vacated in 2002, thanks to DNA evidence revealing the crime to have been committed by serial rapist Matias Reyes, but the “enormity of what went wrong”—namely, the public persecution and false imprisonment of five teens for 6 to 13 years—didn’t dawn on him until a filmmaker made a documentary about it? Go figure.
And where the New York Times is halfhearted in regret, the New York Daily News is wholly unapologetic in its disregard for basic journalistic integrity. Reviewing When They See Us, Daily News writer Kate Feldman (5/31/19) criticizes the “black-and-white version of the Central Park Five case,” and calls attention to “details DuVernay glosses over,” specifically the fact that some believe “the teens should have been exonerated for the rape, but not other beatings and muggings that occurred that night.”
DuVernay’s refusal to engage with this idea that the five teens may have been violent muggers despite not being rapists prompts Feldman to conclude, “More important than the facts is the idea that the facts no longer matter.” It is the height of irony that a writer for a publication that regularly trafficked in the worst forms of counterfactual, anti-black racism during this period has more to say about the artistic choices of a filmmaker than the real-life decisions of her editors, or the systems of authority to which these editors often subordinate themselves.
While individual gestures of accountability are certainly welcome, no meaningful reconciliation for the trauma inflicted on these youths and their communities at the hands of the most respected media outlets can be achieved until there is a recognition of the systemic character of the misrepresentations that paved the way for many other young black people like them to enter the penitentiary. This would mean official statements from the New York Times board of editors pointing out the errors in judgement they participated in, and, more importantly, steps being taken today to ensure those moral failures are not repeated. Anything less would be a disservice to McCray, Richardson, Salaam, Santana and Wise, their families, and the countless others who strive every day for a more just and equitable culture of justice.