IT'S NOT EVEN close to the newspaper headline "To Lynch Negro Tonight," but it caused a hailstorm of controversy all the same.
The scandalous headline noted above ran in a Tulsa, Okla., newspaper in the early 1920s in the days before a notorious race riot that left the city's black community in ruins. Some say the headline helped to provoke the race riot.
Earlier this week, two different pictures from flood-ravaged New Orleans were posted on the Web site news.yahoo.com. One was an Associated Press photo of a black kid. The caption read "A young man walks through chest deep flood water after looting a grocery store in New Orleans on Tuesday, Aug. 30, 2005."
The other photo was from AFP/Getty Images. It showed two white people. The caption was - oh, how shall I put this? - just a tad different:
"Two residents wade through chest-deep water after finding bread and soda from a local grocery store after Hurricane Katrina came through the area in New Orleans, Louisiana."
So the black kid "looted" a grocery store. The white couple "found" their goods.
Quite a few black folks - not all of them prone to a knee-jerk charge of white racism -noticed the difference. Internet chat rooms were soon abuzz with debate about whether race was a factor in the way the two captions were phrased.
To determine that, we have to look closely at the circumstances under which the photos were taken and discern the differences. And the first difference in the captions is that, whatever sins AFP/Getty committed, its writers at least correctly hyphenated the compound modifier "chest-deep." (We journalists can be a nit-picking lot.)
The second difference was noted by AFP/Getty photographer Chris Graythen - who took the photo of the white couple - in Jim Romenesko's online column at the Poynter Institute Web site.
"I believed in my opinion that they did simply find them," said Graythen. "The people were swimming in chest-deep water, and there were other people in the water, both white and black. I looked for the best picture. There were a million items floating in the water. We were near a grocery store that had five-plus feet of water in it. It had no doors. The water was moving and the stuff was floating away. These people were not ducking into a store and busting down windows to get electronics. They picked up bread and Cokes that were floating in the water. They would have floated away anyhow."
That sounds like a reasonable and cogent defense of why AFP/Getty editors went with the caption they chose. But then the muckety-mucks at AFP/Getty shot themselves in the foot: they asked Yahoo and other news services to yank the offending picture from their databases. Yahoo complied. But that prompts the question: If there was nothing wrong with the photo or the caption, why pull them?
One clue: AFP stands for Agence France-Presse. You figure an operation run by the French - the same folks who have made cop-killer Mumia Abu Jamal an international cause celebre - would wimp out to political correctness.
That being said, we must return to the young black man who "looted" the grocery store, as opposed to just "finding" something floating out of it. Mind you, this lad wasn't one of the idiots looting television sets. (Those poor souls apparently forgot that you can't eat a television set and that there's no electricity to power one.)
We have to figure the young black man copped pretty much the same goods the white couple "found." It would have been nice if he'd paid for them, but who, exactly, was he supposed to pay?
Now I could say that if I were one of those folks trapped in New Orleans that I would never even consider looting a store, even for food and water. I could tell you that, but I'd be lying like President Lyndon B. Johnson on the campaign stump back in 1964.
I don't know, but there's something about being in a city mostly submerged under water with no fresh water available and few food resources that might make me act, well, peculiar.
Are the looters in New Orleans acting peculiarly or criminally? Neither, according to George Washington University law professor John F. Banzhaf III. According to Banzhaf, "residents of New Orleans have a legal right to loot from both commercial establishments and private owners if they believe it is reasonably necessary to protect their safety or health under a legal doctrine which provides a complete legal defense in both criminal and civil cases."
You might take that with a grain of salt. Banzhaf is the same guy who's urging irresponsible fast-food consumers to sue fast-food establishments. But he raises a good point.
Is taking food, water and other necessities "looting" when an emergency situation exists and help is slow in coming?