Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The Media Mob

There is a scene in the novel To Kill a Mockingbird in which Atticus Finch has stationed himself at the door of the jail. Tom Robinson is about to face trial for rape. A lynch mob gathers in front of the jail and confronts Atticus, Robinson's attorney, has anticipated trouble. Tom Robinson is a black man accused of raping a white woman in early 20th century Mississippi. Atticus knows Tom is innocent and is trying to keep him safe.

As Atticus faces down the mob, whose members include many respectable members of the community, his daughter Scout and her brother, seeing his danger, run from behind the bushes where they have been hiding to stand at his side. Atticus, concerned for their safety, demands they leave, but they refuse.

In a scene that marks the high point of the book, Scout looks over the crowd and sees a face that she knows: Walter Cunningham, a poor but proud and hardworking man whom she remembers stopping by the house to pay his legal bill from Atticus with hickory nuts and turnip greens. The movie portrays this scene to perfection: "Hey, Mr. Cunningham," says Scout. "I said, 'Hey, Mr. Cunningham.' How's your entailment gettin' along? Don't you remember me, Mr. Cunningham? I'm Jean Louise Finch."

All of a sudden Mr. Cunningham is shamed. The moment has become a human one, one in which his own inhumane attitude--and that of the men around him--has been exposed. He looks down and shuffles his feet. All the men in the mob are made human in that moment. They are embarrassed by the light that has been cast on their own darkness and they disband and go home.

The men didn’t want to wait for the courts to deal with the situation. Tom Robinson had been to the woman’s house. She had been raped. He was black. Ergo, he did it.

When Joe Paterno was fired at Penn State, CNN dropped most of its other news programming to cover the student protests that ensued. The media called them "riots."  Admittedly, there was some minor vandalism, but the worst offense occurred when students overturned a news van--an action I myself have felt like performing on a number of occasions.

CNN viewers were treated to a grim Anderson Cooper, lamenting the misguided nature of student sentiment, and expressing abhorrence with the student mob. They were engaging in senseless behavior. These students just didn't understand.

It's worth considering what it is about mobs that we profess to dislike.

What do mobs do? They presume someone is guilty until proven innocent. They jump to conclusions on insufficient evidence. They exact justice indiscriminately. They let their emotions control their judgment. They put the execution of justice before the process of justice. They want justice administered before it can be determined what its administration should consist of.

What is ironic is to watch the media, still in high dudgeon over the student riots, doing itself exactly what mobs do. They have presumed Paterno to be guilty. They have jumped to conclusions about what he knew on insufficient evidence. They have let their emotions cloud their judgment. They have rendered a verdict before any facts have been accepted into evidence. They have supported his firing without the Penn State board even saying what he was fired for.

Mob psychology is easy to get caught up in. Sandusky had been involved in the Penn State program. Paterno was coach. Sandusky sexually abused a boy in the locker room. Ergo, Paterno is guilty.

And the mob continues to gather.

1 comment:

KyCobb said...


I think you should be a little embarassed about writing so many words in defense of a man you described as "great." Your defense of Paterno is that he did the absolute minimum required by law. Is passing the buck and looking the other way a sign of greatness? If McQueary really did tell Paterno nothing more than that Sandusky was fondling or doing something sexual in nature to a boy in the Penn State locker room, would a great man have simply accepted this, or would he have demanded that McQueary tell him exactly what he witnessed? Would not a great man have found out the truth, then done everything necessary to ensure no other children were harmed? People lose their jobs every day in America, for far less reason, and most of them aren't going to draw a six figure pension like Paterno's, and yet your outrage is directed toward the "injustice" done him rather than at the Administration of Penn State, Paterno included, which completely failed the children being victimized by Sandusky.