The Washington Post splashed a strange front page story across its paper face on Sunday. I have no idea what to make of it, because I am trying as hard as I can to be objective, and the story repels objectivity like my cousin repels women. It is shot through with confirmation bias: what you think of it is hard to separate from what you already believe.
It appears that Rick Perry, early in his career (when he was a Democrat), used to host events at a hunting camp where there was a large boulder that had the word “Niggerhead” painted on it. Ranchers called the camp by that name—-once a common one for rock formations and creeks in Texas and other parts of the country—long before Perry and his father, Ray, began hunting there in the early 1980s. Perry’s father leased the property in 1983, and according to Perry, the first thing he did was to paint over the word on the rock. Perry says that when he first saw the rock, it was already painted over. But the Post found seven individuals who say they remember seeing the name on the rock during the time when Perry’s father’s name was on the lease. Apparently the old name is still visible through the paint. Eventually, Perry’s family paid to have the boulder flipped over so it couldn’t be read. Meanwhile, the Post says, “Longtime hunters, cowboys and ranchers said this particular place was known by that name as long as they could remember, and still is.”
What are we supposed to take away from all this?
That Rick Perry is a racist because he hunted at a lodge that was known by a racist name? That Perry’s father was a racist to lease property that had a racist name? That his father did a lousy paint-over job? That Perry is lying about whether he ever saw the unpainted rock? (Was he supposed to tun in terror from the unpainted rock?) That the seven people who claimed you could still read the word are more believable than Gov. Perry, who has condemned the name of the lodge as unacceptable and offensive?
Is the argument that the fact that an area once had a racist name attached to it should forever make it taboo for a non-racist to visit or use? That would seem to be an escalation of the whole concept of political correctness to mystical proportions, where a mere word curses a space for all eternity. What is the ethical response for a person who is invited to go to a camp that is called “Niggerhead” by the natives? “I can’t go there: it has an offensive name.” Really? How about, “I can’t go there: I might run for President some day and an unscrupulous opponent might argue that it makes me a racist.” Seriously? Or,”I can’t go there: in 25 years a newspaper determined to make conservatives look like knuckle-draggers might use this to imply that I’m racially insensitive.” Wow. That’s a lot to ask.
How important is the traditional name of a camp when the designating boulder has been painted over but is still visible if you look really hard? If you look at all? If the camp-users didn’t run around in sheets or hold minstrel shows, does the name matter? What if the nightime activity in the camp consisted of symposia about the origins of such names and the influence of racism on our culture? Would it still be wrong to be in camp that wasn’t called “Niggerhead” by the owners but was by others in the vicinity, and you could still read the name through the paint over the writing on a big boulder by the entrance?
Is going to a camp with a racist name even in the same insensitivity ballpark as, just as a wild, silly hypothetical, attending a church with an innocuous name where a racist minister preaches…for, say, 20 years?
Try as I might, I am having a hard time not seeing the Post story as a hit job, a close approximation of the New York Times’s infamous front page John McCain story in 2008, reporting how un-named aides were concerned that he was too friendly with an attractive female lobbyist. It certainly looks as if the Post was showcasing a dubious, ambiguous, confusing and vague story because it tars a prominent conservative Presidential contender with possible racism, or at very least “insensitivity.” But maybe I see it this way because I already believe that the mainstream media slants its coverage against conservatives, especially ones like Perry.
Democrats, African-Americans, and those who are inclined to be biased against anyone from Texas, who talks with a drawl, or who is a conservative may be driven by their pre-existing biases to take the “Niggerhead” story as proof of what they already “knew”: Perry is just the latest in a long line of GOP bigots. Of course, knowing they would react this way is probably exactly why the Post ran the story in the first place. No, wait—that’s confirmation bias again, on my part. Everything about this story is confirmation bias. How you take it, and whether you think there is any there there, is influenced by what you already believed before the story even came to your attention.
Is it possible to evaluate a story like this, without having our judgment polluted by our pre-existing assumptions? Indeed, would the Post have run this story if the reporters and the editors didn’t already assume that Perry is racially insensitive?
As I said at the beginning, I’m trying really hard to be fair to the Post, which means that I’m bending over backwards to believe that the paper was fair to Rick Perry. But the top of my head is touching the floor behind my heels:
- The story is too convoluted and filled with conflicting results to mean very much. Why was it on the front page?
- The Post knows that the name of the camp juxtaposed with Perry is what a judge in a trial might call “unjustly prejudicial.” Why would they run it, unless Perry’s role—and the name on the rock—were clearer?
- The Post knows that such a story will hurt Perry, fairly or not, because of casual readers and it use by political enemies who are not interested in the truth or being fair. How did they overcome that with “the public’s right to know”? The public’s right to know what?
- Despite the fact that the entire story depends on writing on a rock, the Post has no photo of the rock. That is both suspicious and incompetent.
My conclusion: This was no front page story; this wasn’t even a story. Like the Times McCain piece, it is a vague collection of circumstantial evidence and disputed incidents. I think it was run to hurt Perry’s candidacy, and I think it was unfair and rock-bottom journalism for the Post to do it.
But maybe I’m just biased.