Burned out and Washed Up

Article excerpt

The United States is on fire with accounts of black-church burnings. Is the nation in the middle of the largest vortex of hate crimes since the heyday of the Ku Klux Klan? Some media critics and arson experts say the alleged epidemic is smoke and mirrors.

Millions of words and millions of dollars have been showered on the flames of burning black churches across America. It even appears that this chemistry of government money and political rhetoric is extinguishing the arson epidemic. Media critics say the task has been made somewhat simpler by the fact that the issue is little more than a media-driven concoction.

Of course, not everyone believes the black-church arson epidemic is just mirrors and smoke. The Atlanta-based Center for Democratic Renewal, or CDR, for instance, is certain that black and multiracial churches are burning at the rate of one per week, mostly due to arson, in what the hate-crime monitoring group calls "some of the most heinous acts of white supremacy in this country." But CDR may have a special stake in the perceived epidemic, having initiated the scare stories at a news conference last spring. The group announced the results of a "preliminary" study that was long on accusations and short, media critics and arson researchers say, on facts. But CDR lit the fuse, and there was no turning back for the mass media, the political polemicists who flutter in their spotlight or for lawmakers who know a politically popular crusade when they see one.

Who in the media could bother checking facts when the Jeremiahs were in full lament? That reliably bardic spokesman for all victimhood, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, was joined by eminences ranging from leaders of pressure groups to U.S. Civil Rights Commission Chairwoman Mary Frances Berry, to President Clinton himself. Questions of substance were drowned in sound bites from those demanding action.

The media rallied to these pleas and they got results. The federal and private money and volunteer response to the "crisis" have been phenomenal, culminating in a funding effort that, if certain critics and researchers are to be believed, has very few places to go except into the pockets of the crisis-promotion specialists.

Among the more grand responses to the alleged crisis has been that of the National Council of Churches, or NCC, a legendarily enthusiastic organization when it comes to jumping on liberal and progressive bandwagons, especially those that set media hearts aflutter and thereby stand a better chance of providing access to familiar pocketbooks. The NCC accepted $2.7 million in grants just to launch its Burned Churches Fund. Those fueling the effort included a number of philanthropic organizations that hardly could be described as publicity-shy -- the Andreas Fund; the Ford, Rockefeller, W.K. Kellogg, Charles Stewart Mott and MacArthur foundations, and the Pew Charitable Dust.

Did the media do what might be considered their job and ask the NCC to substantiate its claims of a crisis? No, they parroted the NCC's febrile claim that a conspiracy was afoot because of "similarities in a number of burnings, including the use of Molotov cocktails and other incendiary devices, the spray-painting of racist graffiti and racist notes and letters left in mailboxes of pastors."

Other private organizations saw the wagon go by and leapt aboard. Among many private funds established, NationsBank, headquartered in Charlotte, N.C., has offered a $500,000 reward for information leading to convictions in church-arson cases. Even the Christian Coalition, smarting from blame heaped upon it by the Rev. Al Sharpton and other able polemicists, promised to raise $1 million to help rebuild churches burned by arsonists. But so much for the petty cash; the real loot was in the federal safe.

It was an odd couple that provided the combination to that repository. Sens. Lauch Faircloth, a North Carolina Republican, and Edward M. Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat, usually regarded as fierce antagonists, responded to the headlines by cosponsoring legislation making liberal government loans available for reconstruction, increasing penalties and funding more investigators. …