They Shoot White People, Don't They?
How TV news blew the Uptown murder story and fueled an ugly frenzy on the web
Minneapolis Police spokesman Ron Reier is puzzled and more than a little peeved at the coverage of the murder of Michael Zebuhr. It's not hard to figure out why. Zebuhr, you recall, was the 25-year-old graduate student shot to death by a mugger while walking in Uptown on March 18. The level of fear and outrage that ensued was partly attributable to the fact that the crime occurred in a "safe" (read: white) neighborhood. And then there were some horrifyingly dramatic aspects tailor made for the tabloid treatment: Zebuhr was shot in front of his mother and sister and, evidently, didn't put up the slightest resistance when the thieves took his mother's purse.
Given these circumstances, it was hardly surprising that the story produced an intense competition for the scoop. And given the nature of such media scrums, it was no shock that some of the ensuing reporting was both shoddy and highly speculative. "Within a week of the shooting, I put out a press release saying that three people had been arrested in the Uptown area after a low speed pursuit and that three guns were recovered," Reier recalls. "Channel 5 asked me if there was a connection [to the Zebuhr killing]. In bold print, I put on the press release that at this point there is no connection with this incident and any others."
Nonetheless, within a matter of minutes, Channel 5's Todd Baer broke into the broadcast with a live report stating that Minneapolis police had three people in custody who were connected to the Uptown shooting. The segment made Reier livid. "My pager started doing flip flops all over my desk and my telephone lit up like a Christmas tree. All the media people heard the report on Channel 5, so I spent the rest of my day trying to set the record straight. There must have been 35 phone calls."
It wasn't the first misleading piece aired about the Zebuhr killing. Within days of the shooting, KSTP broadcast a story postulating a link between Zebuhr's killer and another mugging in Uptown, allegedly perpetrated by "two men of East African or Somali ethnicity." Several other stations--including KMSP (Channel 9) and KARE (Channel 11) followed suit. WCCO (Channel 4), meanwhile, declined to speculate on the ethnicity of Zebuhr's killer, as did the Star Tribune. That caution made sense: in their official statements, Minneapolis police only characterized the shooter and his accomplice as "possibly black." Says police spokesman Reier: "Nowhere did we ever mention Somalis."
If the reporting on television was irresponsible, what followed on the internet was beyond the pale. Some of the most egregious commentary appeared on a blog called Rambix and the Red Star, which is devoted to the twin purposes of covering crime and excoriating the Star Tribune. On March 21, just three days after Zebuhr's murder, Rambix, the site's proprietor, posted that KSTP had "confirmed" that the perpetrators were "likely of East African or Somali origin." That report--coupled with the fact the Strib did not follow KSTP's lead--became the springboard for a round of aggressive media bashing. Wrote Rambix: "Do the Red Star editors not think the widely reported description of 'East African' or 'Somali' males was not important or relevant? Here's a clue, Red Star: There's not a lot of those folks in Minnesota, so it narrows the suspect potential considerably."
Speculation about the ethnicity of Zebuhr's attackers opened the floodgates in the comment section of the blog, most posted anonymously. An incensed reader named Greg wrote, "I am going to vote with my feet and dollars and am encouraging all my friends and family not to shop, dine or visit 'Mogadishu Minneapolis' until these thugs are locked up forever or shot down in the streets for the dogs they are." Greg went on to opine that such criminality would never be tolerated in the middle and outer ring suburbs because "the cops and white people there are armed to the teeth along with law enforcement and are less forgiving of wiry 16-20 year old Horn of Africa thugs wandering the streets doing crime." For a kicker, Greg wrote that he wanted to "ask the churches that thought it was such a capitol idea to bring in all these immigrants from third world countries and plop them in MPLS if they feel any responsibility for this crime wave."
He was not the only commenter who used the Zebuhr killing as grounds for venting against the Somalis. JB Doubtless, who is also a contributor to the right wing Fraters Libertas blog, chimed in with some amateur sociology: "I've noticed that the Somalis try to copy black gang culture with the ridiculous clothes and hats. This has lead to quite a bit of tension between the African Americans and the Africans because the AA's don't think the A's are real (I know, it doesn't make sense). But if the Somalis are copying gang culture, would it be such a surprise if they were copying gang behavior such as committing crimes? And all they have to do to learn is just get themselves some rap CD's and DVD's."
"Anonymous," meanwhile, was plainly racist: "Somalis are the devil's children. I was robbed by them once in Minneapolis. Does that speak for all Somalis? Well, no, but it is still the truth. I wish to God we could get rid of them because they are not an asset to the culture of Minneapolis and only they would be the ones who could pull something this horrific and senseless."
Poster Greg, meanwhile, shrugged off the implication that any of his remarks could be construed as racist: "Let's be honest...I live in Blaine, this stuff NEVER happens. Why? I don't care if I'm called a racist...it's because there are NO black thugs where I live. And that's why we live out here. It's just the truth. Why do you think 90% of the Minneapolis police force lives in the suburbs? And the all white suburbs at that? When are we going to rise up against this scurge? We need to start talking TRUTHS to the black community, not continuing to numbly nod our heads when they lecture us about how tough it is and how it's our fault and then rubber stamp the next racial hire in a position of extreme public importance. I'm sick of it. Now that decent restaurants are coming out here I might never need to come to Minneapolis."
Poster Franco declared that a boycott was in order: "We need to send a message, and the best way to do it is for someone to turn the tables on these suckers. On a different note... Maybe we should boycott Somali businesses, cabbies, parking ramps, etc. until they get their sh*t together as a community and start addressing the problem with their young people... You hit them in their pocketbooks in order to force them to confront the problem they have with their teens."
"Kevin from Minneapolis" was also alarmed by the alleged Somali link, writing: "Scary if true. Somali criminals are practically al qaeda they have such little concern for life." A poster named "Dr KXC" donned his anthropologists cap as well: "Somalis come from a lawless, violent society. No regard for law or life."
By March 22, "Greg" had worked himself into a fervor, speculating the Zebuhr shooting might even be linked to terrorism: "Time to roust the whole Somali community and start keeping track of the idiots going in and our of the halal meat shops and currency exchanges by the local constabulary. Seems to be more of a crime problem with these people. Maybe it is a beachhead for the next round of terrorism....terrorize the locals by armed robbery and murder...send the money back to relatives, al queda-like organizations and to keep the kaut trade going local?"
Meanwhile, over at the blog Anti-Strib, the Zebuhr murder became fodder for yet another round of attacks on the Star Tribune. Poster Tracy derided the paper for it's "politically correct" refusal to identify Zebuhr's attackers at Somali. "The real news isn't PC, it often supports stereotypes," he huffed. "A paper has to report reality, not the PC Fantasyland that the liberal reporters wish they lived in. This is why readership is dropping. The liberals at American papers are more worried about being politically correct than they are about the truth. No one turns to the Red Star for information anymore, it's widely accepted that it's just opinions and coupons."
In the end, of course, the discretion of the Strib and WCCO was vindicted. By the time Minneapolis police finally made arrests in Zebuhr's killing, it became apparent that none of the individuals implicated were Somali. But over at Rambix and Anti-Strib that didn't matter much. Like much of the mainstream media, they were now devoting their energies to a newer, fresher murder--the killing of Alan Reitter outside Block E. Of course, there was a new ox to gore, Mayor R.T. Rybak and the rest of Minneapolis's liberal establishment, and correcting the earlier reports and pronouncements was not a priority.
For Minneapolis police spokesman Ron Reier, though, the botched coverage was a case study in what happens when media rely too much on other media. For the grieving Zebuhr family, he notes, early reports that police had broken the case were especially painful. The family thought police had three people in custody for the murder, only to learn from police that those arrests were unrelated. And Reier says, the media and bloggers did no one any favors by implicating Somalis in the crime. "This hurts relationships within the community," says Reier. "There are no positives to this. It's all negative."