Lecture 4

arieties of
Media Crime

This is part one of a two part lecture investigating media depictions of various forms of criminal or deviant activity. This week's lecture will focus on two types which received consider attention in the 1980s and 1990s, satanic crimes and hate crimes. Next week, we will discuss juvenile delinquency plus drug/alcohol abuse. From there we will move to a consideration of police and the media.


While satanic forces have been frequently blamed in Western history for the misfortunes of humankind, criminal justice officials in the U.S. have paid satanism little mind until the mid-1980s. At that point the country was swept by an epidemic of allegations that murders, sexual or ritual abuse of children, and ritual sacrifice of animals were commonplace activities among satanists. By this time, you should have finished reading Satan's Silence, an investigation co-authored by a journalist and an attorney, into the panic which swept the country regarding ritualistic abuse at daycare centers. However, as the authors suggest, fears of contemporary childhood victimization were part of a much larger satanic panic which swept the nation in the 1980s. In this section, we will look at who spread these beliefs, what was claimed, why they were believed, the problems with these accounts, and the continuing legacy of such beliefs. It is my opinion that the satanic panic represents the greatest crime hoax of this century, but one that continues to impact negatively on many people's lives.

Media Involvement

The media helped to create a climate favorable to the belief that satanism had become a real life menace. Gothic literature spawned horror comic books (banned in the 1950s), while Hollywood films featuring satanic themes have long been popular. Early on sympathetic news reports spread belief in satanic crime, but as skepticism increased the news media turned on those who claimed satanism was rampant in the country and asked for proof.

For this type of crime it was not newspapers or TV news, but TV talk shows which were the major media provider of information. TV talk shows like Geraldo and Sally featured this topic for a number of years and almost always uncritically presented the claims of widespread satanic abuse. Talk shows became the new medium for retelling "urban legends." Those like Nathan who have done a systematic investigation of the backgrounds of major writers and speakers on satanism, have found that many had questionable backgrounds or histories of mental illness. Such facts ought to have been discussed before anyone accepted at face value what these satanic story tellers were saying. However, Geraldo and other talk show hosts who had such speakers on their shows rarely if ever mentioned their backgrounds. Anti-satanists went unchallenged for the most part. This was not responsible journalism. On Geraldo, Geraldo ceased being a journalist, despite his claim that many of shows represented "special investigative reports." The opposition point of view, when presented at all, was typically given to leaders of established Satanic churches like Acquino or LeVay rather than to nay-saying journalists or scholars. The "organized satanists," who claimed they had never murdered or tortured anyone, often were dismissed by audiences and opposition guests alike as obvious liars. Of course, everyone knows "satanists are liars." Talk shows do not present facts and validated information. They represent a new breed of TV, "info-tainment," presenting information as entertainment. They never should be assumed to have the same credibility as nightly news casts or newspaper reports.

Victims and Victimizers

Those claiming to have been victimized or victimizers (and sometimes both) in satanic groups included the following:

1. Children at daycare centers. Children told hundreds of horrific tales; e.g. of being forced to commit sexual acts with robed, chanting adults; of being made to drink blood or eat feces; and to witness animal and human sacrifices. Satan's Silence does an excellent job of discussing how these accounts were produced, so I will not cover the same ground.

2. Teens who said they were satanists. There is evidence that some teens spray paint satanic graffiti on walls and even sadistically kill small animals in haphazardly concocted satanic rituals. But, even reports of these incidents far outnumber their reality. A "self-styled satanist" is typically an isolated adolescent male who turns to the black arts. Some teenagers (particularly boys) are attracted to satanism. It offers an easy way to get the things teens want (power, money, sex). For this same reason boys form rock bands. Teens who feel alienated from their classmates may dabble in Satanism, but most leave it rather quickly. However, a few do take the "theological" messages of Satanism seriously. 17-year-old Sean Sellers claimed he was a satanist when he committed two murders in Oklahoma, but had a number of personal and family problems which might better explain his actions. Sellers acted on his own and was not doing the bidding of an organized satanic group.

3. Middle aged women who in therapy (and often under hypnosis) stated they had recovered repressed memories of childhood satanic abuse. They told stories of being "breeders" of babies born without official birth certificates so they could be ritually sacrificed to Satan; of how bodies were disposed of in such a way that no trace of their existence could ever be uncovered (corpses were burned and the bones ground into powder); and gruesome tales of cannibalism and blood drinking. Even though they had allegedly witnessed crimes, victims rarely reported them to the police after having recovered their memories. There has been considerable discussion of repressed memories since these reports surfaced and psychological experts on memory have found no evidence to support the phenomenon described by therapists. Also, those who study hypnosis warn of the dangers of trying to reintegrate victims diagnosed as suffering from multiple personality disorder or disassociative disorder. The newly integrated personality may end up believing that they experienced many things which never happened in all likelihood.

4. Ex-members of satanic covens who since had been converted to evangelical Christianity. The most notable of these was Mike Warnke, who made an excellent living off telling already convinced Christian audiences that he was an ex-satanic high priest and participated in ritual victimizations. He was later exposed as a fraud. The only thing people who knew him as a teen agreed upon was that he had always had the ability to tell stories and make others believe them.

5. Members of organized satanic churches like The Church of Satan or Temple of Set. These orgainzations are small in numbers and claim never to have murdered or tortured anyone. In terms of their life philosophy they are probably most similar to EST or any other self-awareness group which advocates putting ones own needs and desires first.

Those claiming to have uncovered satanic crimes included:

1. Cult cops. Cops and ex-police officers charge fees to lecture audiences of other cops on what they "know" of satanic crime. In Pursuit of Satan by Robert Hicks debunks the cult cop phenomenon.

2. Child interviewers, social workers and psychologists. Treatment personnel lectured other child welfare workers on the dangers of Satanic involvement. In November 1992, I attended a workshop sponsored by the Pinellas County Juvenile Welfare Board on "Treatment Approaches: Adolescents and Cults." The workshop featured all the satanic hysteria one could ever want to endure.

3. Psychiatrists interviewing middle-aged women. A 1996 episode of Frontline documented how deeply psychiatry has been involved in the satanic panic. Women suffering from disassociative disorders who were referred to psychiatrists who believed in satanism were placed in very expensive treatment centers. They were informed they had been abused by satanic cults and had "secret codes" embedded in their memories which if activated would cause them to kill their husbands and children. Needless to say, husbands who believed this left their wives. Children were also alleged to be already initiated into a satanic cult and placed in therapy as well. To date none of the doctors involved has been sued or had their licenses revoked.

4. Parents of allegedly abused children. This is discussed in Satan's Silence as well.

The Claims

Claims that were made stretched from tales of the use of the mass media to convert kids to satanism, to wholesale torture and murder, a massive cover-up, and a universal conspiracy. Rock music (particularly Heavy Metal), children's cartoons, and role-playing games were identified as gateways to satanism (similar to the way marijuana is singled out as a "gateway drug"). Music such as Ozzy Ozbourne's contained lyrics that overtly paid homage to the devil. An even more serious problem was "back masking." Alleged satanic messages were recorded backwards onto a record. The album didn't even have to be played backwards for the message to have its subliminal effect. It sunk into the subconscious and later resulted in negative behavior. The band Judas Priest was unsuccessfully sued by a parent who claimed the phrase "Do it" back masked onto an album had led her son to attempt suicide. No evidence for subliminal suggestion has been uncovered by psychologists. Children's cartoon's such as "He- Man" and "Thundercats" tapped into supernatural forces that detractors of the shows label satanic. Children who watched a steady diet of these cartoons were being set up to accept occult practices later as teens. The Internet may soon be recognized as the latest "doorway to hell"

If satanism were as prevalent as anti-Satan experts claimed it was, bodies would have been unearthed everywhere. Cult experts claimed there are anywhere from 50,000 to 2 million children ritually sacrificed to the devil each year. In comparison, only around 25,000 murders are reported in the U.S. each year. Almost all the alleged "missing" children can be accounted for as "kidnap" victims of one of the parents in a custody dispute. The FBI documents only about 100 stranger kidnappings of children each year.

Anti-satanists claimed that there was a vast organized network of devil worshippers in the U.S. that has infiltrated all levels of local, state, and federal government (including the criminal justice system.) Police officers refused to arrest and hid evidence; prosecutors would not indict; while judges who were part of the conspiracy refused to convict. Conspiracy theories of this nature are rarely if ever true. Other examples include the belief that gun control was a communist plot to have the American citizenry disarmed when the Russians would invade and house to house combat ensued; air pollution laws were generated by socialists who hope to speed up America's economic collapse, or that drugs are being used systematically by white elites to destroy black communities in America.

Why do people believe conspiracy theories? Hans Toch in The Social Psychology of Social Movements analyzed the psychological gratifications that conspiracy theories offer, whether of the left-wing or right-wing variety. They allow individuals who believe in them to have one all-encompassing answer to a myriad of social problems. A conspiracy theory also allows those who believe it to "know" the future before it happens. Such knowledge allows them to feel secure while others struggle to understand what is going on around them. Critics have argued that the satanism phenomenon was largely the result of ultra-right-wing fundamentalist and evangelical Christians spreading their ideas concerning the "end times." If Satan's power is growing, the Judgement Day is near. But, as we have seen it was also supported by the welfare establishment and some branches of psychiatry.

While at first law enforcement agencies took the reports of murdered infants seriously, they gradually realized there was no evidence of these events. Kenneth Lanning of the FBI wrote a series of articles concluding that no such murders had occurred. However, true believers still exist. A TV program on Satan broadcast on a religious channel in January 1996, repeated many of the same accusations that law enforcement investigators and scholars have been unable to validate for 10 years. These claims put investigators in the unenviable position of trying to disprove a negative. How would one prove earth has never been visited by UFOs?

While satanic crime may be largely mythical, the consequences of the satanic panic have been all too real. As Nathan and Snedeker documented hundreds of adults were falsely convicted, many children suffered months of excruciating interviews in which they were "forced" to confess to things which never occurred and then put into unnecessary treatment programs, and the lives of thousands of families were needlessly disrupted.


While satanic crime may be a giant hoax, the same certainly can not be said of hate crimes. The United States has had a long history of racially-motivated assaults and murders, lynchings, etc. Similarly, at one time or another in our history various immigrant ethnic groups, political dissidents and labor rabble-rousers, women, and homosexuals have withstood systematic victimization by those who opposed them or their ideas and lifestyles. However, the attempt to label crimes by their political or ideological motivation is a rather new phenomenon.

Photo by Steve Rapport

Hate crime as a concept appeared in the mid-1980s. But, what constitutes a race bias crime or hate crime? Does one occur every time a member of one race is involved in a criminal incident with a member of another race? Or, does there have to be a racial motive to the incident? In many cases, a racial motive may be very difficult to prove in court; in others it may be obviously present. While broad enough to include attacks on homosexuals by teenage boys out to prove their real masculinity, hate crime is most often used to refer to an attack by white(s) on blacks/other racial minorities or vise versa in which the motivation is racial hatred. It is also used to refer to the activities of hate groups.

Race and Crime

However, an adequate discussion of hate crimes can not be undertaken without investigating the broader issue of race and crime and looking at generalized victimization patterns. What is the true extent of interracial crime? Statistics show that almost all crime is intraracial: both criminal and victim are members of the same racial group. In comparison, interracial crimes are rare occurrences. Black on white crimes occur more frequently than white on black. In a 1996 report, the Council on Crime reported confirmed this. In 1993, there were an estimated 1.54 million violent crimes against whites committed by blacks and 186,000 violent crimes committed by whites against blacks. In comparison, there were 6 million white on white incidents.

Media Coverage

Nevertheless, hate crimes which involve white perpetrators and black victims are much more likely to receive significant media coverage than the latter. No one has suggested a campaign to eliminate black against white violence (the criminal justice system has long treated black on white violence more seriously, particularly if blacks murder white victims), while campaigns to stem white on black violence and black on black violence appear periodically. Some of the major crime stories of the last 10 years have involved hate crimes or cases in which blacks were falsely accused of crime. These include Bernard Goetz, Howard Beach, Bensonhurst, Rodney King, the Mark Fuhrman tapes, the burning of Craig Wilson in Tampa, the Charles Stuart case in Boston, and Susan Smith. In the latter two incidents, white perpetrators informed police that "a black man did it" leading to false arrests and considerable animosity from the black community. LAPD has been tainted with accusations of racial violence stemming from the Rodney King and Mark Fuhrman incidents. In both Howard Beach and Bensonhurst, blacks were attacked by whites simply because they strayed into a white neighborhood. Bernard Goetz (discussed in depth below) shot four black teens on a New York City subway. The stories of black on white crime which became national news were the Central Park "wilding" incident and the Long Island Rail Road Massacre, although the 1988 Bush campaign used its Willie Horton (not the ex-Detroit Tiger) ad to its advantage.

Shelby Steele, in his Frontline analysis of the Bensonhurst killing of Yusaf Hawkins, discussed the political usages of such incidents and demonstrated that both black and white constituencies draw political strength from media coverage of hate crimes. Hawkins' funeral was attended by a number of black leaders including Jessie Jackson. Rev. Al Sharpton led a number of marches through Bensonhurst, resulting in verbal and physical attacks by the largely Italian-American Bensonhurst natives. Steele's comments focused on the fact that black leaders use incidents like this one to maintain their political power. Yusaf's death became the latest in a litany of racially-motivated killings, stretching back to the civil rights movement, Jim Crow, and slavery. Similarly, white politicians and non-ethnic whites used the event to distance themselves from the Bensonhurst natives by labeling them as racists. While those Italian-Americans may be racist, "we" are beyond that. For these reasons white on black crime is likely to continue to be highlighted by the media.

Black/Asian Violence

A number of crime stories over the past 10 years have dealt with violence that has emerged between blacks and Asian Americans. The major source of friction appears to be the existence of Asian (Korean) groceries in all black neighborhoods. Korean green grocers appeared in New York, Los Angeles, and other large cities starting in the 1970s. They replaced "mom and pop" stores and delis which previously existed in poorer neighborhoods. Many black customers mistakenly believed the Koreans got special government assistance to open their shops, money unavailable to black entrepreneurs. A number of other cultural misunderstandings seemed to perpetuate distrust and ultimately violence. Black community leaders charged that Asians practice racism against them by showing disrespect for their black customers by not making eye contact, while more vigilantly watching black customers for shoplifting. The Korean grocers disagreed, stating that cultural differences have been mistaken for avoidance reactions. However, the grocers admitted they did watch their customers to try and spot shoplifters. A 1990 incident in NY in which a Korean grocer allegedly knocked down a female black patron led to a long boycott of the store by blacks. Also, several Vietnamese were attacked by blacks in NYC in 1991, when they were mistaken for Korean. During the LA Riot, Korean store owners defended their businesses with guns to avoid being looted or burned out. Shootings of store owners by robbers and vice versa occurred in LA Korean-owned groceries before and after the riot.

Bernhard Goetz

This lecture closes with a discussion of the Bernhard Goetz incident because it demonstrates the continuing debate about the use of the concept "hate crime." This case is also instructive of how the media can change sides in its coverage of a story. The media flip-flopped twice in its interpretation of Goetz's actions. On Dec. 22, 1984, Bernhard Goetz shot four young black men on a subway in New York City. From that moment on Goetz became a news media celebrity, even before anyone knew his name. He was ultimately only found guilty of illegally carrying a firearm, which enraged both his detractors and his supporters. The former felt he should have served prison time for the shootings, while supporters blamed NY's overly restrictive gun laws for the fact that Goetz wasn't permitted to carry a gun in the first place.

At first the media as well as the public was overwhelmingly supportive of the mystery gunman. It was assumed that he acted in self-defense; that his life must have been in serious jeopardy in order for him to take such drastic measures. was he the victim of a hate crime? Without a real person to identify with, Goetz was compared to Charles Bronson in Death Wish.

While at first the public seemed hard pressed to believe the story told by Goetz's victims that they had done nothing to incite him, after Goetz's confession became public it seemed he may have gone out looking for trouble. Goetz told of being a previous victim of a mugging and feeling further abused when the assailant was quickly let go by the police. Goetz's description of how he quickly laid out plans in his head of how to incapacitate all four of his "attackers" once he recognized they were about to "toy" with him, was interpreted as premeditation by the media. Had he set himself up to be a victim just so that he could take the law into his own hands? Did he go onto the subway with the intention of committing a hate crime? The press used the Goetz case as an example of vigilante justice and felt it was the media's duty to warn the public of the tragic dangers of allowing the citizenry to carry guns.

The final flip-flop occurred when several of Goetz's victims went on to commit other crimes. One brutally raped a pregnant woman and was sentenced to a long prison term. Many felt this indicated Goetz's actions, that he had correctly surmised that he was in the midst of a robbery and that if he didn't act he might be hurt. While he had only been asked for five dollars, he felt he knew that might happen to him if he did not comply. Maybe Goetz had averted a potential hate crime? Was he singled out for victimization by his skin color?

Critics of the media coverage found fault in two areas: 1) for incorrectly labeling Goetz as a vigilante and 2) for never presenting the public with knowledge of the NY state law concerning self defense so people could ascertain whether Goetz went beyond the law.

Was Goetz a vigilante? Not according to the true definition of the word. Goetz's actions were essentially individual self-defense--maybe an overreaction--but not vigilantism. Vigilantes generally work in groups and pick targets in advance. Vigilantes generally see themselves as either supplementing a corrupt or incompetent criminal justice system, or providing law enforcement where none exists (e.g., the 19th century western frontier). Vigilantes act after crimes have been completed and sometimes stage mock trials. Goetz doesn't really meet these criterion. However, Goetz did feel the NYC criminal justice was inadequate; he believed it had failed to convict his earlier attackers.

A more controversial issue was whether Goetz went too far in defending himself against the advances of his attackers. Wouldn't showing the gun have been enough to frighten his attackers? Did he have to shoot them? What about the 5th shot? Before firing it Goetz was alleged to have said: "You don't look so bad; here's another?" Goetz was acquitted because in NY state citizens are allowed to use deadly force to stop an attempted robbery, even to shoot fleeing felons who have committed robbery. Goetz had greater discretion as a citizen in when he could shoot his gun than the police do since Garner v. Tennessee. When law professor Arthur Miller told a 20/20 audience that Goetz should have first calculated whether to use deadly force, and used it only if and when his life was in immediate danger, he incorrectly stated NY law. In this case, the use of the term "hate crime" seems to shed more heat than light on the subject.

Class Assignment

Go to the Witch Hunt Links Page
Visit two of the sites listed there.
Report back to the class using NetForum on what additional information about the satanic panic you uncovered.

Discussion Questions

Question 1. Why do you think there is such a huge rift between those who believe satanism is a real menace and those who view it as largely a hoax?

Question 2. How should both the media and the criminal justice system respond to claims of satanic crime in the future?

Question 3. Discuss the advantages and disadvantages of the use of the concept "hate crimes" to categorize offenses. Why are hate crimes newsworthy?

Return to the Crime and Media Syllabus

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Copyright 1996 Cecil Greek