I like reading about hate crime: It is such a cheering feature of American life. And while I am always happy to see the excellent news about this kind of offense—ever-rising numbers, more and more crimes in ever-broader areas of the country—I wish we could get those statistics even higher. The reasons for mv satisfaction should be obvious. In 1950 or 1900, very few people cared about the acts that today we call “hate crime.” While many did agonize over the enduring curse of lynch law, nobody paid serious attention to the countless acts of petty malice directed against other racial or religious groups, the sort of graffiti and name-calling that today swells our hate-crime statistics. As society became ever more sensitive to these hostilities, the number of attacks and insults declined steeply, and for the first time, it became politically conceivable to count these events. The more hostile society becomes toward intolerance, the higher the statistics for recorded hate crimes, which thus become an excellent barometer for inter-group tolerance and general civility. I like hate crime for the same reason that I like child abuse: The less frequently it occurs, the more we see it, and the very fact that we are counting it means it is declining.

The virtues of hate-crime figures seem so obvious that it is hard to believe anyone could take them negatively, but of course, some do. Whenever the mass media report on hate crime, it is always in tones of affected shock and horror, and usually in ludicrously overheated terms—the figures represent an epidemic of hate, hate crimes are spiraling out of control, and so on. If the federal government records ten percent more hate crimes than a couple of years ago, this means that, well, there is ten percent more hatred. Logically, then, back in the 1950’s, when the number of recorded hate crimes was zero, there was no hatred, and we all lived in the terrestrial paradise. A moment’s thought should put that deduction in its proper context.

If we believe the media, then at the start of the new millennium, after decades of civil rights and affirmative-action legislation, race relations in the United States are getting ever worse—worse than the times of lynching and segregation, worse than the bloody riots of 1919 or 1967: We are living through an epidemic of hate. The whole idea is so bizarre as to raise doubts about the sanity, or at least the integrity, of the news organs presenting such a picture; Just walk down your street, look around at your place of work, and you will know it is not true. And yet the overblown coverage of hate crimes is of a piece with how the newspapers and the television news programs represent race relations in this country: as a viper’s nest of seething racism and barely restrained white violence. In short, if your view of racial conditions in modern America is utterly wrong, quite tainted at even’ point, then you must have been following the mass media.

One noteworthy example of the media’s hair-trigger response on racism was the church arson non-crisis which occurred during the spring and summer of 1996. The story can be told simply enough. Early in that year, fires occurred at a number of predominantly black churches, mainly in the South, and by March, media reports were construing the discrete incidents as part of a national wave of attacks by hate groups: There was almost certainly a national conspiracy, probably involving the Ku Klux Klan. Within a week or two, the stow had developed such powerful legs that the network television news predictably began each evening with Dan Rather or one of his clones standing grim-faced in a field somewhere announcing the latest day’s outrages. Deval Patrick, the assistant attorney general for civil rights, described the burnings as “an epidemic of terror.” At this critical juncture, the U.S. Congress demonstrated its courageous leadership by unanimously passing the Church Arson Prevention Act: Imagine going on record with a vote against that one!

Newspaper headlines consistently portrayed the attacks as symptoms of social crisis and, frankly, of white malfeasance. The San Francisco Chronicle headlined, “Racism’s Spark Glows in Church Ashes” (July 16, 1996), while the Washington Post noted that “Church Fires Said to Reflect Racial Tension; Problem Deep-Rooted, Rights Agency Asserts” (October 10, 1996). The Seattle Post-Intelligencer ran a cartoon showing an arsonist escaping the black church he has just torched, while the flames throw a vast shadow of the culprit, whose head sprouts prominent horns. The New York Times remarked, “As arson cases mount, the burning of Southern black churches causes outrage and recalls a violent past” (June 23, 1996). Another Times columnist asked, as “church after church in the south has been destroyed by fire . . . I ask my father across the void, who will put out the flames now. Dad? Where can we go now to be safe?” How, indeed, could any black person be safe when every white had murder in his heart, if not genocide? This was pretty much the lesson of the farcically melodramatic film Rosewood, which was released shortly afterward.

The story culminated with the mass arrests and reeducation of all the people who were practicing hatred in the great republic, whereupon there dawned a new age of peace and justice: As the children of the future played together free of prejudice or intolerance, only very old people recalled a bleak time when people had been judged by anything less than the content of their character, or when so vile an implement of hatred as a “gun” had been owned by a private citizen. The previous sentence is entirely bogus, but it is scarcely more improbable than anything else in this unhappy story, with all its images of shadowy demon figures assailing the community in the night: Remember the medieval notion of Jews poisoning the wells?

Everything about the church arson story was concocted. Of course, black churches were burning in 1996, as were white churches and Chinese churches, Korean-owned convenience stores, and Latino gas stations. There is no evidence that churches were more likely to be the targets of arson than hitherto, nor that congregations of any particular ethnic hue were victimized more than any other. In fact, arson is a very distinctive crime, in that perpetrators normally share certain characteristics in a way that is not true, for instance, of robbery. It is very often an internal crime: Buildings or institutions are frequently targeted by people who are involved in a particular community—white church fires are usually set by whites, black churches are burned by blacks. In examining any church arson, the first suspect would generally be a member of that congregation; the second focus of suspicion would invariably be a local volunteer fireman, since this line of work so notoriously attracts firebugs—ask any cop.

Arson is rarely associated with political violence or terrorism, but is commonly the work of disturbed offenders suffering from some degree of personality disorder. Incidentally, these are just die sort of individuals likely to respond enthusiastically to a publicity’ wave by committing copycat attacks: Did the media realize that their barrage of nonsense might create a self-fulfilling prophecy?

Even if the arson attacks were racially motivated, a national conspiracy remained wildly unlikely, since groups like the Klan’s Invisible Empire have long been so heavily penetrated by law enforcement. Remember the old joke that Germany would never have a revolution because the police would not grant the permit? It is equally improbable that the FBI would ever permit the rightist bands which it controls so tightly to unleash the racial holy war for which the militants yearn so passionately. In any event, the arrests made in connection with the various church fires were extremely diverse: While a handful of culprits were Klansmen, the vast majority had no political ties whatever, and a good number were black. Some offenders, too, were certainly acting for financial motives, using the social panic to collect insurance claims. There was no evidence of any conspiracy, or at least nothing which went beyond a single town or county.

Why did the media easily buy into the conspiracy story? Do reporters just grasp at dramatic and emotive stories regardless of political content, or do they demonstrate a consistent partisan bias, on the lines we have come to expect from hate-crime stories? On the surface, the arson conspiracy narrative was appealing, with its images of vicious terrorists attacking innocent citizens by violating cherished places of worship, but it was not necessarily any more attractive than a dozen other conspiracy stories in recent years which were far better substantiated, and which the media had successfully buried. It still defies belief that, of all the skeletons in the Clintons’ political closet in Arkansas, the media spent their time on the trivial issues of bimbos and $50,000 land deals, while ignoring the abundant evidence that Clinton cronies were dealing drugs, running weapons, and generally operating the Arkansas state government as a crime syndicate. Of course, the media would not be gullible enough to accept wild conspiracy theories peddled by special-interest groups: Reporters were far too busy hunting down the countless legions of hooded night-riders wandering the country to burn black churches. I am sure we have all met them on the roads some dark night.

The theory of deliberate media bias gains some confirmation from the timing of the initial charges which detonated the panic, coming as they did so conveniently before the 1996 presidential campaign: It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that some media outlets were running the story to generate support for liberal and Democratic causes, while other sources were drawn into the hysteria. The arson panic also meshed well with the media’s last foray into creating national menaces, namely, the great militia scare of the previous summer. During 1995, newspapers and television news programs had triumphantly hammered home the idea that all conservative and “anti-government” activists were more or less overtly connected with ultra-right paramilitary groups. Only a week after the Oklahoma City bombing, the ineffable Bryant Gumbel declared that the attack “has focused renewed attention on the rhetoric that’s been coming from the right and those who cater to angry white men.” (One of Gumbel’s more recent contributions to political theory is his division of Americans into two camps: “liberals” and “racists.”) The church arson scare made the threat a still more palpable reality by linking conservatives or anti-Clintonites to outright brutality against the poor and minorities. “You don’t believe in affirmative action? You think Clinton is a crook? You support the Republican Congress? Those are just the extremist ideas which are burning churches in Georgia today.” However outrageous the linkage sounds, enough people may have bought it to swing elections in both 1996 and 1998.

The media’s use of the non-story of church arsons would be harrowing enough if it were an isolated occurrence, but it is not, and many subsequent incidents have demonstrated the same degree of credulous stupidity, the same tendency to leap to assumptions of white guilt and conservative malice, the same habit of presenting minorities as ever subject to threats of white violence. The issue of affirmative action produces prize examples of such bias. In virtually every opinion poll, large majorities reject the ideas of preferential status or provisions for any ethnic group, and African-Americans are well represented among opponents. This may explain why the electronic media in particular so often report the issue in terms which are not just loaded but thoroughly distorted, and which present the exact opposite of the truth. Instead of “ending racial preferences,” die headlines report on conservative attempts to “end diversity,” “reverse anti-discrimination policies,” “attack equal opportunity,” and so on: CNN is an egregious offender in this regard. Somewhere along the line, the media unquestioningly accepted the puzzling principle that “diversity” is a synonym for affirmative action, and that ending the latter imperils the former: Advocates of color-blind policies thus become “foes of diversity.” Always finely attuned to white liberal sentiment, the NAACP’s Kweisi Mfume even argued that affirmative-action policies needed to be augmented as an effective way of stemming the tide of church burnings.

No wonder that consumers of news believe that anti-affirmative action policies are intended to purge minorities from the faculty or student bodies of colleges, or to begin a new era of segregation; nor is it surprising that students demonstrating in favor of affirmative action wave placards asserting, “We won’t go back.” I will pay them the compliment of believing that their fears are quite genuine, that they really believe that nothing but a Justice Department under liberal Democratic control prevents the reintroduction of Jim Crow, enforced by systematic lynching, arson, and anti-black violence. Such a nightmare vision is so inexplicably out of tune with reality, so phantasmagoric, that it seems almost to derive from one of those reality-distorting concoctions with a puzzling acronym, like LSD or PCP. More probably, though, victims have been deceived by a more accessible form of pernicious mind candy, one with initials like NPR, NYT, or CNN.