The opening sentence of a Monday Daily Beast story shows just how instinctively the media work to protect a politically useful narrative.
"During two separate occasions on Monday afternoon," wrote the Beast's Justin Baragona, "Fox News anchors Shepard Smith and Neil Cavuto had to dump out of interviews after their guests wildly speculated and parroted conspiracy theories that the blaze that suddenly destroyed much of the historic Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris was an intentionally malicious act."
Baragona is correct in that Smith and Cavuto both rudely dumped out on their guests. I suspect only Cavuto "had to," likely on orders from above. Smith would not have needed much prompting.
Baragona turned propagandist, however, when he claimed the guests "wildly speculated and parroted conspiracy theories." In fact, both guests extrapolated from an undeniable pattern of vandalism plaguing churches in France.
"You need to know that for the past years, we've had churches desecrated each and every week all over France," French politico Philippe Karsenty told Smith. "Of course, you will hear the story of the politically – the political correctness, which will tell you it's probably an accident."
On this score, Karsenty was spot on. The media were insisting the fire was an accident while the church was still burning. This was wild speculation. It can sometimes take weeks for inspectors to ferret out the cause of a house fire, let alone a cathedral.
In some circumstances, however, the media rush to the scene of a fire to fan the flames of conspiracy, never more outrageously than in the presidential election year of 1996.
That year, the NAACP sent a letter to Bill Clinton's attorney general, Janet Reno, asking her to investigate what the Washington Post innocently described as "a string of suspicious fires at predominantly black churches."
In one charred Tennessee church police allegedly found racial slurs spray-painted on the walls. "For many people," said the Postreporter, "the attacks conjured up dark memories of the most violent days of the civil rights movement."
The two groups pushing this story from the beginning were both hard-left, the National Council of Churches (NCC) and the Center for Democratic Renewal (CDR).
To give the story legs, they held a joint press conference in March 1996 at which they released a report on the "huge increase" in black church burnings. "You're talking about a well-organized white-supremacist movement," claimed the Rev. Mac Charles Jones, a CDR board member.
From there, the story took wing, generating more than 2,000 articles in the next three months, including three huge layouts on consecutive days in USA Today, a two-page spread in the New York Times and incendiary headlines like the following from the New York Daily News: "Flames of Hate: Racism Blamed in Shock Wave of Church Burnings."
The good guys in the Daily News story were, of course, the CDR and the NCC. Readers learned that these two groups had put aside their radical activism for a moment to team up for the "investigation."
Said CDR program director Rose Johnson none too subtly of the alleged suspects, "Every arrest has been of a white male, age 15 to 45."
As the church burning saga unfolded, it became increasingly clear which specific targets the CDR and the NCC hoped to brand. "There's only a slippery slope between conservative religious persons and those that are really doing the burning," said the Rev. C.T. Vivian, the CDR's chairman.
Although President Clinton admitted to uncertainty as to whether the church burnings were a national conspiracy, he assured a national radio audience that "racial hostility" was the driving force behind the outbreak. This was an election year after all.
A month after Clinton's radio address, Fred Bayles of the Associated Press reported his agency's analysis of six years of federal, state and local data.
What Bayles and colleagues discovered was that there had been more fires at predominantly white churches in the South than black churches, that the totals for 1996 were within the normal range, that the numbers of fires had dropped off considerably since 1980, and that there was "no evidence ... of a conspiracy or of a general climate of hatred."
The suspects included both blacks and whites, insurance scammers, devil worshipers, drunken teenagers and even bored firefighters.
Unfortunately, the media were not inclined to un-tell the dramatic story they had been telling all spring and summer.
Reporter Michael Fumento, who helped expose the fraud in the Wall Street Journal and elsewhere, asked whether it was "too much to expect any of the pundits and public figures who seized on the CDR's report as a vehicle for scoring points against their political opponents to register the fact that it was in essence a fabrication."
Apparently, it was too much. The New York Times, for instance, mentioned the church burnings in more than 100 stories but declined to mention the fact-checking done by the Associated Press, the Wall Street Journal, or any other responsible party.
So the narrative stood through November. Racist church burners were still terrorizing black America. Church burners and conservative Republicans were cut from the same white sheets.
And all that stood between the terrorized Southern blacks and the Republican nightriders was their stalwart Democratic president. He was duly re-elected.
In the burning of Notre Dame, there are only two real possibilities – accident and arson. If the latter proves true, the pompiers of the global media will work overtime to put out that story before it has a chance to spread.