*On the morning of August 5, a 40 year-old man armed with a semiautomatic pistol entered an Oak Creek, Wisconsin temple belonging to Sikhs-a religion that believes there is one God, that all humanity is one, that religious divisions are man made, and who welcome all–and started shooting.
By the time he was stopped–wounded by a Wisconsin policeman before turning his gun on himself-he’d killed six people and wounded four, including a responding officer.
Based on the evidence, the man was a white supremacist whose only problem with those he killed was that they didn’t look and think like him.
The murders came just 16 days after a lone gunman shot up an Aurora, Colorado movie theater during a midnight showing of the Batman film, “The Dark Knight Rises,” killing 12 and leaving 58 injured. Like that horrific shooting, the Sikh temple incident was covered by the national media.
However, unlike Aurora, not only did news coverage of the Sikh killings lack urgency and depth; inside of a week, coverage had pretty much dwindled to nothing: no deluge of on-air pundits pondering the shooter’s motives; few arguments regarding gun control; very little investigative reporting on who the shooter was or the “white power” organizations he purportedly belonged to; a minuscule amount of information on the Sikh religion and what it’s about.
No celebrity tweets regarding the horror (either I missed it or the usually ubiquitous Ashton Kutcher was uncharacteristically mum); no public outrage from Sean Penn. None of that. Today, you’d never know the temple shooting even happened.
Meanwhile, almost a month after it happened, focus on the Aurora shooting continues, and rightly so–whatever facilitates our emotional healing and sheds light on why anyone would commit such an act is important and necessary. Unlike the Sikh temple shooting, in the case of both Aurora and last year’s Tucson, Arizona shooting–which left six dead and 13 wounded, including U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords, who continues to recover–the suspects are alive and their criminal cases are in the spotlight, another reason the cases continue to make headlines.
However, if you ask why, by comparison, the Sikh temple murders have received so little attention, the answer is simple: the victims weren’t white.
It’s true. Add to this the fact that those attacked were from a culture and religion that most Americans know very little, if anything about, and you’ve got media coverage that is cursory at best.
While this appears to be a rather transparent reason for the lack of coverage, it’s real, and it’s nothing new. The press has long given less attention to the plight of nonwhites.
The most simplistic example of this is something called (and I’m not making this up) Missing White Women Syndrome (MWWS)–the formal study of vastly imbalanced reporting by television, radio, newspaper and magazines of missing persons who are young, white and female, compared to those who are nonwhite. Both the American and European press is filled with continuing coverage of missing girls and women who happen to be white, while cases of nonwhite women, boys and men are covered marginally, if at all.
Don’t take my word for it, look into it. Better yet, right now, think: how many cases of missing or murdered white females you can you immediately come up with, compared to people of color? Perhaps Natalee Holloway, the teenager who disappeared in Aruba in 2005 and whose body was never found, comes to mind. Or the heartbreaking story of Caylee Anthony.
Or any number of incidents the morning TV “news” shows cover of little girls and women who disappear from their beds–or cruise ship cabins overnight or who allegedly just upped and left home or work and simply vanished. I watch news coverage of these cases and wonder what became of these people.
But I also wonder what happened to Mitrice Richardson. The attractive, black 24 year-old disappeared on Sept. 17, 2009, after walking out of a Lost Hills/Malibu sheriff’s station in Calabasas, California shortly after midnight. Later said to be bipolar, she had been arrested for not paying for a dinner she ate alone at Geoffrey’s restaurant in Malibu. Her car had been impounded that night and in it were her cell phone and purse.
According to law enforcement, Richardson was released a few hours after her arrest, on her own–in the middle of the night, in the middle of nowhere, many miles from where she lives–and never heard from again. The local L.A. press initially covered her disappearance and then left it alone until, almost a year later, when human remains determined to be Richardson were found in a remote area of the desolate Malibu Canyon area, just south of the sheriff’s station. How she died remains a mystery. There have been no arrests.
Regarding the Sikh temple shooting, I have wondered: where is our collective outrage for the pellucid discrepancy in media coverage? Whatever happened to the idea that if one of us suffers, we all suffer?
My guess is for us to truly give a national damn, something heinous has to go down at the Baptist church or the synagogue, during mass, at the mall or at the country hoe-down. As for Sikhs or anyone else we don’t know much about, well, they’re just on their own.
Steven Ivory, journalist and author of the essay collection Fool In Love (Simon & Schuster), has covered popular culture for magazines, newspapers, radio and TV for more than 30 years. Respond to him via [email protected]