By: Richard Prince, Journal-isms

A 22-year-old Black woman was abducted and tortured for weeks and locked in a basement in a suburb of Kansas City, Mo., by her account, while police and mainstream media dismissed Black concerns that a serial killer was targeting Black women and girls.

Four killings and three kidnappings were said to have occurred in the span of weeks. An upstart Black nonprofit newspaper took those fears seriously and publicized what it later called the actions of “a white supremacist who believed we are in a ‘race war.’ ” Mainstream media went with the police dismissals of the story.

“Even now, after it was clear that the white media outlets helped silence the Black community in this case, the white news outlets in our city continue to print exactly and parrot exactly what the police are saying,” Ryan Sorrell founder of the Kansas City Defender, said on “Democracy Now!”

“And so, really, it looks like already they have not learned anything at all from this situation. They continue to believe the police over the community and to continue to silence the community. And so, I think, once again, that’s standard journalistic practices, in many cases, for a lot of these local news outlets, for a lot of these white-owned news outlets.”

Timothy M. Haslett Jr. a 39-year-old white man, of suburban Excelsior Springs, Mo., was arrested Oct. 14 at his home and charged with rape, kidnapping and assault. The tabloid world jumped on the story.

The New York Post headlined, “Missouri sex dungeon victim who escaped house of horrors told rescuers that sicko killed two of her friends.”

The story by the Post’s Patrick Reilly said, “Missouri police are investigating whether the sicko who allegedly held a woman captive for a month as his sex slave tormented other victims, a report said.

“The development was revealed after the 22-year-old woman who escaped Timothy Haslett Jr.’s sex dungeon last week claimed to her rescuers that the suspect killed two of her friends, the Daily Mail reported. . . .”

Lurid details aside, there are clear racial dimensions to the story, coupled with those of journalistic accountability, says Sorrell, who is 27. Seeing those connections is part of the Defender’s mission. As James Anderson wrote in August for Nieman Reports, “The Defender, a news and culture platform consciously rooted in the tradition of both the Black and the abolitionist press, also reaches an under-served audience of predominantly Black teenagers and young adults, across the greater Midwest, on social media.”

The Defender reported Oct. 14, “In mid-to-late September, The Kansas City Defender published a video of Bishop Tony Caldwell, a local Kansas City community leader who was one of many in the Black Kansas City community who made reports of numerous murdered and missing Black women. In the video, Bishop Caldwell specifically identified that the women who were missing were being taken from an area on Prospect Avenue in Kansas City.

“The Kansas City Police Department made a statement addressing the community testimonies and called them ‘completely unfounded rumors,’ dismissing the concerns. Local news outlets followed suit, in essence, silencing any ongoing community voices which maintained concern of the missing Black women.”

In a follow-up the next day, the Defender headlined, “Social Media Posts Reveal Captor and Possible ‘Serial Killer,’ Timothy Haslett Jr., Was A White Supremacist Who Believed We Are In A ‘Race War.'”

Journal-isms sought comment from the editor and managing editor of the Kansas City Star and the news directors of KMBC-TV, the ABC affiliate, KCTV, the CBS affiliate, and WDAF-TV, the Fox affiliate. None responded, though the Star in 2020 had apologized for its past racist coverage and announced remedial steps.

However, Lisa A. Rodriguez, news director of KCUR, the NPR affiliate, replied to Journal-isms: “There are a few undeniable truths media have to accept, particularly in light of the current situation. We have, writ large, failed to listen to Black communities. Mainstream media — and KCUR is no exception — has, for too long, taken police statements as fact. “At KCUR, we’ve been actively working to break that habit, often waiting on publishing or broadcasting anything until we can confirm details independently. Sometimes, that means not being the first to a story but if it brings us closer to facts and truth-telling, it’s worth that delay. We know we — and other media outlets here — won’t be able to earn trust from the communities we’ve failed until we can demonstrate our commitment to listening to them and taking them seriously.”

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