I read about this incident (or rather, non-incident) the other day, but Jesse Singal, in a post on Bari Weiss’s site, tells the whole story in detail. The lesson is that when a story appeals to the ideological bias of a newspaper, even if it doesn’t check out, they sometimes print it as if were true, or at least don’t check it out especially thoroughly. It’s especially galling when America’s premier newspaper, The New York Times, falls prey to this confirmation bias, as it did in this story.
Click to read; it’s free and short (but do subscribe if you read often):
The story is one indicting Brigham Young University (BYU) students as racists, supposedly evinced during a volleyball game against Duke University on August 26:
Last month, Rachel Richardson—the only black starter on the women’s volleyball team at Duke University—leveled a shocking accusation. She said that during her team’s August 26 match against Brigham Young University, fans inside the BYU arena in Provo, Utah inundated her with racist abuse and threats.
After the match, 19-year-old Richardson told her godmother, Lesa Pamplin, about the incident. Pamplin is a criminal defense attorney running for a county judgeship in Texas, and was not at the game—but the next day, she published a tweet that rocketed the story to national attention: “My Goddaughter is the only black starter for Dukes [sic] volleyball team. While playing yesterday, she was called a [n-word] every time she served. She was threatened by a white male that told her to watch her back going to the team bus. A police officer had to be put by their bench.”
The tweet is no longer available, but it racked up 185,000 likes before it was archived. LeBron James himself responded: “you tell your Goddaughter to stand tall, be proud and continue to be BLACK!!! We are a brotherhood and sisterhood! We have her back. This is not sports.”
The story was reported widely, most prominently by the New York Times in this story by Vima Patel (click to read):
One student, said to have led the racist insults, was banned from all University athletic venues. The story then spread widely:
The national response to this heinous allegation was swift and righteous. Utah’s governor, Spencer Cox, issued a statement on Twitter (now deleted) expressing his shock and disappointment. “I’m disgusted that this behavior is happening and deeply saddened if others didn’t step up to stop it,” he wrote. “As a society we have to do more to create an atmosphere where racist a**holes like this never feel comfortable attacking others.” For its part, BYU quickly acknowledged that something horrible had happened in the fieldhouse. The day after the game, it published an apologetic statement, saying that the fan deemed responsible for shouting the epithets—who was not a BYU student—had been banned from all university athletic venues.
Unsurprisingly, major media outlets were all over this story. The Times’ coverage set the tone, with the Washington Post and CNN and Sports Illustrated and NPR all publishing similar articles, alongside the predictable think pieces. The incident also had consequences for BYU sports more generally. The head coach of women’s basketball at the University of South Carolina canceled its home opener against BYU. A match between Duke and Rider University’s women’s volleyball teams—scheduled to be played at the BYU arena—was moved to a nearby high school gym in order to provide both teams “the safest atmosphere,” according to Duke’s Director of Athletics, Nina King.
For millions of people watching this story unfold, this was yet another example of the ineradicable stain of American racism, of just how little progress we’ve really made.
Singal, whose reporting I like quite a bit, then adds the four-word kicker.
Except it didn’t happen.
Yes, this was all made up. Completely made up. There is no evidence that any slurs were emitted, that the n-word was used when Rachel Richardson was serving, that there was a cop assigned to sit by the Duke bench, and so on. And it’s not as if there weren’t potential witnesses, either: there were cameras recording the game, cellphones doing the same, and thousands of witnesses. Not a single bit of film documented the assertions, and no witnesses came forward, even with requests to do so by the cops and the newspapers.
It was either a hoax or a massive lie, however you want to characterize it. How was it discovered, then?
Not by any major paper. The Salt Lake Tribune did question whether the right student had been banned, but the whole truth came out via—you guessed it—”a conservative campus newspaper at BYU”, the Cougar Chronicle (BYU is a Mormon school, quite conservative, and has few black students.) Here’s their attempt to get at the truth, done the old-fashioned way: using the phone and shoe leather.
Click to read:
BYU then did its own investigation, and on September 9 issued this statement (click to read):
From our extensive review, we have not found any evidence to corroborate the allegation that fans engaged in racial heckling or uttered racial slurs at the event. As we stated earlier, we would not tolerate any conduct that would make a student-athlete feel unsafe. That is the reason for our immediate response and our thorough investigation.
As a result of our investigation, we have lifted the ban on the fan who was identified as having uttered racial slurs during the match. We have not found any evidence that that individual engaged in such an activity. BYU sincerely apologizes to that fan for any hardship the ban has caused.
Yet, as often happens during these hoaxes, institutions who were deceived nevertheless must say something that affirms their virtue, so the statement adds this:
Despite being unable to find supporting evidence of racial slurs in the many recordings and interviews, we hope that all those involved will understand our sincere efforts to ensure that all student-athletes competing at BYU feel safe. As stated by Athletics Director Tom Holmoe, BYU and BYU Athletics are committed to zero-tolerance of racism, and we strive to provide a positive experience for everyone who attends our athletic events, including student-athletes, coaches and fans, where they are valued and respected.
This is typical of what happens when a campus “hate crime” is revealed as a hoax—as a substantial proportion of them are. I suggest having a look at Wilfred Reilly’s book, Hate Crime Hoax: How the Left is Selling a Fake Race War. (Reilly, by the way, is black.) I’ve read it, and the stories he tells are dire. I can’t remember the proportion of campus hate crimes or hate “incidents” that turn out to be fake (usually perpetuated by a member of the minority group that was a victim of the fabricated “hate”), but it’s substantial.
What’s telling is what these incidents have in common after they’re revealed as hoaxes. The perpetrators are often not punished, even when they’re caught; the fact that the hate crime or incident was a hoax is not revealed to the college community (this is bad, because it perpetrates the idea that racism is prevalent on campus); these hoaxes happen everywhere, and, after the “crime” is revealed as a hoax, the schools nevertheless continue to insist that it could have been real because racism is everywhere. Finally, the colleges even put in place new antiracist initiatives—simply to show that they’re doing something, even in the face of a hoax. These colleges, like the newspapers, have a substantial ideological investment in perpetrating the idea that racism is ubiquitous.
At any rate, the New York Times also responded with a retraction (below), but also some tut-tutting about the prevalence of racism at BYU. Here’s the retraction:
And Singal’s take on the NYT’s most recent story, which still maintains that the “hate” against the black player happened as described.
By this point, between the original New York Times story and a tepid followup, a combined five reporters and researchers had been pantsed by a small student paper. If all this provoked any soul-searching on the part of the Times, it was unclear from its report on BYU’s findings.
Remarkably, their most recent story treated the events as unresolved: “B.Y.U. did not directly address why its findings contradicted the account by Richardson, and the statements by both universities left questions unanswered.” It also included a statement from Duke’s athletic director saying the university stood by the volleyball team. The story ends with a reminder that at the overwhelmingly Mormon school, less than 1 percent of students are black, and that a recent report highlighted the university’s diversity issues. It’s unclear exactly why this is relevant; the point seems to be for the Times to advertise that it understands racism is a serious problem at BYU, and that even if the school were not guilty of it this time, everyone knows the university’s soul is not entirely spotless.
The lessons are several. People were all too willing to believe a story that comported with their ideological views, especially the view racism is everywhere and “systemic”. But the press bought into it too, abjuring their traditional role in news stories to state the facts and omit anything that isn’t supported by the facts. Further, this shoddy reporting damages people, as well as the public, who are misled by biases. Singal mentions, as examples of similar hoaxes taken seriously by the public and the media without proper vetting, the Covington Catholic High School issue (three media settled with the supposedly “smirking racist” for a substantial amount of money), and the Jussie Smollett case, immediately believed as an incident of racism though Smollett’s claims were ridiculous. And of course the fact that a “hate crime” or a “hate incident” was a hoax is never publicized as widely as the original “transgression” itself, so the public never learns the truth.
Here’s Singal’s conclusion:
. . . there’s an established pattern of journalists being far too credulous when these incidents first burst onto the scene.
It won’t take some radical revolution for journalists to better cover fast-developing, controversial incidents involving race and other hot-button issues. All they have to do is rediscover norms that are already there, embedded in journalistic tradition. The best, oldest-school newspaper editors—a truly dying breed—constantly pester cub reporters to make that one extra call, ask that one extra question, follow that one extra unlikely lead. They do this all in the service of making sure their organization prints the best, most accurate version of the news (and doesn’t get sued). They can adhere to these norms without becoming a shill for the powerful. It’s simply a matter of approaching a story with curiosity and skepticism, of not believing they are the advocate for one side in a conflict—no matter how righteous and obvious the battle lines may seem at first glance.
It’s getting so that one has to turn to Substack instead of the “MSM” to get the real news!
The lesson, then, is one that scientists have long had drilled into them. If a result tends to jibe with your innate biases—with what you want to be true—then that is the time you have to exercise the most doubt and give the results the highest scrutiny.