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October 29, 2002

THE DAILY HOWLER says that the "angry white male" myth was a myth. He's got some evidence there, though I'd have to see something a bit broader before I'd take his sweeping statements as true, given that my impression from watching the cable shows was that people did think it was an angry white male.

Meanwhile, John O'Sullivan writes something that's not quite the same:

Most reporters and editors wanted the sniper to be a white male rather than an African American or a Muslim. For the underlying assumption that colors coverage of race, ethnicity and religion in the typical newsroom is that the great American majority that never went to the Ivy League schools is made up of racists, sexists and homophobes who need to be protected against their own tendency to white racist bigotry.

Thus, when the journalists fear a story might inflame white racism, a Muslim terrorist like the LAX shooter perhaps, they play it down. When a story might challenge white racism, a Tim McVeigh maybe, they play it up. So when the sniper was still an unknown quantity, it was second nature to seize on anything--even racial profiling--to suggest that he was another Tim McVeigh rather than another Muhammad Hadayat.

Perhaps this desire for it to be an angry white male shaped coverage enough to give that impression, even when people didn't explicitly say "Bob, I think it's an angry white male."

At any rate, this Newsweek story says that authorities were telling reporters that that's what they were looking for:

Not just the cable-TV criminologists but also the government’s own experts were fooled. Until the last couple of days, most top officials at the state-local-federal joint command center in Rockville, Md., thought they were looking for an “intelligent, well-organized white male,” one veteran federal investigator told NEWSWEEK. . . .

Then there was the Good Ole Boy. He was another gun-crazed white man with suspicious habits. The police put him under surveillance. One night in the middle of the siege, he was observed shooting pool and drinking beer with his buddies until 2 a.m. “Not serial-killer behavior,” the cops concluded. . . .

Remarkably, law-enforcement sources tell NEWSWEEK, some investigators continued to cling to the belief that the sniper or snipers were driving a white van or truck. Like the talking heads on TV, they had convinced themselves that the snipers must be white men driving a white truck. They had trouble accepting that they should have been looking for two black men driving a blue car. . . .

What's more, a passage even supports O'Sullivan's assertion about vigilantism, as -- even when they realized their suspects weren't angry white males -- police were afraid to release information:

The investigators hotly debated whether to release the suspects’ photographs. Some feared that would only tip them off and make them flee. Or worse, provoke them to strike again. Others feared the suspects would be found first by vigilantes. “The concern was that, God forbid, it’s not the people [the real snipers] and someone takes matters into their own hands,” said Duncan.

In light of this, I think that it's a bit of a stretch to say that the "angry white male" myth is itself mythical. At least, I'd need to see a lot more evidence in support of a proposition so inconsistent with my recollection, and most other people's impressions. And I think that O'Sullivan's interpretation of what went on in the reporting is closer to the facts than the Daily Howler's.

UPDATE: Reader Michael Steele writes:

I think they all miss the mark to some degree.... I think the "desired outcome" was actually a "gun nut" The Anti-gun forces have been reeling since 9/11, they needed a stereotypical redneck gun owner to bolster the cause...."see they're all nuts!!!!! ban guns!!!!" or something like that."

Yes, if the Chevy had had an NRA sticker, I'm sure we would have heard about it. Over and over and over. And some people didn't wait for any evidence to make a connection. Brendan Koerner of Slate certainly remembers it the way I do: "The universal consensus was that the killer was white, despite the fact that just over half of sniper homicides committed between 1976 and 2000 were carried out by whites." Actually, I remember it a bit less strongly than Koerner -- my wife was on a few talk shows opining that it was probably a Muslim who supported Al Qaeda, though she didn't specifically say it was a non-white. But she was very much the exception, as the producers told her at the time.