Killings become the focus of race debate

Media's coverage of couple's brutal killing criticized as evidence of double standard

June 10, 2007|By Howard Witt | Howard Witt,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- What happened to Channon Christian and Christopher Newsom, a young Knoxville couple out on an ordinary Saturday night date, was undeniably brutal. They were carjacked, kidnapped, raped and finally killed in January.

But whether the attack was a racial hate crime worthy of national media attention is another question, one that has now ignited a fierce dispute over the definition of hate crimes and how the news media choose to cover America's most disturbing interracial attacks.

That's because the killings of Christian and Newsom didn't fit the familiar contours of a traditional Old South attack, in which whites target blacks and reporters quickly assume that the motivation must have been racial.

Instead, the races were reversed: Christian and Newsom were white; the three men and one woman charged with their killings are black. And the subsequent failure of the story to capture media attention outside of the Knoxville area has galvanized conservative commentators across the country, who insist that the case offers clear evidence of liberal bias in the major media.

They have launched a broad Internet campaign to counter what they regard as suppression of a story about an anti-white hate crime.

"There is a discomfort level [in the national media] with stories that have black assailants and white victims," said Michelle Malkin, a prominent conservative newspaper columnist and TV commentator who has featured the Knoxville case on her Web site. "If it doesn't fit some sort of predetermined narrative of how we view taboo subjects like race and crime, there's a disinclination to cover it."

Neo-Nazis and other white supremacists have jumped on the case as well, drawn to the state where the Ku Klux Klan was founded in 1865. Hate groups have organized rallies in Knoxville and set up Web sites under the victims' names to publish racial invectives.

But it's not just conservative whites and extremists who have criticized the national silence over the Knoxville case.

"Black leaders are not eager to take this on because it's one more thing that would cast a negative light on African-Americans," said Earl Ofari Hutchinson, an author and nationally syndicated black columnist who has written frequently about the reluctance of black leaders to denounce crimes committed by blacks against whites. "There's already an ancient stereotype that blacks are more violent and crime-prone anyway."

The Rev. Ezra Maize, the president of the Knoxville chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, has been one of the few black leaders to address the case.

"It's not a black-and-white issue. It's a right-and-wrong issue. Those who committed this crime were unjust in doing so, and they should pay the penalty," Maize said.

The deaths of Newsom and Christian have proved so resonant because they play into deep fears of urban crime harbored by many Americans. By all the official accounts, the couple fell victim to a random carjacking Jan. 6 in the parking lot of an apartment complex where they had gone to visit friends.

Authorities say the couple's assailants, some of them ex-convicts, forced their victims to drive at gunpoint to a clapboard house in one of Knoxville's roughest neighborhoods, where both victims were raped and then killed. Newsom, 23, was found dumped beside nearby railroad tracks. He had been shot and his body burned. Christian, 21, was found bundled in plastic garbage bags inside the house. She had been strangled.

State prosecutors have lodged murder, rape and other charges against brothers Lemaricus Davidson, 25, and Letalvis Cobbins, 24; Cobbins' girlfriend, Vanessa Coleman, 18; and George Thomas, 24. Their trials are set for next year.

Yet, as brutal as the crime was, Knoxville authorities have strongly denied that it was racially motivated. And they have sought to correct rumors, spread by white supremacist Web sites, that the couple had been sexually mutilated before they were killed and their bodies dismembered afterward.

"There is absolutely no proof of a hate crime," said John Gill, special counsel to Knox County District Attorney Randy Nichols. "It was a terrible crime, a horrendous crime, but race was not a motive. We know from our investigation that the people charged in this case were friends with white people, socialized with white people, dated white people. So not only is there no evidence of any racial animus; there's evidence to the contrary."

Official hate crime or not, what the Knoxville case illustrates to many conservative observers is the general reluctance of the mainstream media to report black-on-white crimes.

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