Posted by Curt on 27 August, 2014 at 5:21 pm. 1 comment.


Jack Dunphy:

The Media

About ten years ago, I learned a valuable lesson in how some news reporters operate.  There had been a series of racially charged incidents between black and Hispanic residents in South Central Los Angeles, and on this particular day the friction erupted in a chaotic scene at a public high school.  Scores of students engaged in a melee on the campus at lunchtime, requiring a large police response to restore order.  Anxious parents, already aware of previous incidents at the school, heard the sirens and the police helicopter and flocked to the streets outside the campus, which remained closed while officers sorted out the mess inside the gates.

Out on the street, I watched as a Los Angeles Times reporter worked the crowd, scribbling on her notepad as she moved from one group of parents to the next.  Finally she came to one woman, the loudest and most obnoxious in the entire gathering, who railed on and on with complaints about the school, the police, and anything else she could think of while the reporter did her best to scratch it all down.  When the story appeared in the Times the next day, this was the only person found worthy of a lengthy quote, this despite the fact that I had seen the reporter speaking with any number of calmer, more reasonable people.  The reporter, and/or her editors, made the conscious choice to present only the most inflammatory version of what had happened at the school.

What we have seen on television since the death of Michael Brown is this same media mindset but on a far larger scale.  It’s not that the reporting out of Ferguson has been deliberately false, it’s that so much of it has been sensationalistic and produced with the clear objective of furthering controversy.  Controversy sells newspapers and draws viewers for television news programs.  And in the present case, it gives New York- and Washington-based reporters the opportunity to get out on the streets in flyover country so they can later pretend to understand what has happened.

There has been a competition among people in the media to see who can find the angriest person and haul him before a camera and a microphone.  This has resulted in some awkward moments on the air, as when CNN’s Don Lemon interviewed rapper Talib Kweli, who felt the newsman, in failing to properly introduce himself, had not accorded him the proper level of respect.  It’s hard to say which of them came away looking sillier, Kweli for his childish display of entitlement, or Lemon for his acquiescing to it.

Even worse has been the willingness displayed by reporters and talking heads to perpetuate the poisonous myth that the greatest danger facing young black men on America’s streets is the threat of police officers looking to shoot them without provocation.  Examples abound, but perhaps the most egregious I came across was on (where else?) MSNBC, where an exchange between Hardball host Chris Matthews, columnist Eugene Robinson, and attorney Michelle Bernard descended into absurdity when Bernard spoke of America’s “war on black boys.”

“Is somebody going to shoot me?” Bernard quoted her 11-year-old son as asking.  And she went further: “My daughter watched the news and looked at me and she said, ‘Why is it that they only do this to black people?’”

Pity the children being raised on such foolishness.  Even if one accepts the allegation that there was no legal justification for the officer to shoot Michael Brown, there remains the stubborn fact that for every black male killed by a police officer in the United States, about 60 are killed by other black males.  I suspect that both Matthews and Robinson know this, but neither of them dared challenge Bernard’s patent nonsense.  But why let reality get in the way of a good myth?

This desire to propagate the myth is manifested in other forms, as well, such as the suppression, or even outright distortion, of information that runs counter to it.  Witness NBC’s editing of George Zimmerman’s 911 call to police shortly before he shot and killed Trayvon Martin, and CNN’s on-air speculation that Zimmerman used a racial slur during the same call.  How long did it take before we saw photographs depicting the extent of Zimmerman’s injuries?  And recall the Duke lacrosse case, in which exculpatory evidence was suppressed not only by the media but even the prosecutor himself.

The repeated references to “unarmed African-American teen Michael Brown” are reminiscent of another racially charged incident from 1991.  How often did we hear the phrase “motorist Rodney King” back then?  Surely some people were given to believe “Motorist” was the man’s first name.  But it was easier to peddle the myth by labeling him a motorist than it would have been by telling the truth, which is that he was a paroled robber, drunk and perhaps high on PCP, fleeing from the California Highway Patrol at a hundred miles per hour.

And so it is with Michael Brown, the “gentle giant” who was revealed to have conducted himself less than gently while robbing a store of a box of cheap cigars just minutes before his fatal encounter with police.  It took a week for this information to come out, and even when it did, some in the media were all but apologizing for airing it.

Captain Ron Johnson

It was inevitable that when the protests that followed Michael Brown’s death devolved into violence and looting that someone would be found to replace Ferguson police chief Thomas Jackson as the face of law enforcement in the city, and it was just as inevitable that the person chosen would be black.  Captain Ron Johnson of the Missouri Highway Patrol seemed ideal for the role.  He was a native of Ferguson, and he projected the air of calm confidence one hopes to see in a man placed in that situation.  When he enjoyed a day in the sun by marching along with protesters and promising a less confrontational approach by police, the strategy appeared to work, but only for one night.

The following night the shooters and looters were back, and when police did little to respond, in essence abandoning the business owners of the town to the appetites of a bunch of thugs, Johnson looked weak and ineffectual.  There is no better way to ensure that disorder will continue than by demonstrating that those who engage in it will suffer no consequences.

The demands placed on Johnson were daunting: he had to coordinate the police response from departments throughout the St. Louis area, meshing together hundreds of officers who may never have met each other, much less had the opportunity to train together.  And he had to be the PR man at the same time, showing the locals and the wider world that the police weren’t as bad as people had been led to believe.  All well and good, but when on Aug. 17 he appeared in uniform at a church event where Michael Brown’s family was present, he addressed them personally and said, “I’m sorry.”

The men and women under his command might well have asked, “Sorry for what, exactly?”  Had Johnson accepted as true the charge that Michael Brown was shot and killed without justification?  And he went on to describe his own son as a young man who “wears his pants sagging, wears his hat cocked to the side, got tattoos on his arms . . .”  In other words his son, with Captain Johnson’s blessing, apparently, chooses to adorn himself so as to emulate the very people Johnson was brought in to deal with: the looters and vandals who had been rampaging on the streets of Ferguson nearly every night for a week.  What was the value in the revelation about his son?

The speech went over big with the audience, who were often on their feet cheering and applauding, but anyone waiting for some words of condemnation, or even mild disapproval, for the looters would come away disappointed.

It’s all well and good to have a warm and fuzzy police spokesman be the public image of law enforcement, but somewhere away from the cameras there needs to be someone who, when chaos breaks out, can lead cops into the fray and bring order back to the streets.  Johnson is not that man.  You can lead the protest march or you can lead the police, but you can’t lead both.

The Police, “Militarized” and Otherwise

Last week on I wrote a post called “Lose the Camouflage, Please,” in which I criticized the soldierly appearance of many of the police officers facing off with protesters in Ferguson.  Camouflage fatigues have no place on the streets of any American city, regardless of the chaos that might be reigning.  But I erred in being critical of the sight of snipers aiming their rifles into crowds of what I had been led to believe were peaceful protesters (see “Media” discussion above).  Now we know there were armed men in those crowds, and that some of those purportedly peaceful protesters took a break from looting at night only for as long as long as it took to shoot someone.  This being the case, better for a police officer to be equipped with a rifle and perched up high than with a pistol at street level should the need arise to engage a gunman concealed among innocents.

And I reject the notion that the mere sight of a group of police officers, whatever their uniform and equipment, is somehow justification for ransacking a block of shops.  Yet this notion persists, even among some in law enforcement.  I recall the 2005 memorial service for Stanley “Tookie” Williams, who at long last had been executed for his role in four 1979 murders.  The service was held at a church in South Central Los Angeles, and a good many of the mourners were, like Williams himself, gang members.  At one point there was friction between some of these gang members and members of the LAPD who were there to keep the peace.  The time came for officers to form a skirmish line and move a large group of gangsters out of the street.  Incredibly, a senior LAPD commander, a man who had spent his career comfortably seated in an office chair, ordered officers not to wear their helmets and face shields out of fear of angering the crowd.  Yes, better for an officer to take a bottle to the head or a brick to the face than offend the delicate sensibilities of a bunch of gangsters.

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