Putting the watchers on trial: the failure of the media response to the Austin bomber
BY LISA YOON
In March of 2018, the citizens of Austin, Texas were plagued with fear as the threat of a spree bomber hung in the air. While the bomber eventually took his own life, as police surrounded him after a pursuit in the Round Rock district of North Austin, many African-American activists believe that there is much to be amended in the media responses to the bombings. This article will attempt to put the watchers on trial, so to speak, and expose these inconsistencies in reporting and attitude.
The Suspect: the American Media
The racial bias in the media treatment of POC (persons of colour) in America is a sadly recurring pattern to those of us watching from the outside. Not only are white suspects treated with less violence by the police, but they are often given leniency by the American media, while black victims are demonised or simply ignored. White criminals are regularly excused from blame for their crimes due to their “troubled past”, and are shielded behind the cover of being “mentally disturbed” (explanations which, while valid, are seldom seen used to explain black crime). In particular, the reporting of white-on-POC crime often demonstrates racial bias. Exactly this pattern can be observed in the way that the media treated the murdered victims of the bomber, Stephan House and Draylen Mason, compared with the treatment of the killer himself, Mark Anthony Conditt.
Exhibit 1: the victims
When Conditt’s first victim, Stephan House, was killed at his home early on the morning of the 2nd of March by a bomb disguised as a package, there was little coverage of the incident. It was not until the second bombing that news organisations attempted to probe deeper, despite House’s connection to a notable of Austin’s black community , his step-father, Reverend Freddie Dixon.
Some news organisations even begun to slander House. When reporting on House’s death, Fox News mentioned that he had “faced previous charges in Travis County” when reporting that the police were suspecting him of building the bomb and accidentally killing himself. This kind of coverage of black victims demonises them for their own deaths; in the eyes of the media, they are guilty until proven innocent, even when they are the victims.
Another particularly vile incident had KVUE sever ties with the closed captioning company VITAC when the phrase “this monkey” was used in closed captioning when referring to 17-year-old victim Draylen Mason. After outrage erupted on social media, KVUE cut ties with VITAC, and VITAC also issued an apology (in which they claimed the mistake was not “intentional”) .
The treatment of Conditt’s victims resonates with other cases of media treatment of white-on-POC violence. When a black 17-year-old child, Treyvon Martin, was killed by a white neighbourhood watch volunteer in 2012, multiple sources painted him as a “thug”. One tweet from the New York Times read “Trayvon Martin Had Been Suspended Over Marijuana”, for example, which demonstrates the way in which the media appears to justify black deaths, or tarnish the reputation of black victims. In March 2012, a similar attempt at justification came from reporter and talk show host Geraldo Rivera, who attempted to explain Martin’s death because he was “wearing a hoodie” at the time he was shot.
Exhibit 2: the bomber
The treatment of the victims, Stephan House in particular, contrasts strongly with how the American media treated Conditt. After he was confirmed to be the bomber, the New York Times tweeted an article with a headline depicting Conditt as a “nerdy young man” from a “tight-knit, godly family” after interviewing a family friend. The implication is that the bomber had supposedly just lost his way. The New York Times was later forced to apologise for this tweet . Many readers pointed out in their responses to the paper, which published the complaints they received, that interviews with close family friends and attempts to humanise an attacker is a courtesy that is rarely given to black criminals or suspects.
The stark differences between the New York Times coverage of Martin, a murdered child, and Conditt, an adult spree bomber with a body count of two, are a clear demonstration of the bias within the mainstream media. While the article on the bomber was, unsurprisingly, not received well on social media, the fact that the New York Times wrote and published the article, and the tweet in particular, is symptomatic of a larger problem within news organisations. Clearly, (and this seems to be the case even for the esteemed New York Times) when a suspect is white, the tendency is for media stories to shield them by using words such as “quiet” and “troubled”, but when the victim is a POC, they tend to be vilified. To the media, House was a black man with “previous charges” but Conditt was “nerdy young man”.
Exhibit 3: Clock Boy
We can also compare the media’s treatment of the Austin bomber to their treatment of Ahmed Mohamed, the 14-year-old “Clock Boy” who was famously arrested and suspended from school after bringing a “bomb” to class. The alleged bomb was, in reality, an alarm clock, fitted into a metallic briefcase, which Mohamed had built and wanted to show to his teacher. A media frenzy ensued, fuelled by Mohamed’s identity as the son of a Muslim Sudanese immigrant.
After his arrest and release, Mohamed received support from many sources, including many celebrities and journalists. However, some news organisations ran ridiculous stories against him. Predictably, Fox News ripped Ahmed apart on air, accusing him of bringing the clock as a “hoax bomb” for a PR stunt , while some commentators argued the response to Mohamed’s arrest was an “overreaction” to an atmosphere of perceived excessive Islamophobia by “self-satisfied liberals”. That Mohamed was eventually invited to the White House by Obama himself is somewhat irrelevant here; the media circus had already happened by the time amends were made.
Interestingly, although much attention was given to Mohamed’s faith, similar attention was not paid to the Austin bomber. When Conditt was younger, he attended survivalist Christian camps, run by a group called Righteous Invasion of Truth (RIOT), which teaches teenagers gun skills as well as providing Christian instruction. Conditt’s sister mentioned to Buzzfeed News that these camps featured many teenagers interested in science, and that they would “discuss chemicals and how to mix them and which ones were dangerous.”
It is highly unlikely that these informal discussions at a youth camp contributed to Conditt’s eventual crimes, but importantly, Conditt’s presence at these camps was not reported widely in the media, and is notably absent in reports on the bombings in articles from the New York Times and the New Yorker. It is easy to imagine how prominent the story would be had Conditt attended similarly-focused camps with Islamic instruction.
This bias has been at least partly quantified by the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, a Washington-based research institute. A study taking into account years of planned or successfully executed acts of ideological violence in the U.S. has highlighted the stark differences in the way that the media treats the perpetrator depending on their background. Media coverage involving Muslim perpetrators was on average 770% higher than non-Muslim ideological violence . As such, while all forms of ideologically-motivated violence should be equally condemned in principle, those perpetrated by Muslims are known to be given more media attention.
The American media is plagued with biased reporting of race-related crime and violence, preventing accurate or useful reporting. Violence against POC, or violence perpetrated by Muslims, are inadequately or excessively covered, and may well contribute to the growing divisions within American society.
Ultimately, what can be done? Perhaps, instead of focusing on the perpetrator of the violence, and thus putting aside any accidental or deliberate shielding of Conditt, the lives that were taken too soon can be celebrated.
Stephen House was a community leader and father, a talented athlete who planned to mentor young boys and girls that summer . He was known as a humble, motivated, and quiet man, whose purpose, in the words of his mother on his GoFundMe page, "was to provide the best possible opportunities for his family to enjoy a fruitful, love-filled life” . “[He was] an athlete, started his own hedge fund account from scratch,” his brother Norrell Waynewood said. “He was an academic, the type of guy who just wants to push.”  He is survived by his wife and his 8-year-old daughter, who he was helping get ready for school when he was killed.
17-year-old Draylen Mason was a dearly loved boy who always had an “infectious smile” on his face, remembered by friends and family as gentle and hardworking. He loved to dance, play bass, and was repeatedly involved in community volunteering projects. Mason was set to be accepted into a prestigious music program at the selective Oberlin Conservatory of Music. “He was every inch a musician,” said the Dean of the University of Texas at Austin’s College of Fine Arts, Doug Dempster. “His gentle confidence seemed to come from a conviction that hard work and talent was going to work for him. It did.” He performed in jazz and mariachi groups, participated in the orchestra at his school, and was a member of the Austin Soundwaves, a youth orchestra program. Mason is survived by his mother, who was also caught in the blast. She is currently recovering, “going through the pain of surgery and the pain of losing a son that way,” said his cousin, Mark Glover.
Both Stephan House and Draylen Mason were bright sparks in the lives of those who surrounded them. Our duty is not only to condemn violence, but remember the victims as they ought to be.
Stephan House’s family’s GoFundMe: https://www.gofundme.com/tx-bomb-leaves-8yr-old-daughter-wo
Draylen Mason’s family’s YouCaring: https://www.youcaring.com/joneswilsonfamily-1129040
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