W. Joseph Campbell

Posts Tagged ‘O.J. Simpson’

Ignore new Jefferson-paternity study, see accuracy suffer

In Debunking, Media myths on October 20, 2011 at 9:53 am

The mainstream news media have largely shunned a significant new book that disputes the notion Thomas Jefferson had a long, loving relationship with a slave, Sally Hemings.

The drawbacks of ignoring the book, The Jefferson-Hemings Controversy: A Report of the Scholars Commission, are suggested by a Politico item posted yesterday.

Politico asserted:

“Most historians have concluded that, as a widower, Jefferson may have had as many as six children with Hemings, maintaining a 38-year relationship with her until his death in 1826.”

“Most historians”?

That’s a stretch, as The Jefferson-Hemings Controversy suggests.

It’s a collaborative work of 13 scholars, 12 of whom are either historians of Jefferson and his times or experts on politics and government. The outlier, as it were, is a biochemist, an expert on DNA testing.

The members of the scholars commission — empaneled by the Thomas Jefferson Heritage Society, which seeks to protect the reputation of the third president — describe in the book their collective credentials, writing:

“Most of us have studied Thomas Jefferson and his era for at least two decades, and we have held teaching or research appointments at Harvard, Yale, Stanford, Brown, Virginia, North Carolina, Kentucky, Indiana, Bowdoin, and many other respected institutions of higher learning.”

They also state that “after a careful review of all of the evidence, the commission agrees unanimously that the allegation [against Jefferson] is by no means proven. … With the exception of one member … our individual conclusions range from serious skepticism about the charge to a conviction that it is almost certainly false.”

But it’s “by no means proven.”

And yet media reports, such as that in Politico, typically treat the purported Jefferson-Hemings relationship as if it were settled history.

An important reason for the misinterpretation stems from DNA test results reported in 1998. The tests were widely misreported as identifying Jefferson as the father of Hemings’ youngest son, Eston.

The results were published in the journal Nature, which placed this erroneous headline above the article:

“Jefferson fathered slave’s last child.”

The Nature headline and its misreported findings had significant agenda-setting power.

The scholars commission, which was chaired by Robert Turner of the University of Virginia, note in the book that “much of the public has been misled about the significance of the DNA tests … reported in the journal Nature in November 1998.

“While the tests were professionally done by distinguished experts, they were never designed to prove, and in fact could not have proven, that Thomas Jefferson was the father of any of Sally Hemings’ children.”

The Jefferson-Hemings Controversy addresses the DNA evidence in some detail, noting that the tests “did no more than establish that Eston Hemings’ father was almost certainly a Jefferson.”

A Jefferson.

More than two dozen Jefferson men, including Thomas, could have been the father.

By then, though, Thomas Jefferson was 64-years-old — scarcely a leading paternity candidate.

The Jefferson-Hemings Controversy offers an intriguing hypothesis about why the DNA tests of 1998 were so widely misunderstood.

“Most Americans,” the book points out, “learned about DNA testing during the period leading up to and during the 1995 murder trial of O.J. Simpson, and they read in USA Today and other major papers than DNA ‘genetic fingerprints’ are ‘99.9 accurate’ or even ‘99.99 percent accurate.’

“When the Jefferson-Hemings story broke [nearly] four years later, it was not surprising that many people assumed scientists had matched Thomas Jefferson’s DNA with that of Sally Hemings’ children, and conclusively established Jefferson’s paternity by this remarkable new technology.

“But that is clearly not the case.”

WJC

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The digital age ‘equivalent of the OJ Simpson trial’? Not quite

In Debunking, Media myths on July 7, 2011 at 9:02 am

Anthony mug shot

The stunning acquittal of Casey Anthony on the most serious charges in the slaying of her 2-year-old daughter has invited comparisons to the outcome of O.J. Simpson’s double-murder trial in 1995.

Those comparisons are mostly misleading.

The “Media File” blog of the Reuters news agency, for example, likened the Anthony verdict to the digital age “equivalent of the OJ Simpson trial.”

Simpson was found not guilty in October 1995 of the stabbing deaths of his former wife, Nicole, and her friend, Ron Goldman.

“Media File,” which was one of several outlets to detect parallels in the two cases, noted:

“Word of the verdict spread like wildfire … making a return to a normal life for newly-famous Anthony as unlikely as it was for already-famous Simpson 16 years ago.”

The blog also declared:

“Just as some greeted the Simpson verdict with tears and disbelief, there was much the same reaction about the Anthony verdict, including other mothers and daughters who railed against the verdict on the courthouse steps.

“Unlike OJ, who was accused of stabbing his [former] wife and one of her friends to death in a fit of jealous rage, there didn’t seem to be even the smallest cheering section for Anthony. Then again she was accused of murdering her two-year-old daughter, whose skeletal remains were found near the family home with duct tape dangling from her skull.

“Anthony’s defense was considerably less adamant than Simpson’s ‘100% not guilty’ plea, but, like Simpson, she did not take the stand in her own defense.”

While interesting, the parallels are mostly superficial and unrevealing.

The Anthony proceedings in Florida hardly were in the league of the O.J. trial in Los Angeles.

Casey Anthony, unlike Simpson, was no national celebrity before she was tried on charges of killing her daughter, Caylee.

As Marcia Clark, the prosecutor who lost the Simpson trial, said of Anthony:

“She never wowed the nation with her athletic prowess, shilled in countless car commercials, or entertained in film comedies.” Simpson had been a star football player, a pitchman for the Hertz car rental company, and a supporting actor in movies such as The Naked Gun.

Race — a central, defining factor in Simpson’s trial — was absent in the Anthony trial.

As such, the verdict in her case, surprising though it was, prompted nothing akin to the divisive, clashing reactions that greeted Simpson’s acquittal: Many whites reacted with shock and disbelief while many blacks cheered the outcome.

Significantly, the Anthony case produced nothing akin to the moment at the end of the Simpson trial, when the country held its collective breath and awaited the verdicts.

The Simpson jury deliberated less than four hours before deciding the case on October 2, 1995.  The hapless judge who presided over the 134-day trial, Lance Ito, announced that the verdicts would be read the following day, at 10 a.m. Pacific time, 1 p.m. Eastern.

As that hour approached on October 3, 1995, the country seemed almost to shut down. The New York Times reported that for 10 minutes, from 1 p.m. to 1:10 p.m. Eastern, “people didn’t work. They didn’t go to math class. They didn’t make phone calls. They didn’t use the bathroom. They didn’t walk the dog.

“They listened to the O.J. Simpson verdicts,” in what the newspaper accurately called “an eerie moment of national communion, in which the routines and rituals of the country were subsumed by an unquenchable curiosity.

“Millions of people in millions of places seemed to spend 10 spellbinding minutes doing exactly the same thing.”

Those minutes represented an exceptional occasion of collective anticipation, an almost incomparable moment.

For the collective anticipation they generated, the final moments in the Simpson case were rivaled perhaps only by the first manned lunar landing in July 1969.

WJC

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