An America is killed by lightning on average once a week. According to the National Weather Service, lightning kills an average of 49 people each year in the United States and injures hundreds more. In a nation of more than 330 million people, this is a very small number, a statistical rarity. Therefore I propose the “Lightning Strike Rule of Journalism” — in order for any dangerous social trend to be considered newsworthy, it must pose a greater risk to the public than being killed by lightning.
The inspiration for this rule was supplied last week by Ben Makuch, a reporter for Vice who has recently specialized in reporting on white supremacist extremism, with headline after headline warning about the neo-Nazi menace: “Neo-Nazi Terrorists Planned Fortified Compound in Michigan” (February 23), “Accused Neo-Nazi Terrorist’s Account Posted Threatening Videos of Him Armed in Public” (March 3), “Former Neo-Nazi Terror Leader Gets Three-Year Prison Term” (May 4), et cetera. Makuch had been plowing this journalistic furrow for months when he published an article Thursday with the blunt headline: “Why Are So Many Marines Neo-Nazis?”
By an unfortunate coincidence, Makuch’s article was published the same day that terrorists in Kabul killed 12 Marines in a suicide bomb attack. The online reaction was furious and, in some cases, obscene (my distant cousin Meghan McCain, for example). Such was the intensity of the backlash that Vice deleted their tweet promoting Makuch’s article. But deleting a tweet won’t correct the fundamental problem with Makuch’s reporting, namely that the phenomenon he has been covering so diligently in recent months is such a statistical rarity as to violate the Lightning Strike Rule.
Mark Hemingway pointed out the basic problem with the Vice article: “There are 186,000+ Marines on active duty and according to the article, 16 have been identified with far-right groups in three years. One is too many, but I don’t think the USMC is breeding ground for extremists.” Someone more competent in statistical computation than myself can calculate the actual percentage of Marines implicated in what Makuch called a “serious neo-Nazi problem,” but it’s certainly much less than one percent. Makuch has thus perpetrated a sloppy guilt-by-association smear against the brave men and women of the USMC.
However, what Makuch has been doing with his endless series of articles about the white supremacist extremism threat is actually worse than that. His incessant coverage of the neo-Nazi menace is a journalistic molehills-to-mountains exercise in exaggeration. Your chances of getting killed by a neo-Nazi are much less than getting killed by a lightning strike.
In May of this year, a study from the FBI and Department of Homeland Security reported that 2019 was the worst year for domestic terrorism since 1995, the year of the Oklahoma City bombing: “The year 2019 represented the most lethal year for DVE [Domestic Violent Extremist] attacks since 1995, with five separate DVE attacks resulting in 32 deaths, 24 of which occurred during attacks conducted by RMVEs [Racially Motivated Violence Extremists] advocating for the superiority of the white race.”
In other words, in the “most lethal year” for domestic terrorism since 1995, about half as many people were killed by white supremacists as were killed by lightning. Keep in mind that, of the 24 deaths perpetrated by “RMVEs” in 2019, 23 of them were killed in a single incident, when 21-year-old Patrick Wood Crusius went on a shooting rampage at a Walmart store in El Paso, Texas. This highlights the problem of so-called “lone wolf” terrorists. However rare such individuals may be, the death toll can be staggering when one of them resorts to violence, and it is very difficult to identify such potential killers until it’s too late to stop them.
Still, the important point is that such ghastly incidents are statistically rare, and constitute a very tiny fraction of homicides in America. In 2019, according the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there were 19,141 homicides in the United States; the 24 deaths from white supremacist violence were approximately one-eighth of a single percentage point of total homicides that year.
As obnoxious as neo-Nazis are, they simply don’t kill a lot of people, in part because the FBI keeps a rather close eye on such extremists. During a five-year period covering fiscal years 2015-2019, according to the May FBI/DHS report, the FBI apprehended 846 subjects in domestic terrorism investigations. That works out to about 170 arrests annually, or roughly 14 domestic-terrorism arrests per month, so if a journalist wished to devote his career to covering such threats, he’d get about three headlines in an average week.
This seems to be basically what Ben Makuch has been doing in recent months, and his regular readers might be forgiven for thinking that America is on the verge of a racial Armageddon incited by neo-Nazi extremists. Such fear-mongering is obviously intended as political propaganda to assist the Biden administration in promoting the belief that “right-wing” terrorists (hint, hint — Trump voters) are an existential threat to the United States. And this illustrates a general tendency of journalism that violates the Lightning Strike Rule — exaggeration of rare phenomena usually serves a political agenda. Consider CNN’s around-the-clock coverage of the George Floyd case, or the 2102 death of Trayvon Martin. Both of those stories were spun by the media as proof that racism is a deadly and pervasive threat to black Americans. Both stories garnered national coverage in presidential election years when Democrats needed to “energize” support from black voters. Yet it can be easily demonstrated that such cases are anomalous. Heather Mac Donald has stated bluntly, “There Is No Epidemic of Fatal Police Shootings Against Unarmed Black Americans,” providing statistical proof that debunks the “Black Lives Matter” narrative.
Or consider the “campus rape epidemic” hysteria that emerged in 2014, after the Obama administration created a White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault. This task force was justified, officials said, because nearly 20 percent of female college students were sexually assaulted during their four years on campus. Evidence to support this “1-in-5” statistic was non-existent (it seems to have come from student surveys that utilized a dubiously vague definition of “assault”), but it was repeated in gospel, even while critics pointed out that this statistic suggested American campuses were more dangerous than the nation’s most violent urban areas or even war-torn African countries. K.C. Johnson and Stuart Taylor Jr. blamed “media malpractice” for the witch-hunt climate that ensued on campus, where students accused of sexual misconduct were denied due-process protections. Ultimately, the “campus rape epidemic” narrative collapsed after Rolling Stone published an article about an alleged gang-rape at a University of Virginia fraternity house that proved to be a complete hoax. The political agenda behind this media malpractice was obvious, as I wrote in April 2015:
It is certainly no secret that claims of a Republican “war on women” helped Barack Obama win re-election in 2012, nor is it a secret that Hillary Clinton is likely to be the Democratic presidential nominee in 2016.
What better way to exploit the political “gender gap” than to claim that college girls are being raped en masse, and then to suggest that the solution to this problem could be summarized in two words: “VOTE DEMOCRAT!”
Such crude political calculations are at work in media coverage like Ben Makuch’s that exaggerates the neo-Nazi menace as a way of demonizing all “right wing” sentiment as a potential terrorist threat. Nancy Pelosi created a select congressional committee to “investigate” the January 6 U.S. Capitol riot not because there was any lack of investigation into the disruptive protests by disgruntled Trump supporters, but rather as a way to keep alive the narrative about right-wing dangers. Pelosi’s committee will continue generating headlines about this “insurrection,” which is the entire purpose of this investigation: to create opportunities for the news media to publish stories about how dangerous Republican voters are. Federal prosecutors say most of the January 6 rioters are not guilty of anything more than misdemeanors — essentially, trespassing inside the Capitol — but this is disregarded by Pelosi and her media echo chamber, who see the Capitol riot as a political weapon useful for defending the razor-thin Democratic House majority in next year’s midterm elections.
Hyping up the neo-Nazi threat plays into that political message, as a few of the January 6 rioters apparently had connections to extremist movements. This was the theme of Makuch’s story last week about accused Capitol rioter Riley June Williams, who allegedly posted in “a racist and neo-Nazi chat room.” Previous stories in this genre by Makuch include a March 23 article with the headline, “Neo-Nazi Street Fighting Gang Keeps Bragging About Attending Capitol Riot.” The point of such articles is not that the January 6 crowd attracted some characters from the extremist fringe — this is obvious enough — but rather to convey the misleading impression that all Trump supporters are potential terrorist threats. Here again we see how the Lightning Strike Rule is violated. No one in the January 6 riot is charged with murder. So far, 624 accused participants in the Capitol riot have been charged with crimes, the most common charge being “knowingly entering or remaining in any restricted building or grounds without lawful authority,” but some facing more serious accusations. Thirty of those charged have pleaded guilty, mostly to misdemeanors. Even if all the accused rioters were dangerous, however, their numbers are a minuscule fraction of the 74 million Americans who voted to reelect President Trump. And only a handful of the accused rioters have even the remotest connection to the neo-Nazi menace that Ben Makuch so diligently chronicles.
When the media engage in obsessive coverage of statistically rare dangers, this has the effect of distorting public perception of actual risks. If you’re living in fear of violent right-wing extremists, you might not notice that, for example, a record 93,000 Americans died of drug overdoses last year — nearly five times the number of homicides in the United States. To put this into perspective, that’s about 547 fatal drug overdoses for every domestic terrorism suspect arrested by the FBI in an average year. But how much coverage is devoted to the deadly fentanyl epidemic, in comparison to the media’s continual scare-mongering about right-wing extremism? Comparing terrorism to drug overdoses may seem to be an apples-to-oranges comparison, but even if we narrow the subject of our comparisons down to violent threats, domestic terrorism is still statistically insignificant. All the violence perpetrated by neo-Nazis in the past 25 years has killed fewer Americans than are murdered during an average year in Chicago. Last year, 774 people were murdered in Chicago, an average of more than 60 per month (or 15 per week), and zero of those murders were committed by neo-Nazis.
The statistical insignificance of the neo-Nazi threat, however, did not prevent Ben Makuch from smearing the United States Marine Corps on the same day that the Marines in Kabul suffered their deadliest casualty toll in a decade. If anyone is still inclined to take Ben Makuch seriously, my advice to them is to stop worrying about neo-Nazis and start worrying about more realistic threats to public safety. Avoid fentanyl, stay away from Chicago, and don’t go outside during thunderstorms.