On March 27, 1964, decades before the label “fake news” was coined, the New York Times published what’s still among the most damaging false news stories ever printed. The headline was “37 Who Saw Murder Didn’t Call the Police” and the story alleged that for more than half an hour dozens of “respectable, law-abiding citizens in Queens watched a killer stalk and stab” a bartender named Kitty Genovese in the separate attacks in Kew Gardens.

The story, picked up around the world, sparked what became known as the “bystander effect,” a theory that held that when multiple people witness a crime or acts of wrongdoing, they are less likely to intervene than when a single witness observes a crime. The Kitty Genovese story was cited as an example of the moral decline of modern-day American society, particularly in major urban areas like New York City.

Turned out the reporting about 37 neighbors ignoring Genovese’s curdling screams as she was stabbed wasn’t true. In fact, there weren’t dozens of witnesses. Few people heard Genovese’s screams because she was stabbed in the lungs and couldn’t muster a loud cry for help. Some who heard the ruckus mistakenly thought it was a domestic dispute. Those who suspected or were aware that a crime was in progress called the police or took other actions.

Multiple follow ups, including this 2004 story in the Times, have acknowledged the falsity of the Times’ original story. A 2015 documentary about the Kitty Genovese murder maintained the author of the original Times’ story knew it was false but ran with it anyway because it had a compelling narrative.

Mmm. The more things change the more they remain the same.

I’m embarrassed to admit this, but I only just learned that the Times’ story about dozens of witnesses ignoring Kitty Genovese’s screams was false. I immediately recalled the story after reading up on the false allegations by 19-year-old Rachel Richardson, the only black starter on Duke University’s women’s volleyball team. Richardson alleged that during her team’s August 26 match against Brigham Young University, fans inside the BYU arena in Provo, UT, inundated her with racist abuse and threats. The situation supposedly became so tense that a police officer reportedly was assigned to sit on the Duke volleyball team’s bench.

Richardson’s allegations, published by the New York Times and amplified by all the usual legacy media suspects like the Washington Post, CNN, and NPR, have since been proven false. Although Brigham Young University initially expressed horror about Richardson’s allegations, after conducting an extensive review the school couldn’t find even one eyewitness to corroborate them. BYU reversed the permanent ban it issued on the visiting fan who was falsely accused of making the racist slurs.

Here’s a portion of the statement:

Here’s a modern-day twist on the bystander effect: When someone is accused of racism and dozens of persons likely know that the allegations are false, they are less likely to intervene than if only one person knows for certain.

Jesse Singal, who writes a Substack column called “Singal-Minded,” wrote an excellent commentary for the website Common Sense about the media’s haste to embrace Richardson’s allegations despite some glaring red flags about their credibility. Common Sense was founded by former New York Times reporter Bari Weiss, whose resignation letter from the publication was deserving of a Pulitzer Prize for commentary. Weiss and her colleagues are publishing credible news and commentary of the sort that was once the hallmark of the Times.

From Singal’s commentary:

All the journalists who credulously reported on this event were wrong—and it was an embarrassing kind of wrong, because the red flags were large, numerous, and flapping loudly. Richardson and her family members reported that racial slurs had been hurled with abandon, loudly and repeatedly, in a crowded gym filled with more than 5,000 people. But the journalists covering this incident never stopped to notice how odd it was that none of these vile slurs were captured by any of the thousands of little handheld cameras in the gym at the time, nor on the bigger cameras recording the match. Nor did they find it strange that in the days following the incident, not a single other eyewitness came forward—none of Richardson’s black teammates, and none of the players for either team.

Instead of heeding the red flags and slowing down to ask some questions, mainstream journalists simply consumed and regurgitated the story as it had been fed to them by Richardson, her godmother, her father, and a major university’s public relations apparatus (which was in DEFCON 1 mode, doing everything it could to broadcast contrition and contain the growing damage to the university’s reputation).

If any of these journalists had demonstrated an iota of curiosity or skepticism—if they’d practiced journalism as it was meant to be practiced—they could have had a major scoop. Instead they acted as stenographers, with terrible results.

Here’s some validation on Singal’s claim that in a crowded stadium it’s unlikely that someone could yell vile racist slurs without someone recording the incident on their wireless phones: Fans in the student section of the University of Oregon’s Autzen Statium in Eugene chanted “Fuck the Mormons” while their football team handily beat Brigham Young University on Saturday, and that incident was recorded. You’re forgiven if you are unaware of the incident because it wasn’t well covered and there wasn’t any legacy media outrage.

Singal laments the Times’ journalism lapse and notes the story was more responsibly covered by the Salt Lake Tribune and BYU’s student campus newspaper. He also duly notes that the New York Times was hardly embarrassed by the laziness of its reporting on the initial story. Rather than issue an apology to Brigham Young for unfairly sliming the university, the Times in a follow-up story reporting on BYU’s investigative findings noted that Brigham Young is predominantly white and Mormon and less than one percent of the student population is black. The Times also noted that a February 2021 report by a university committee found that many students of color “feel unsafe and isolated at the school.”

The committee’s finding would seem somewhat at odds with the reporting of NPR’s Salt Lake station, which found that Muslims, BYU’s biggest non-Christian group, say they feel very comfortable at the school.

In its story setting the record straight about the falsity of its Kitty Genovese story, the Times offered an explanation why false stories often gain instant credibility.

”When you have this general sense that things are going wrong, you look for events that are going to confirm that,” Neal Gabler, author of ”Life: The Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality,” told the Times. “A society in which people are indifferent to one another; a society in which no one cares; a society in which we are all atomized. Here you had a story that confirmed all of those anxieties and fears.”

As for Duke, the school is sticking by Richardson, despite not one player publicly validating her claims.

Nina King/Duke photo

“The 18 members of the Duke University volleyball team are exceptionally strong women who represent themselves, their families and Duke University with the utmost integrity,” Nina King, the university’s vice president and director of athletics said in a statement. “We unequivocally stand with and champion them, especially when their character is called into question. Duke Athletics believes in respect, equality and inclusiveness, and we do not tolerate hate and bias.”

This is the same Duke University that in 2007 settled for millions with three players on the school’s male lacrosse team who were falsely accused of raping a stripper who performed at a team party a year earlier. Duke suspended the three players, canceled the team’s season, and forced coach Mike Pressler to resign. Rolling Stone amplified the false rape allegations, which resulted in a defamation settlement, the terms of which weren’t publicly disclosed.

Despite not one shred of evidence backing Richardson’s claims, the media is still backing her story.

“There continues to be no apparent reason for why (Richardson) would fabricate a claim that would taint BYU and subject her to unwanted scrutiny,” Raleigh’s News&Observer opined in an editorial this week. “We see no reason for her to lie. We do see evidence of her distress.”

If lacking an obvious motive is the sole grounds for vindicating Richardson, perhaps the News&Observer can educate the public as to Jussie Smollett’s motivation for staging his hate crime hoax.

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