Given the amount of ink — virtual and otherwise — flying around San Diego media-land these days, one might think that World War III had broken out at UCSD. The online NBC San Diego headline of February 19 blared, “Racial Tensions Boil at UCSD.” Similar headlines could be seen on the news websites of San Diego’s various other channels — 6, 8, and 10 — as well as on SignOnSanDiego, the Union-Tribune, and other local fonts of info. They showed the heat — but did they shed any light?
According to the dispatches coming from the usually sleepy campus, this exacerbation of tension (such as it existed) came about when a handful of black students learned of a black-themed, off-campus bash — dubbed the “Compton Cookout” by its hosts — which took place on February 13. Outraged by a ghetto-style costume party that they felt “mocked” Black History Month, a contingent of students launched into loud protests. When the Koala aired a show defending the party on the student-run campus television station, the protesters — ranks augmented by black “activists” from San Diego City College and other places — grew even more strident. Responding to pressure, the administration shut down the station, conducted a campus teach-in, and acceded to a laundry list of demands (including free tutoring) from the Black Student Union.
Before long, photos of angry black students, predictable condemnation from chancellor Marye Anne Fox and politicians, as well as tales of outrage and cries of insensitivity, racism, and stereotypes were all there, and then some. And after a noose was found hanging from a bookcase on the seventh floor of the Geisel Library, hundreds of black radicals and supporters were in no mood to celebrate Dr. Seuss’s birthday, preferring instead to stage a ’60s-style takeover of the chancellor’s office. (The ever-deferential Fox was forced out of her office for several hours but declined to call the police.) But despite — perhaps because of — the extensive local (not to mention national) coverage, neither the hard facts nor their implications have become clear. To that end, J.W. August, managing editor of Channel 10 news, says, “Tread carefully. Perhaps people are being played here.”
Whether or not local news organizations have been manipulated (willingly or otherwise), they seem to be playing fast and loose with the facts, at times “shading” their accounts to the cusp of distortion. To cite one example, several online articles gave the distinct impression that the Compton Cookout — characterized by a fulminating few as archly insensitive — was organized by, and attended solely by, UCSD Greeks. Pi Kappa Alpha, the frat singled out for withering charges of racism, while admitting that some of its members may have been involved in the off-campus event, stated that the Cookout was simply a theme party attended by some fraternity brothers, along with many others. That version was seconded by Perette Godwin, a reporter for KSWB Fox 5, who says that it remains murky just how many people attended the urban dress-up, where the much-maligned soiree was held, or even whether most of the partiers were actually UCSD students. (Godwin says that, from her journalistic perspective, it has been the furor over the party — and not the party itself — that has made this a compelling story.) Judging by their dispatches from the front, other local reporters have been much less circumspect.
Arguably, the missing details — omitted intentionally, it appears — constitute an even more egregious journalistic failure than the (somewhat) subtler shading. Those who dig a little deeper (or happen to read CityBeat or the Union-Tribune or listen to Roger Hedgecock’s show) may have discovered that the impresario of the Compton Cookout — the man who, arguably, has sullied the reputation of this seaside mecca for hard-core scientists, this nice, liberal University of California campus where hateful thoughts are banished to the most remote synapses — is BLACK! Yes, it’s true; even a cursory visit to his website — barring the most sinister of Photoshop alterations — reveals that the chap behind the party is certifiably African American, an internet comedian who calls himself “Jiggaboo Jones” and claims the title of “The Number One Nigger in America.” Yet neither R. Stickney nor Michelle Wayland — who posted stories online for NBC San Diego — deemed Jones’s name or race important enough to merit mention. Indeed, the duo reacted defensively when questioned about the omissions, as well as the (media-wide) use of the term “mock.” One might argue that “mock” implies something different from “lampoon,” “parody,” or “satirize,” more neutral terms that might have been used — but weren’t — to describe the February 13 party of newly minted lore. Perhaps it all comes down to the proverbial goring of oxen, but for his part, Jiggaboo is laughing all the way to the check-cashing store.
Jones and his website are nothing if not self-parody — an over-the-top celebration (some would say exploitation) of black, inner-city customs. Still, when he issued a YouTube response to the university and its fellow PC travelers, he seemed earnest enough; with tongue only partly in cheek, the otherwise affable Jones savaged the news media and the hypersensitive protesters. Defending the party-goers — the much-maligned fraternity, in particular — he said that the Cookout was, in essence, an innocent frolic whose primary purpose was to hype his latest DVD release.
Accusing local media of wielding the “race card” and making “something out of nothing,” Jones characterized the Cookout as a costume party for those seeking a small taste of life in the ’hood. “If you wasn’t black, you could be black…put some shoe polish on…be an honorary ‘N-word’ for the event.… It was not racist; there was nothing racist about it.… It was like Halloween but it wasn’t October.” Seemingly eager to fall on his sword, Jones also declared, “You want to blame somebody, blame me.… Don’t be gettin’ mad at these people that just had a good time.… Pi Kappa Alpha didn’t have nothin’ to do with that.… Get your facts straight.… To the news people, you know, you guys need to do a lot more fact-checking.… You trying to start a race riot.”