‘Knockout Game’ first news trend the New York Times doesn’t believe?

Tim Cavanaugh Contributor
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America’s newspaper of record, which eagerly reported on bogus trends in church burnings, the looming bee extinction and other subjects, doubts the “knockout game” is a thing.

The New York Times has discovered that the media panic over the “knockout game” — in which primarily black youths engage in random, violent, racist attacks against mostly white victims — is just a product of “fear sown by reports” that “may have racial roots.”

In “‘Knockout Game’ a Spreading Menace or a Myth,” an A section story from Saturday’s paper, reporter Cara Buckley, with help from two other credited journalists, reports that “police officials in several cities where such attacks have been reported said that the ‘game’ amounted to little more than an urban myth, and that the attacks in question might be nothing more than the sort of random assaults that have always occurred.”

The Grey Lady is almost certainly on solid ground with its “knockout game” skepticism. Many if not most journalistic trend pieces turn out to be phantasms, and nearly all are less probative than they initially seem.

However, the paper’s record on other seeming trends is an unbroken tissue of credulous reporting about alarming phenomena that did not stand up to close scrutiny.

In “The Cost of Not Preventing Crack Babies” from October 10, 1991, the Times editorial board declared congressional inaction on the “obvious moral case for government funding of drug treatment for pregnant addicts” to be “inexcusable.” The Times newsroom followed suit.

“The children currently attending early elementary school are the oldest of an emerging generation of so-called crack babies,” Times reporter Priscilla Van Tassel typed on January 5, 1992, “born when the drug first hit the streets in the mid-1980’s, and they are causing major instructional and financial problems.”

As the “crack baby” scare withered for lack of evidence, the Times, along with most other media, lost interest. With 21st century hindsight, the paper revisited the Reagan/Bush era moral panic in a January 2009 story entitled “Crack Babies – The Epidemic That Wasn’t,” an analytical piece that ignored how stories like the Times’ own “Schools Trying to Cope With ‘Crack Babies'” contributed to the needless hysteria.

When other fake trends failed to pan out, the Times simply stopped reporting on them.

At the height of the late-’90s church-burning trend story — which posited an uptick in arson attacks on black churches — the Times’ impeccably named Fox Butterfield reported that a particular fire had been transfigured into “the clash between the Old South and the New, between segregation and greater racial harmony.”

The epidemic of church burnings in the south did not occur. During a 45-month period studied by the Justice Department’s National Church Action Task Force, 607 church fires, slightly fewer than 15 per month, were investigated in the United States. During this same period, the National Fire Protection Association reported [pdf] a total of 7,525 fires in religious properties and funeral homes, meaning suspicious fires accounted for just 8 percent of the total. There is no evidence that this percentage was higher than usual, and considerable reason to believe it was lower. Journalist Michael Fumento, for example, cites NFPA statistics indicating that 1980 saw 1,420 church arsons. That would be 40 percent of the 3,500 church fires the association reported that year.

More to the point, 1995, the first year of the church burning trend, actually saw the lowest number of church fires — 1,900 — since the NFPA had begun keeping church-fire statistics in 1980. That figure crept up in 1996, then steadily declined, reaching its lowest point of 1,700 church fires nationwide in 2002.

Tellingly, this decline roughly matched the decline in structure fires overall. According to NFPA statistics, the number of structure fires went down 45 percent overall from 1980 to 1996, while the number of church fires went down 37 percent. Structure fires have been dropping since at least 1977, when NFPA began keeping structure-fire statistics. Following a minuscule off-trend spike in both data sets in the 1995/1996 period, both returned to a long-term decline that dates to the Carter administration and continues to this day.

The National Church Action Task Force quietly closed up its church-burning investigation in 1998, declaring, “We are pleased to report that the number of church arsons is down” — i.e., that church arsons were continuing a long-term decline that was by then already reaching its third decade.

Fox Butterfield went on to trend-story immortality in a series of articles claiming it was a “paradox” that national crime rates were declining while prison populations were increasing. Butterfield’s puzzlement, embodied in the 1997 headline “Crime Keeps on Falling, but Prisons Keep on Filling,” gave name to the “Butterfield Effect,” which describes obviously ludicrous statements that reveal the speaker’s true beliefs.

But even soft news trends get respectful coverage from the Times. The widely hyped Cronut Craze recently moved the Times’ Florence Fabricant to whip up a multicentury history of the croissant. (The Times also employs a Geraldine Fabrikant. Draw your own conclusions.)

More recently the Times has given non-skeptical coverage to the esoteric panic over declining bee populations, in articles such as “Honeybees Vanish, Leaving Keepers in Peril,” “Mystery Malady Kills More Bees, Heightening Worry on Farms” and “Bees’ Decline Linked to Pesticides, Studies Find.”

In fact, United Nations statistics clearly demonstrate that bee populations have been increasing throughout the 21st century.

Bees are mulitplying. (

The Times of New York also shows notable faith in global warming theory, to the point of publishing barely sourced articles that are essentially transcriptions of alarmist publications. This shockingly unspecific  November 1 report by Justin Gillis simply paraphrases a paper from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, predicting rampant hunger as a result of rising global temperatures.

More broadly, the Times gave full credence to U.S. government claims about Iraq’s non-existent weapons of mass destruction, to the Soviet government’s denials of widespread famine in the USSR in the 1930s, and to subsequently disbarred Durham County, NC District Attorney Mike Nifong’s campaign against the Duke University lacrosse team. (Related: Duke lacrosse rape accuser found guilty of second-degree murder)

When the Times painstakingly revisited the bogus reporting of its former high-profile reporter Jayson Blair in 2003, the paper found its credibility to have sunk so low that some of the subjects of Blair’s falsehoods, such as Marine Lance Cpl. James Klingel, had actually read the Times’ reporting but had not bothered to complain — almost as if ordinary Americans had come to expect overt fabrications in the newspaper of record.

According to a journalistic rule of thumb, three examples of any phenomenon are enough to constitute a trend.

“If there ever was an urban myth, this was it,” a Jersey City police spokesman told the Times’ Buckley when asked about the knockout game.

As of this writing, the Times board has not published an editorial making the “moral case for government funding” to stop the knockout game.

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