The NASCAR Noose Controversy
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The NASCAR Noose: A Hoax? A Hate Crime? Or Just A Simple Misunderstanding?
A Black NASCAR driver was forced to defend himself against charges that he staged a hate crime to gain favorable publicity amidst a period of national unrest and protests against racial injustice.
Darrell “Bubba” Wallace, the only Black driver in NASCAR’s premier series, had used his platform to vocalize support for protests against racial injustice in the weeks leading up to the alleged hate crime, which an FBI investigation later determined did not, in fact, take place. The incident occurred less than two weeks after Wallace successfully lobbied NASCAR to ban the Confederate flag at all race tracks.
The alleged hate crime occurred when a member of Wallace’s team discovered what was believed to be a noose in his assigned garage at the Talladega racetrack in Alabama. A quick FBI investigation, however, revealed that the alleged noose had been hung in that garage months before Wallace had been assigned the space and no crime had been committed.
The results of the FBI investigation unleashed a firestorm of criticism and controversy against Wallace and NASCAR over the handling of the incident. But was the noose incident a publicity stunt or just a simple misunderstanding? And how did media coverage of the incident influence the public’s understanding and response?
A member of Wallace’s team found the alleged noose on June 21 in Wallace’s Talladega stall and notified his crew chief, who took a photo of the noose before it was removed. Later that evening, Wallace tweeted that the “despicable act of racism and hatred...serves as a painful reminder of how much further we have to go as a society…”
The Twitterverse had already caught wind of the story by the time of Wallace’s statement. Fans and NASCAR employees quickly rallied around Wallace with a show of support at the Talladega race track.
After the discovery, NASCAR President Steve Phelps issued a strongly-worded statement condemning the “heinous act”, and announced that an FBI investigation was underway to identify the party responsible for placing the noose in Wallace’s garage. Phelps also mandated that all employees complete sensitivity and bias training, and vowed to make the sport more inclusive.
Phelps reported that investigators inspected every NASCAR garage where races occur, or 1,684 garage stalls at 29 tracks across America, and found only 11 stalls were fashioned with a pull down rope tied into a knot, and only one tied in a noose -- the one in Wallace’s garage. However, no conclusions were reached as to where the noose came from, or how and when exactly it was placed in Wallace’s garage.
The FBI released an official statement on June 23, announcing that no federal crime had been committed:
The FBI findings ignited a flurry of allegations on social media that the incident was a “publicity stunt” for Wallace to receive positive media coverage and attention. Some Twitter users claimed it was an “inside job,” among other conspiracies, pointing to the large number of security cameras that are present in the garage areas of tracks as evidence that finding the culprit should have been a relatively easy investigation for NASCAR.
Wallace defended his integrity in an interview on CNN three days following the initial incident, and after lengthy online debate as to whether the incident was a hoax. Wallace said “I’m mad because people are trying to test my character.”
Wallace emphatically denied the noose was staged as a publicity stunt, and that he was not responsible for finding it in his garage: “I never reported it. Like I said, I was going to dinner.”
Following the FBI investigation, Wallace’s statement of denial he had any part in the incident, and heavy speculation into what actually occurred, a NASCAR employee Tweeted a photo on June 25 of what was initially assumed to be the noose found in Wallace’s garage.
Some who commented on the photo reiterated the assertion that the incident was a simple misunderstanding, and that the “noose” was really just a garage door pull rope. While some Twitter users questioned the authenticity of the photo, with some claiming it was photoshopped, and used the photo as more ammunition against Wallace. But others were less suspicious and say NASCAR was right for taking the initial report seriously.
Wallace denied the assertion that what his crewmember found in his race stall was “just a garage pull,” saying that NASCAR and the FBI had concluded it was in fact a noose. He added that he has been racing all his life, out of hundreds of garages, and had never seen a garage pull rope fashioned into a noose, and went on to say that tying a noose is “something that takes time,” insinuating the noose was tied intentionally, whether in 2019 or otherwise.
Wallace also responded on Twitter that “I think we’ll gladly take a little embarrassment over what the alternatives could have been.”
During a live interview with Wallace, CNN Host Don Lemon said “Did [NASCAR] jump the gun, maybe? Yes.” And that “in this hypercharged environment...we should cut each other some slack.” But went on to say that “Let’s not forget that people...still feel a certain kind of way about you and the [Confederate] flag.”
Fans were protesting the recent decision to ban the Confederate flag at NASCAR events when the alleged incident occurred. A banner was flown over the Talladega track emblazoned with the words “Defund NASCAR” merely a week after Wallace debuted a car sporting a Black Lives Matter scheme at a race in Martinsville.
On June 6, President Trump echoed conspiracy theories about the incident when he Tweeted that Wallace should apologize “to all of those great NASCAR drivers & officials who came to his aid, stood by his side, & were willing to sacrifice everything for him, only to find out that the whole thing was just another HOAX?”
Wallace responded by saying “to the next generation and little ones” following in his footsteps that “You will always have people testing you. Seeing if they can knock you off your pedestal,” and that “love wins.”
In an interview with Fox Nation in early July, Wallace further defended himself against NASCAR’s “small-minded” fans who he says do not take the time to educate themselves before jumping to conclusions.
What explains public response to the alleged "noose"?
The firestorm of criticism--and support--Wallace faced after the apparent discovery of a noose in his Talladega garage illustrates how media theories on priming, framing, agenda setting, and other media effects exert a strong influence over how readers and listeners understand events.
Discussions about racial injustice and coverage of protests, riots, and violence have saturated the media since the death of George Floyd in police custody in late May. Public opinion about protests, riots, and the social movements that drive them is formed in large part by how the media primes audiences and frames events.
What does this mean?
Agenda-setting is the idea that the news media don’t tell people what to think, but what to think
Media actors do more than relay information and opinion to the public --writers, editors and publishers draw a map for readers that shapes political reality. By covering certain stories like the discovery of a noose and setting the agenda, the media communicates to the public issues they deem most important and what positions are most relevant. Research shows a strong relationship between emphasis placed on different political issues by the media, and individual judgments about the salience and importance of various topics.
The sheer volume of media coverage of the nation-wide protests communicates to the public that racial injustice is an important topic. But journalists and political commentators also inform the public about the relevant positions to take on the issue of racial injustice, and what constitutes the realm of legitimate debate.
For instance, large corporations and influential figures are speaking up about racial injustice. Intense media scrutiny of how important figures and institutions have handled racial injustice has forced NASCAR, along with many other major American institutions, to reckon with its history and address any concerns about a lack of diversity in the sport. This likely explains NASCAR President Steve Phelps’ swift and powerful condemnation of the incident, who, in retrospect, many say “jumped the gun.”
Framing is the idea that the media create organizing themes or narratives that give meaning to events. The environment and perspective that media provide for a story influence how it is understood by the audience.
A frame of interpretation provides a specific set of expectations that is used to make sense of a social situation at a given point in time. This includes selecting and highlighting certain facts of particular events or issues and making connections among them to promote a particular interpretation, evaluation, or solution. Even just a single word can determine the frame of interpretation used by the audience to evaluate credibility or merit of an individual or idea.
Here are four examples of common media frames journalists apply while presenting stories about social unrest.
- Riot: emphasis on disruptive behavior, and the use or threat of violence
- Confrontation: descriptions of protests as combative, and focus on arrests or “clashes” with police
- Spectacle: a focus on the signs, apparel, or other dramatic and emotional behavior of protesters
- Debate: emphasis on protesters’ demands and grievances
Phelps himself admits that the context in which the event occurred influenced how it was handled by the media. Phelps said in a press conference after the FBI investigation that he took full responsibility for NASCAR’s strong initial response to the incident, but that, in hindsight, he should have used the word “alleged” when describing the “heinous act.” "Should we have toned that message down slightly?" he said, "Maybe we should have."
Phelps said in his defense that, “You see what’s going on outside of the sport and the way we reacted to it, the way it was brought to my attention I thought it was done the right way. .. [Could we have] worded it differently? Sure, but...I would encourage them to do the same thing over and over again.”
Priming is the process by which activated mental constructs influence how we evaluate information, that is, how recently elicited emotions or thoughts influence our understanding of subsequent information. A stored memory or understanding of a concept can be activated by media messages and serve as an interpretive frame for events.
Priming follows from agenda-setting--the news media set the stage for public understanding. Agenda-setting reflects the impact of news coverage on the perceived importance of an issue, but priming refers to the impact of news coverage on the weight assigned to specific issues while making political judgments.
NASCAR as a brand name brings to mind different attitudes and feelings for different people. Whether positive or negative, people attach meaning to brands that they refer to when processing new information.
Some critics were quick to believe a hate crime occurred because of NASCAR’s problematic history with race and the fact that the Confederate flag was a prominent symbol featured at NASCAR events before it was banned by the organization.
Jemele Hill, a sports journalist and outspoken Black activist, doubled-down on the notion that the alleged noose was in fact a real noose despite the findings of the FBI investigation, tweeting “It. Was. A. Noose.” When asked to apologize for her initial response to the incident, which she branded “a stunning, shocking, appalling, disgusting reminder of who this sport is for,” Hill tweeted that she is “old enough to remember that NASCAR banning the Confederate flag from races a couple weeks ago.”
Some media pundits and other political commentators demanded apologies from people, such as Hill, who they say unfairly “besmirched” NASCAR fans by labeling the sport as a racist institution following the incident.
Ben Shapiro, a conservative political commentator, said in response to Hill’s statements that to “Maintain a story like this, after the story is over, we can all see your motivation… I just think you’re pushing a narrative…” Shapiro went on to say that people like Hill “make a living off of polarizing people on race.”
Cultivation Theory, Confirmation Bias and the Mean World Syndrome
Many who flocked to support Wallace insinuated that he was targeted over his vocal support for the Black Lives Matter movement, and criticism against the Confederate flag at NASCAR events.
But now that the results of an FBI investigation determine a hate crime was not committed, what else can explain NASCAR’s initial response, the public’s reaction, and why some have double-down on their belief that a hate crime was committed?
When the media prominently feature an important issue, the audience tends to see everything else in terms of that issue.
Cultivation theory suggests that repeated exposure to media over time gradually influences media users' perceptions of social reality, or that media subtly “cultivates” audiences. The theory proposes that the more time people spend “living” in a televised, mediated world, the more social reality tends to align with the reality portrayed in the media.
The “mean world syndrome” describes how heavy consumers of violent media can be brought to see the world as more mean and dangerous than it actually is.
George Gerber, a prominent media scholar who studied the effects of portrayals of violence in mass media and its effects of people’s subconscious perceptions and attitudes of real world events, found that heavy consumers of violent media do not go on to commit violent acts, as was initially believed. Instead, violent media creates a fear in audiences that violence will be committed against them specifically, even when no real threat may exist.
Although acts of domestic terrorism, white supremacy, and hate crimes are real threats to our society, prominently featured stories about these heinous acts can cause audiences to perceive that they are more widespread and prevalent than they actually are. Fear of racial unrest is deeply rooted in American society. The impact of consistently violent and dramaticized news coverage related to racial conflict, or the cumulative effect of media exposure, can result in the perception that the risk of being a victim of racial violence is much higher than it actually is.
Following a summer of civil unrest and violence in cities across America, President Lyndon Johnson ordered a commission to evaluate news coverage of the riots, and their impact on Black communities.
The 11-member National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders found a significant imbalance between news coverage of racially-charged riots and protests in American cities in the summer of 1967, and what actually happened during those disorders.
After interviewing many of the participants and observers involved, the commission found “that the disorders, as serious as they were, were less destructive, less widespread, and less a black-white confrontation than most people believed.” Millions of Americans who relied on the mass media as a primary source of information formed incorrect impressions and judgments about the severity and scope of the “race riots” that occurred that summer.
The commission’s report, which is now referred to as the Kerner report, found that the mass media sensationalized the riots, gave disproportionate amounts of time to emotional events and “militant leaders,” and consistently overplayed violence and destruction as an interpretive frame for the disorders. Television coverage tended to define the riots as black-white confrontations, when in reality most damage to property or person occurred in all black neighborhoods.
After the summer riots of ‘67, many Americans incorrectly associated the mere presence of a police officer, flashing lights or sirens with racial unrest, in that they perceived a racially-charged, violent incident was occurring when, in fact, it was not. Prior incidents of racial unrest were readily recalled when facing any incident related to social unrest or violence.
The NASCAR “noose” incident also reveals how questionable facts and circumstances can sow the seeds of convincing conspiracy theories. The intense polarization of our politics permeates into other facets of our society and influences how people interpret seemingly apolitical events. Especially for ethical and emotional issues, people tend to rely on faulty cognitive processes rather than assessing all relevant facts.
Confirmation bias refers to the tendency for people to interpret new evidence in a way that confirms their prior beliefs. Cognitive motivations and wishful thinking can lead an individual to draw conclusions based on what they desire to be true, or what makes the most sense based on prior knowledge and beliefs.
Individuals who believed that the placement of a noose in Wallace’s garage was too outlandish simply believed, therefore, that it must be fake. Some point to NASCAR’s problematic history with racism and that the discovery of a “noose” in the only Black driver’s garage could not be a simple coincidence.
Others perceived malevolent political forces were at work, that a faceless, nameless organization of people were responsible for perpetrating the “hoax.”
For instance, Tucker Carlson, the host of Tucker Carlson Tonight on Fox News--the highest-rated cable network show of all time with 4.331 million average viewers--took aim at Wallace, accusing him of “trying to keep the outrage going” and being disappointed that he can “no longer pose as a victim” after the FBI investigation turned up null results. Carlson, a powerful conservative voice at Fox News, articulated the frustration of many right-leaning, Trump-supporting NASCAR fans--and others--who believe the “liberal establishment” is capitalizing on racial tensions to further divide Americans.
What does the NASCAR “Noose Hoax” teach us about media effects?
Periods of national chaos and civil unrest that receive heavy media coverage influence how people perceive and process real-world events. It is undeniable the recent protests and riots that have gripped American cities since the death of George Floyd while in police custody have cast a new intensity on any issue dealing with race, no matter the industry, time or place.
Despite the ability of many social movements to capture media attention and achieve their aims of social justice, what journalists ultimately cover can be superficial and trivialize the substance of what is being protested. Violent images and videos, and overemphasis on the drama and chaos of the protests can detract from messages of unity and the legitimate grievances of protesters.
Protests are an opportunity for a national discussion about issues like racial injustice, and inevitably, how the media present these discussions impacts public perceptions and understandings of events that are explicitly or implicitly connected to race. While analyzing the media's role in controversial incidents such as the NASCAR noose debacle, the larger social context in which they occur must also be considered to understand how individuals draw conclusions, which is often with bias and unique motivations.
//Page written by: Christina Georgacopoulos