It’s hard to exaggerate the praise heaped on Air Force Gen. Jay Silveria after his impassioned speech against racism went viral at the end of September.
Silveria, superintendent of the Air Force Academy, spoke after five black cadet candidates at the academy’s prep school found racial slurs written on message boards outside their rooms.
“If you can’t treat someone from another race or a different color skin with dignity and respect, then you need to get out,” an angry Silveria told students. When video of his speech hit the internet and then cable TV, and then the old-fashioned press, the applause began.
But in a few of the nation’s largest media outlets, the acclaim wasn’t just about Silveria. For some, celebrating Silveria was at least as much, if not more, about President Trump than it was about the Air Force general.
The Washington Post published an editorial headlined, “Moral guidance, if not from the president.”
On television, CNN took a leading role in lauding Silveria. Anchor Brooke Baldwin began a segment on the general by saying, “Some say the president’s rhetoric is divisive, not that of a commander-in-chief. Others will say that’s why they love him.”
Now, as everyone knows, there’s an update to the story. The cadet candidate who reported the racial slurs has admitted that he was behind the whole thing. It was all a hoax. The young man, who is black, has left the academy.
Anyone who follows such incidents, certainly anyone in the news business, should have known that there was a substantial chance the Air Force Academy vandalism was a fake. Too many such incidents have turned out to be hoaxes not to raise suspicions about new ones, pending the results of an investigation.
There was the young black man in Kansas who admitted writing racist graffiti on his car. There was the black man in Michigan charged in three racist graffiti incidents at Eastern Michigan University. There was the young Muslim woman in New York who admitted making up a story about being attacked by white Trump supporters. The black Bowling Green State University student who said white Trump supporters threw rocks at her. The University of Louisiana student who said a white man wearing a Trump hat tried to pull off her hijab.
Then there was the wave of stories about threats to Jewish community centers — stories that received widespread news coverage in the context of the new Trump presidency. Most of the threats were made by a teenager in Israel, with the others made by a former journalist who was somehow trying to get back at a former girlfriend.
None of that means that all hate crimes reports are false. But it does mean people reporting and commenting on them should be cautious until the facts are known.
Gen. Silveria chose not to be cautious.
Now, Silveria has chosen to double down on his message. “Regardless of the circumstances under which those words were written, they were written, and that deserved to be addressed,” Silveria said in a statement to the Colorado Springs Gazette. “You can never overemphasize the need for a culture of dignity and respect — and those who don’t understand those concepts aren’t welcome here.”
There’s also a need for accuracy when the head of the Air Force Academy makes a high-profile statement that reaches millions of Americans.