Racist mobs murdered African Americans with bullets, nooses, and knives. Innocent people were mutilated, strung up, and roasted alive. In the late 1800s, when these killings reached their peak, more than a thousand African Americans were killed in just five years. In one year, 1892, “there were twice as many lynchings of blacks as there were legal executions of all races throughout the United States.”
And yet, as media scholar David Mindich details in his book, Just the Facts: How “Objectivity” Came to Define American Journalism, elite press coverage of these murders typically presented them as morally ambiguous affairs that pitted a crowd’s desire for immediate justice against the horrific — and, very often, fabricated — crimes of the black victim.
The same ethic, in other words, that leads modern day reporters to claim Hillary Clinton’s denunciation of racists is the moral equivalent of Donald Trump’s racism also led journalists from another century to be extra careful to include the murderers’ perspective when writing about lynching.