Knockdown games, bigoted receipts, and self-inflicted HIV
There’s a coincidental, but illuminating, confluence of “media mythology” stories at the moment. The first concerns a series of claims by wait staff that hateful, bigoted customers stiffed them for tips and wrote awful things on the receipt. First there was a waitress at a Red Lobster in Tennessee who claimed her customer wrote the N-word on a receipt, a story that gained national attention and led to her collecting over $10,000 in donations from sympathetic and/or outraged people across the country. Her story is almost certainly a hoax, based on handwriting analysis, the testimony of the allegedly offensive customer, and other data.
The new “wronged waitress” saga also appears to be a hoax. A gay waitress in New Jersey claimed she got no tip for a sizable bill. The customer supposedly wrote “I’m sorry, but I cannot tip because I do not agree with your lifestyle” on the receipt. After an initial burst of media hysteria, and another wave of sympathy donations from far and wide, it was determined from credit card records that a hefty tip was indeed left on the bill, and the customers are not only former restaurant employees who always leave good tips, they’re also gay marriage supporters. They evidently made an innocuous comment based on the name of the waitress that someone in the restaurant either interpreted as offensive, or saw as a good opportunity for a fresh “bigoted receipt” hoax. The waitress – a former Marine who has donated much of her windfall to the Wounded Warrior project – might well have been deceived along with everyone else, because some of the restaurant staff has been acting suspiciously under media scrutiny.
In both cases, social media firestorms erupted over stories that inflamed certain passions and fulfilled certain expectations. The narratives were too good to check. But the press is suddenly very interested in “debunking” the Knockdown Game, building off a hysterical piece in Slate that alleges – based on nothing more than the deep-seated ideological convictions of the author – that the rash of random, racially-charged attacks can’t possibly be happening.
This Knockdown Game knockdown has to be one of the most bizarre media obsessions ever. It’s an objective fact that the game is happening – even the “debunking” pieces admit it! – but they’re trying to literally wish it out of existence, presumably because they don’t like the commentary it’s attracting from conservatives. Thomas Sowell wrote about it last week:
The way the game is played, one of a number of young blacks decides to show that he can knock down some stranger on the streets, preferably with one punch, as they pass by. Often some other member of the group records the event, so that a video of that “achievement” is put on the Internet, to be celebrated.
The New York authorities describe a recent series of such attacks and, because Jews have been singled out in these attacks, are considering prosecuting these assaults as “hate crimes.”
Many aspects of these crimes are extremely painful to think about, including the fact that responsible authorities in New York seem to have been caught by surprise, even though this “knockout game” has been played for years by young black gangs in other cities and other states, against people besides Jews — the victims being either whites in general or people of Asian ancestry.
Attacks of this sort have been rampant in St. Louis. But they have also occurred in Massachusetts, Wisconsin and elsewhere. In Illinois the game has often been called “Polar Bear Hunting” by the young thugs, presumably because the targets are white.
As Sowell points out, the media has long suppressed stories of the Knockdown Game and resisting efforts at building a “narrative” about an ugly nationwide phenomenon, which makes the “new” wave of incidents in New York seem surprising:
Sometimes the attacks are reported, but only as isolated attacks by unspecified “teens” or “young people” against unspecified victims, without any reference to the racial makeup of the attackers or the victims — and with no mention of racial epithets by the young hoodlums exulting in their own “achievement.”
Despite such pious phrases as “troubled youths,” the attackers are often in a merry, festive mood. In a sustained mass attack in Milwaukee, going far beyond the dimensions of a passing “knockout game,” the attackers were laughing and eating chips, as if it were a picnic. One of them observed casually, “white girl bleed a lot.”
That phrase — “White Girl Bleed A Lot” — is also the title of a book by Colin Flaherty, which documents both the racial attacks across the nation and the media attempts to cover them up, as well as the local political and police officials who try to say that race had nothing to do with these attacks.
Chapter 2 of the 2013 edition is titled, “The Knockout Game, St. Louis Style.” So this is nothing new, however new it may be to some in New York, thanks to the media’s political correctness.
Mark Steyn notes there have been crippling injuries and fatalities from the Knockout Game:
Speaking of appetite, have you played the “Knockout” game yet? Groups of black youths roam the streets looking for a solitary pedestrian, preferably white (hence the alternate name “polar-bearing”) but Asian or Hispanic will do. The trick is to knock him to the ground with a single punch.
There’s a virtually limitless supply of targets: In New York, a 78-year-old woman was selected, and went down nice and easy, as near-octogenarian biddies tend to when sucker-punched. But, when you’re really rockin’, you can not only floor the unsuspecting sucker but kill him: That’s what happened to 46-year-old Ralph Santiago of Hoboken, N.J., whose head was slammed into an iron fence, whereupon he slumped to the sidewalk with his neck broken. And anyway the one-punch rule is flexible: In upstate New York, a 13-year-old boy socked 51-year-old Michael Daniels but with insufficient juice to down him. So his buddy threw a bonus punch, and the guy died from cerebral bleeding.
Widely available video exists of almost all Knockout incidents, since the really cool thing is to have your buddies film it and upload it to YouTube. And it’s so simple to do in an age when every moronic savage has his own “smart phone.”
Perpetrators have been busted for these assaults, and have talked to police and reporters about the mixture of bored youth, random cruelty, and racism that inspires the “game.” But evidently a few left-wingers have decided none of this is actually happening, video evidence be damned, leading to the utterly insane cascade of narrative disintegration typified by this USA Today article:
According to reports by CNN, the Today show, this news organization and others, the game takes place when a young person randomly assaults a stranger in an attempt to knock them out with one punch.
But police officials in several cities where the attacks have been reported say the knockout game is an urban myth, and that attacks that have received recent attention in the media have been random assaults, the New York Times is reporting.
“We’re trying to determine whether or not this is a real phenomenon,” the news organization quotes New York police commissioner Raymond Kelly as saying. “I mean, yes, something like this can happen. But we would like to have people come forward and give us any information they have.”
A column on Slate.com reports that while the game does exist, there is no hard data to support the notion that it is a growing trend that has reached epidemic levels. It also refutes the suggestion by some news organizations that some of the attacks have been racially motivated.
The Slate piece makes reference to another piece on the patheos.com website that says, “Nobody seems to have any evidence that it’s spreading, or that it’s new, or that it’s racially motivated.”
The piece continues, “Most sources claim that it is spreading, and a number of sources claim that it is racially motivated. But how do they know? Where are they getting their data from?”
In New York, reports appear to have blossomed in recent weeks. Two weeks ago, a 78-year-old woman reported she was punched in the head, the Times reports.
So USA Today – whose own reporting confirms the existence and alarming popularity of the Knockout Game – takes seriously the assertion of a few liberal websites that it’s all an “urban myth,” which is itself a headline-grabbing bit of myth-making very different from asking reasonable questions about how widespread it has become, or whether some of the reports have been sensationalized. The same article makes it clear that it is spreading. ”Where are they getting their data from?” asks the writer at Slate. Well, they’re getting it from the “blossoming” number of people who have been punched in the back of the head.
But somebody at Patheos made an assertion, and somebody else at Slate repeated that assertion, so inconvenient reality becomes “myth.” The Slate piece was entitled, “Sorry, conservative media, the ‘Knockout Game’ trend is a myth.” Al Sharpton and Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, who have both denounced the Knockout Game in recent days, will be surprised to learn they’re part of the “conservative media.” Reverend Al didn’t exactly jump on this right after watching one Fox News report and blowing a gasket.
Then we have an odd little bit of debunking and de-debunking from the World Health Organization, which made a rather sensational claim that was later dismissed as a typo… sort of. From the New York Times:
A claim by the World Health Organization that “about half” of new H.I.V. cases in Greece are “self-inflicted” as a way to get state benefit payments spread like wildfire on social media Monday, leading to headlines everywhere from the Daily Mail to the Drudge Report. The conservative American commentator Rush Limbaugh weighed in, saying the story shows “what the welfare state does to people.”
But on Tuesday morning, the W.H.O. and the group that produced the report conceded that the H.I.V. claim was not true.
“There is no evidence of people in Greece or anywhere else in Europe deliberately infecting themselves,” said Martin Donoghoe, a spokesman for the W.H.O. He said the claim was the result of an editing error.
It’s hardly the fault of the Daily Mail, Drudge Report, Rush Limbaugh, et al that they accurately quoted, and commented upon, a spectacular assertion from the World Health Organization. It’s not as if they could jet off to Greece and conduct their own flash survey of HIV infections to double-check WHO’s work. So what happened here, World Health authorities, and what’s really going on with self-inflicted HIV cases in Greece?
It was part of a single sentence on page 112 of the World Health Organization’s European region report, which was released on Oct. 30. And it was startling.
“H.I.V. rates and heroin use have risen significantly, with about half of new H.I.V. infections being self-inflicted to enable people to receive benefits of €700 per month and faster admission on to drug substitution programmes,” the report said.
The report was produced by the Institute of Health Equity at University College London and overseen by Sir Michael Marmot, an epidemiologist. In response to questions from The New York Times, a spokeswoman for the Institute of Health Equity said Tuesday that the report should have said “about half of infections are due to needle injection, some of which is deliberate self-infection.”
The study cited a Lancet study that said that “a few” such cases had been found, though that study cited yet another report. It was not immediately clear if any such cases had been documented.
Wait a second… we just had WHO spokesman Martin Donoghoe saying “there is no evidence of people in Greece or anywhere else in Europe deliberately infecting themselves.” But now you say there is evidence of people doing that, just not the attention-grabbing fifty percent implied by the typo. Which, I must observe, does not even remotely resemble the revised sentence suggested by the spokeswoman for the Institute of Health Equity. So who at WHO am I going to be accused of being “anti-science” for disbelieving?
News isn’t just about “news,” data points reported as accurately as possible in a timely manner. It’s about context, narrative, and appeals to authority, all of which are highly susceptible to ideological prejudice.