News, Social Media, the Ku Klux Klan, and the Truth
Or how to make victims of the Ku Klux Klan
By Nate Thayer
January 24, 2017
On a remote stretch of a rural Mississippi county road in recent weeks, 5 people wearing masks tried to flag down passing motorists from a remote church parking lot and rob them, according to Union County, Mississippi Sheriff Jimmy Edwards and reported by local television and newspapers.
Although neither the Sheriff nor the news media mentioned it, the five who were arrested and charged with strong-arm robbery were all members of the North Mississippi White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan.
“The Union County Sheriff’s Office arrested members of a small gang that had been threatening motorists in the northeastern portion of rural Union County since early January,” wrote the New Albany Gazette newspaper last week. The “criminal actions involved men, faces partially covered with masks, trying to flag down and stop motorists”
The “assailants followed their intended victims for some distance in motor vehicles with the hazard lights flashing” wrote the paper.
The vision of masked Ku Klux Klansmen laying in wait on a rural Mississippi road is one that would, given the events of recent history, strike fear into the hearts of many.
The story metastasized on social media, assumptions turned into facts, and uncorroborated fiction was passed on as truth. Meanwhile no one had contacted the accused to hear their side of the story.
A simple rule of quality journalism is there are always two sides to every story, and one must never publish accusations without first making an effort to contact the accused and offer an opportunity of response, correction, and clarification.
Even the devil should not be misrepresented and should have the opportunity to confront his accusers.
Like always, the truth is often much less sexy. In this both wonderfully celebratory and equally disturbing digital age, the truth far too often takes a back seat to distributing rumors and sensationalist false stories by interested parties with a predetermined agenda. Once something is on the internet, the fact is it lives forever as truth in the minds of most.
Once a story gains traction, usually fueled by social media, there is no taking it back once the facts eventually emerge, as they often do, that the story contained falsehoods, omitted key facts, selectively emphasized and distorted aspects of the truth, or otherwise left readers with an understanding of events which were untrue or incomplete.
The truth is often far more mundane and less newsworthy than the stories that are written about events. If those whose reputations are affected by misrepresentation are average, essentially powerless people, there is very little that can be done to undue the damage or correct the record. Reputations are tarnished and corrections are rarely published, and even when they are, they are rarely read.
The damage has been done.
Within hours of the local newspaper and television reports on January 19, white nationalists from around the country re-posted the stories on Facebook and other social media, often accompanied by comments threatening violence against the five suspects charged with strong-arm robbery.
“Mr Chuck Edwards is nothing more than a thieving punk thug,” wrote a well know White Nationalist who uses the alias Windel Winkler who attached a news article of the incident on his Facebook page, adding the accused chose “not to get jobs but instead rob old white people…I’m sitting here with my blood boiling over these scum trying to jack an old white man.”
“I can see jacking some niggers up and taking their shit, but elderly white folks (even elderly black folks)!? There ain’t but one response to something like that,” added another White Nationalist John Cox.
But the truth is there was no “elderly white man” who was “robbed.” Nobody was robbed and man who was the alleged victim is in his twenties.
“And they did it at a church,” said another leader of the White Power movement John Jeremiah. “Like third world savages.”
But the fact is no one did anything “in a church”. The dispute took place in a gravel parking lot near a graveyard where there was no church.
“A good ole country ass whooping is what they need,” added Harlan Rampley.
“They need a Mississippi neck tie,” concluded Cox.
But even five days later no one had bothered to call the arrested suspects, Corey Grose, 19, of New Albany; Katie Broderick 26, of Saltillo; Chuck Edwards, 34, of Pleasant Ridge; Jeremy Smithey, 36, of Dumas; and William Page, 23, of Pleasant Ridge, all but one who voluntarily had turned themselves in and were released on bail.
I was sent a dozen messages about the arrests by various contacts across the country in the white nationalist movement who knew I have been researching this Ku Klux Klan faction of which the five were members, the North Mississippi White Knights, regarding an unrelated matter.
I had previously spoken with one of the arrested, Chuck Edwards, who is the Grand Dragon for Mississippi—or state leader—for the Klan faction, so I sent him a message: “Hey Chuck, What is the story behind your arrest in Union County a few days ago?” I asked. “I would like to hear your side of events if you would like to tell me.”
Edwards responded promptly: “How did you hear about it?” he asked.
“Several people messaged me about it. It was, of course, on the news, too,” I said.
“The story is simply not true,” he wrote back to me. “If you promise to write the truth, I will tell you everything.”
Edwards said he would call shortly. Meanwhile, I had already contacted the Union County Mississippi sheriff Jimmy Edwards and the reporter who wrote the story in the New Albany, Mississippi Gazette.
“For several weeks we received calls of people wearing masks attempting to flag down passing motorists near Mt Zion church in Pleasant ridge off highway 30,” Sheriff Edwards said in a telephone interview. “On Monday night they were able to lure a man into stopping at the church parking lot.”
Were you aware that these five you arrested were members of a KKK faction?” I asked him. “What kind of masks were they wearing? Were they Klan hoods.”
They “were not wearing hoods and robes. They were wearing masks and bandanas. This did not appear to have anything to do with the Klan,” said the sheriff.”I did not know of any connection they had with the Klan until after they were arrested.”
The sheriff added that “there were no weapons involved.”
The New Albany Gazette reporter also said he had heard no reference to anything related to the KKK. “This is the first I heard they were connected to the Klan,” he said. “I have been a reporter for 30 years and I was born in this county. The last time we had any Klan activity here was a couple of years ago when a small group appeared at the court-house steps and handed out leaflets, but they were from Georgia. We still don’t know why they came to our town.”
“This had nothing to do with the Klan,” said North Mississippi White Knights Grand Dragon Chuck Edwards, who was one of those arrested. “It had zero to do with anything political. It is being blown out of shape over Facebook and the internet.”
Edwards explained that the incident, according to him, was over a girl—his current girlfriend to be specific. He said she had been getting harassing phone calls from an ex boyfriend who would not take no for an answer. “All this went down within a mile of my house. Nobody was robbed. I didn’t touch anybody.”
Edwards did admit “we were trying to scare the guy, get him to stop harassing my girlfriend.”
One of the group demanded to see the former boyfriends ID, which was in his wallet and hence the robbery charge.
No money was alleged to have been taken and no one was alleged to have been assaulted.
Sheriff Edwards said the victim “was lured to the spot by a woman, 26-year-old Katie Lynn Broderick, who left the scene before the deputy arrived.”
That woman is the girlfriend in question.
The KKK Grand Dragon Chuck Edwards told me “I just want the truth out. I am getting death threats and this story is just out of control and not true.”
The truth often can be rather uninteresting. And often it is not news. And frequently no one comes out looking good after all the facts are available.
None of the five people arrested, one could argue, are poster boys for civic virtue.
But that is not the point. Neither are the news media, in this case, who failed in their job to report the full facts and provide an accurate picture of events to their readers and viewers.
And certainly neither are the white nationalist keyboard warriors who promoted and encouraged violence against people they insinuated were involved in an objectionable political act of intimidation and criminal activity.
The truth can be both uninteresting and not newsworthy.
But when non-news is made news then it is indeed newsworthy, even if it remains boring and uninteresting to a general audience.
When false news becomes newsworthy that, itself, is now important and newsworthy for other reasons.
Left in the dust and quickly forgotten are often the damaged reputations of innocent and falsely portrayed people, even those one may have profound disagreements with.
It is hard to blacken the reputation of the Ku Klux Klan. They have done a pretty good job of that themselves.
But in this case, social media has achieved a rare feat—making members of the KKK legitimate victims.
That fact in itself deserves pause and reflection.