The roughly two-month period between July 7 and September 10, 2001 went down in history as the Summer of the Shark. This wasn’t because shark attacks were especially common during that period – both attacks and fatalities were actually down from the previous year – but because the summer of 2001 was a slow news season. Instead of admitting that, all of America’s major news networks seized on a sensational story about underwater predators and ran with it.
At its essence, the Summer of the Shark-style media circus is a logical fallacy called confirmation bias. Instead of rationally assessing the facts and presenting events in context, news agencies take isolated events, or even commonplace occurrences, and spin a narrative out of a severely shortened data set. So it was with shark attacks, so it is now with church burnings.
On June 17, 2015, a bowl-cut little freak named Dylann Roof allegedly – in the sense that he’s already confessed – shot up the Emanuel AME Church in South Carolina. This horrific act, compounded by the shooter’s avowed white-supremacist motive, struck every morally normal person as a senseless outrage. The scale, and the social implications, of the murders even moved President Obama to speak on the matter and focused the eyes of the nation on racial violence in the United States.
In the weeks following the shooting, every media outlet in the United States, with the possible exceptions of Cat Fancier and Cigar Aficionado magazines, began reporting on suspected arsons taking place at historically black churches across the South.
Some on the right have used these events to say that liberal policies create people like Roof. Others, such as Young Turks host John Iadarola, have seen the South Carolina tragedy and ensuing fires as a means to launch into the hysterical nonce, as seen below:
For those of you who have trouble viewing the five-minute video, Iadarola starts off with a short list of events that “the country and liberals” have been celebrating, such as the removal of the Confederate flag and the Supreme Court’s decisions on Obamacare and gay marriage. At the 12-second mark, he changes gears and refers to a “wave of black church-related terror” sweeping across the South.
Displaying the customary Young Turks level of research, Iadarola states that “somewhere between four and 10” black churches have caught fire since the shooting. The gem comes at 30 seconds, when the host admits that authorities can’t say that the incidents are related. Iadarola still insists that it doesn’t matter if there’s a link – the narrative of white racist conspirators has already been cast, and mere facts linking the fires are now immaterial.
Indeed, the phrase “wave of terrorist attacks” crops up by the 50-second mark. Remember that, 20 seconds before this, the only fact Iadarola had to tell us was that authorities couldn’t link the fires, or even say they were all deliberately set. Now, it’s a “wave,” an epidemic, if you will, and you should be afraid.
After dismissing the absurd notion that one of the fires, in which a cache of electronics was stolen, could be anything but a hate crime, the host asserts at the two-minute mark that all of the arsonists are Christians. Remember that this is before any suspects have been identified, and it’s before authorities are even willing to say that a majority of recent fires were deliberately set. Yet, this journalist has already rhetorically moved us to the point where we know the firebugs’ religious convictions.
By the end of the video, Iadarola has explained to us that these fires – many of which, you’ll remember, are being investigated as accidents – are part of an ideological backlash against black civil rights. The phrase “white supremacy run amok” is actually used to describe the motives of “between four and 10” arsonists, none of whom have been caught yet and who might not even exist.