Making News Out of No News

For several weeks the news media was preoccupied with events in Egypt.  Once President Hosni Mubarak was ousted, there was little interest in popular uprisings in other parts of the Middle East.  That is, not until the Arab world’s number one thug, Muammar al-Gaddafi began using machine guns, airplanes, and foreign mercenaries to sweep the streets clean of all those who dared to make their voices heard.

Gaddafi apparently suffers from delusions of divinity, or at least the belief that he is a messenger from God.  Until recently he was considered one of the leading international terrorists.  After admitting responsibility for the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 in 1980, Gaddafi joined the ranks of Middle Eastern dictators who enjoy the status of America’s allies.

Whether or not Gaddafi will join Mubarak in exile is not yet clear.  Very little is coming out of Libya.  The government is attempting to cut off all contact with the outside world.  But in this age of internet technology, that is not easy to accomplish.  Vivid images of government terrorism are getting out.

The Arab world is aflame.  Hopefully, free people everywhere will take time off from their usual preoccupation with sporting events and reality TV shows to follow the unfolding events.  It would be really nice, if the half or more Americans who haven’t the vaguest idea where Libya, Bahrain, Algeria, Yemen, etc. are located would take out a world map and look them up.

 The people’s revolt in the Middle East is not, however, what I want to write about.  Rather, I want to focus on the creation of news after the public became bored with the images of masses of people in Tahrir Square demanding the ouster of President Mubarak.   For a couple of days, it seemed as though there wasn’t anything worthy of the news media’s attention, at least not anything that would help in the ongoing struggle for market share.

So where does a reporter find news, when there doesn’t appear to be any?  Easy.  Just focus the camera on Mississippi.  One can usually count on someone in the Magnolia state saying or doing something stupid.

Since the effort to replace Colonel Reb with Smokey the Bear on steroids as the mascot for the University of Mississippi was no longer important to anyone other than a few diehard alumni, the network news media chose to report on a proposed vanity license plate.  Here was another opportunity to make fun of Mississippi and Mississippians, especially since Governor Haley Barbour is being talked about as a possible GOP presidential candidate.

Mississippi currently offers its citizens around 100 vanity license plates.  Why offer yet another?  Well, why not?  The more choices there are the more revenue for state coffers.  All fifty states figured that out long ago.  What is so special about some group wanting the state to issue a few new vanity plates?

In this case the group making the proposal is none other than the Sons of the Confederacy.  They would like the state to offer a vanity plate honoring the Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest.  Now if it were Bobby Lee, Stonewall Jackson, Joe Johnson, or one of the other well known and respected Confederate generals that they wanted to honor, no one would be upset.  There would not be anything news worthy.  But Nathan Bedford Forrest is an altogether different animal.

I seriously doubt that more than a few Mississippians knew who Bedford Forrest was, that is, until the Sons of the Confederacy lifted his name from deserved obscurity.  Even fewer outside Mississippi would have been able to identify him, unless they were Civil War buffs or from Tennessee, Forest’s home state.

Forrest was not one of the Old South’s educated aristocrats.  He was a self-made, self-educated commoner—“poor white trash” in old Southern lingo.  He had many occupations, including riverboat captain, gambler, land speculator, plantation owner, and slave trader.  According to his obituary in the New York Times, “He was known to his acquaintances as a man of obscure origin and low associations, a shrewd speculator, negro trader, and duelist, but a man of great energy and brute courage” (October 30, 1877).

There appears to be ample grounds for believing that General Nathan Bedford Forrest was also a war criminal.  Most historians agree that Forrest was responsible for the massacre of around 600 Black Union soldiers and Southern Unionists at the Battle of Fort Pillow on April 12, 1864. 

After the Civil War ended, Forrest spent the rest of his life trying to explain away the massacre.  Well, not only that.  He was one of the founders of what is called the “First Ku Klux Klan” (1865-1874), to distinguish it from the later versions.  Forrest became the first Grand Wizard of the KKK in 1867. 

So, Nathan Bedford Forrest is a very controversial historical figure.  He was one of the most gifted generals of the Civil War, a fact acknowledged by both Union General William T. Sherman, and the Confederate General Joseph E. Johnson, who defended Atlanta during Sherman’s siege of that city.  But he was also a slave trader and a leader of the KKK. 

None of this would have been newsworthy, if it were not for the news media’s need for a sensational story in order to shore up ratings. 

At a recent news conference, when the reporters should have been asking Governor Barbour about his plans to seek the Republican nomination to run for president in 2012, or his struggle to balance the budget for the state of Mississippi, or any number of important issues, they asked him about whether or not he would repudiate the Nathan Bedford Forrest memorial license plate.  Suddenly the ongoing events in the Middle East, the war in Afghanistan, the economy, and other relevant topics were not as news worthy as Haley Barbour and a long dead and largely forgotten Confederate general.  No wonder our country is going down the tubes.

Until next time, be good to all God’s creation, and always live under the mercy.

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6 responses to “Making News Out of No News

  1. A sad commentary, to be sure. We continue to focus on minutia–so much easier than having to admit we don’t have a clue as to what we are doing or why we are doing it. Or worse yet, we don’t have the courage to deal with the weightier issues and do what is right. We are certainly in need of God’s mercy and grace, not to mention His forgiveness, as our country and culture continues it’s (not so gradual) slide into perdition. Thanks for the post.

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  2. Greatly appreciate this post, especially as a life-long resident of Mississippi except for a few years when I lived in the Middle East and Europe. Thanks.

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  3. Thanks for the reminder. Maybe we should just request plates that say “Christians Against Racism”? Or “Mississippians Against Racism”? Either way would make the point. And then we could concentrate on the persecuted around the world.

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  4. well said.
    only one caricature could rebound since you have been here long enough to be a voting citizen of Mississippi(in the sixth paragraph). There are enough out of staters putting MS down. We have work to do, I grant that, but lots of encouraging trends as well.

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    • I agree. In just the eighteen years that I have been living in Mississippi, there have been numerous positive changes. I was trying to say that the news should focus on important issues. To imply that because a group wants to have a vanity plate honoring Nathan Bedford Forrest, Mississippians are still fighting the Civil War is just wrong. I think that if a governor of any state is holding a news conference, the reporters should ask questions about his policies and/or political ambitions. Remember when someone asked President Clinton if he wore briefs or boxers? Many people are willfully ignorant of the “real” issues, unless it is something that hits them in the wallet–e.g., the price of gas.

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