Martin Luther King Jr. biographer David Garrow recently wrote an article in the British magazine Standpoint on FBI files alleging King’s adulteries were more prolific than previously known (including an orgy) and he may have fathered a child with one of his mistresses. More explosively, the reports allege King laughed and offered advice to a friend committing sexual assault in his presence.
In response, The Federalist ran an article by Ellie Bufkin concerned that the latest allegations should not negate the greatness of King’s achievements. This concern was misplaced. The establishment media in America not only refused to run the column Garrow pitched, but largely ignored it after it was published in the United Kingdom. The story was kept off television, but for one segment by Laura Ingraham and one by Tucker Carlson.
The two flagships of American establishment journalism—The New York Times and the Washington Post—not only turned down the story, but ran articles attacking both it and Garrow.
Moreover, the personal attacks on Garrow do not appear to bear much relationship to his scholarship in this matter. For example, the Post column claims Garrow’s biography of former president Barack Obama, “Rising Star,” was controversial because it was not a fawning hagiography.
On this point, the column includes an ad hominem quote from Obama biographer David Maraniss, who happens to be an associate editor at the Post. Perhaps the Post should be given credit for letting their masks drop.
The crux of the attacks on the story presume the Hoover-era FBI’s reporting on those they perceived as political threats is unreliable. In this case, as Garrow argued to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in trying to get them to publish the story, the reports summarize surveillance tapes, raising the question of why an agent would fabricate the most scandalous of episodes when the fabrication might be easily discovered. (The tapes were never destroyed and remain under judicial seal until 2027.)
Moreover, the concern over the accuracy of FBI reports seems rather selective. The press has reported for decades on the contents of John Lennon’s FBI files, despite the lack of surveillance audio that might prove or disprove their contents. Similarly, when Hillary Clinton was investigated for mishandling classified information, the establishment media was not scandalized by the FBI’s failure to record their interview of her.
This case is particularly ironic, as the new allegations against King come from records made public under the 1992 President John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Collection Act. A significant impetus for the passage of that law was Oliver Stone’s “JFK” (1991), an actual fevered conspiracy theory committed to film. Also, as recently as 2017, the Post ran a column arguing we should be thankful Stone’s paranoid propaganda helped create transparency about our history.
The records brought into the sunlight by this law could in turn spur legislative action to unseal King’s files, but the media—and the historians they chose to make their case—were too busy going on the attack to consider the opportunity. Or perhaps they would prefer this piece of the past be buried a while longer, then dismissed as “old news” in 2027.
Among major media outlets, Politico proved to be the exception, publishing a long analysis by history and journalism professor David Greenberg that criticizes the summary dismissal of the allegations and admits “they may well be accurate to a significant degree.”
Given the ferocity of the response to Garrow, it appears most media outlets are not interested in making that admission, largely because it would force them and the public to try answering the question Greenberg raises at the outset of his column: “What do you do when a great hero is alleged to have done something awful?”
Greenberg has a suggestion regarding what we should avoid:
Even if the ugliest charges against King are bolstered by additional evidence, that doesn’t mean we should talk about renaming Martin Luther King Day, tearing down statues of him, or stripping him of his Nobel Prize. In recent years, we’ve had altogether too much wrecking-ball history—history that takes public or private flaws or failings as reason to cast extraordinary men and women out of our political or artistic pantheons. Historians know that even the most admirable figures from our past were flawed, mortal beings—bad parents or bad spouses, capable of violence or cruelty, beholden to sexist or racist ideas, venal or megalomaniac, dishonest or predatory. Awareness of these qualities doesn’t mean despising figures once held up as heroes. Rather, it gives us a more complete and nuanced picture of the people who shaped our world.
For the establishment media to take the allegations against King seriously, even with all the appropriate caveats and nuanced framing, would involve wrestling with not only what they may say about King decades ago, but also the iconoclastic scourge of “call-out culture” today.
Do America’s establishment media fear that publishing Garrow’s story in a straight fashion would risk a swath of their core woke audiences turning on one of history’s greatest civil rights leaders? After all, Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg does not think his party should honor Thomas Jefferson, who primarily authored the promissory note King ultimately marched on Washington to collect.
Prominent African-Americans like the Rev. Al Sharpton and former Congressional Black Caucus director Angela Rye believe statues of and monuments to Jefferson should be torn down because he owned slaves. Do they fear social media mobs would demand similar treatment for King? Are these questions too uncomfortable to ask people like Sharpton?
Perhaps worse, do America’s establishment media fear defending King would involve convincing their audience that cancel culture is wrong? Do they enjoy the political benefits of oppressive social media mobs so much they cannot bear to give them up?
Faced with those choices, it is sadly easy to see why the media has reacted with denial and vicious personal attacks.