When a state senator compares police to terrorists, you expect local papers to have the first say

Editor’s note: In the original version of this post, we wrote that Watchdog.org was “largely funded by the Koch brothers.” In fact, while the Center for Public Integrity has established ties between the news site and the Kochs’ fundraising network, Watchdog’s donors are anonymous and we don’t know exactly who they are.

On March 20, Nebraska State Sen. Ernie Chambers compared police to ISIS terrorists in a legislative committee hearing on a concealed-carry gun bill, one that would allow residents to carry hidden firearms into establishments that serve alcohol and allow off-duty police to carry their weapons when attending events on school grounds.

“The police are licensed to kill us, children, old people,” said Chambers, 77, one of two African Americans in the state’s unicameral legislature. He later said that he is nonviolent and doesn’t own a gun, but that if he did, “Mine would be for the police. And if I carried a gun, I’d want to shoot him first and then ask questions later, like they say the cop ought to do.”

The mainstream Nebraska press ignored Chambers’ comments, as had fellow senators attending the hearing. But Nebraska Watchdog didn’t. One of the more active state affiliates of Watchdog.org, the news site run by the Franklin Center with funding ties to the Koch brothers, Nebraska Watchdog devoted the five days after the story broke exclusively to the Chambers controversy after its initial piece went viral. Fox News jumped into the fray, and soon multiple senators, the governor, and members of the congressional delegation were calling on Chambers to apologize or resign over the comments, accusing him of inciting violence against police officers.

“We try to write enterprise stories that nobody else has, and so we don’t do routine coverage of the Legislature, for example,” Deena Winter of Nebraska Watchdog told me in an email. The site’s stated mission is to expose “government waste, fraud, and abuse,” and it does do legitimate reporting along those lines. “But,” Winter continued, “after this story went national, we did follow up on what happened.”

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The story went national before Nebraska’s mainstream media caught on, and so leading papers like the Omaha World-Herald and Lincoln Journal Star, which might have provided much-needed perspective at the outset, missed an opportunity to take the lead on the story. They could only cover the resulting uproar in the legislature that the national media attention prompted. Most of the initial coverage, meanwhile, contained more heat than light.

Winter’s first piece on Chambers’ comments was headlined “Nebraska Senator compares police to ISIS, says he’d shoot a cop”—and the lede was even more inflammatory: “A black Nebraska state senator compared American police to Islamic terrorists and suggested he’d shoot a cop if only he had a weapon.”

Inflammatory, but accurate? Not exactly. The “if only” phrasing, in particular, implies that Chambers wishes he could just get hold of a gun so that he could go out and shoot a cop. In fact, Chambers was arguing against the proliferation of guns. (Winter told me that the “if only” was added by a copy editor.)

Chambers’ comments came in the context of posing a question to his colleague sponsoring the bill about why his constituents would want such a law (explanatory links added by me to the following transcript):

SENATOR CHAMBERS: Senator, I have to ask you this question. What are they afraid of? Before they could carry these concealed weapons, obviously, nobody killed them, nobody shot them, and now that they can carry these guns, they’re afraid of every…you tell me, since you’re one of the advocates, what are they afraid of?

SENATOR GARRETT: Well, I think you were making a very good point earlier about ISIS and ISIL and the Taliban and the way the world situation is now and so many Americans becoming radicalized. And as much violence as is going on, everybody has a personal feeling of insecurity or security and…

SENATOR CHAMBERS: My ISIS is the police. And you know what the county attorney said, Don Kleine: If the officer makes a mistake, if he’s wrong but he had reason to think that he was right, then he’s clear. I cannot get away with that and shoot you and say, well, I thought he was going to do something. They say, uh-uh, buddy, that doesn’t work. … I would tell young people: If you tell somebody to go across the world to fight for ISIS, they can put you in jail if you just talk about it. If you want to fight injustice, don’t … you don’t have to go around the world to find the ISIS mentality. Your ISIS is in America and you’re likely to die over there, one way or the other. So if you’re going to die, die making your home safe. My home is not threatened by ISIS. Mine is threatened by the police. The police are licensed to kill us, children, old people. They showed a guy on a highway. The highway trooper, he had this elderly black woman down on the ground, just beating the stew out of her, and nothing was done to him. That’s what I see. Now suppose somebody told me somebody from ISIS did that. Then everybody is up in arms: See what cowards they are? They beat women in broad daylight. But when a cop does it, it’s all right. I don’t feel that way. And if I were going to do something—but I’m not a man of violence—I wouldn’t go to Syria, I wouldn’t go to Iraq, I wouldn’t go to Afghanistan, I wouldn’t go to Yemen, I wouldn’t go to Tunisia, I wouldn’t go to Lebanon, I wouldn’t go to Jordan. I would do it right here. Nobody from ISIS ever terrorized us as a people, as the police do daily. And they get away with it and they’ve been given the license now. And people don’t like me to say this. Then you rein in your cops. … If I was going to carry a weapon, it wouldn’t be against you, it wouldn’t be against these people who come here that I might have a dispute with. Mine would be for the police. And if I carried a gun, I’d want to shoot him first and then ask questions later, like they say the cop ought to do.

SENATOR GARRETT: Senator, I…

SENATOR CHAMBERS: But could I get away with it? You know I couldn’t get away with it. They’d better hope I never lose my mind and find out that I’m on my way out of here. (Laughter)

Chambers didn’t start talking about about guns and police out of the blue. The initial Watchdog story implied in its lede that the senator was itching for a chance to shoot cops, but in fact he was questioning why the underlying pro-gun legislation was necessary and what the guns would be used for. And his criticism of police came in the context of recent high-profile incidents in which officers have shot and killed unarmed suspects—nationally and locally in Omaha—and gotten away with it.

Winter says her initial piece was published before the full transcript of the hearing was released. To her credit, her story did mention the context of police violence (including one incident Nebraska Watchdog had reported on) and interviewed Chambers himself, with a brief mention of his efforts to reduce the prevalence of guns in his north Omaha community. Fox News’ truncated version of the same story completely ignored the gun issue, as did National Review, The Washington Examiner, and Breitbart. Mediaite and The Daily Caller did offer a bit of context, quoting University of Nebraska political science professor Ari Kohen, who had written a pair of blog posts critical of Winter’s reporting. (Mediaite did, however, make the common mistake of calling Chambers a Democrat. He is an independent.)

Winter took care to include the gun context in her subsequent pieces on the issue. This did not satisfy Kohen, however. “There’s no walking back and adding context once it’s out there on Fox News and all these other places,” he told me. Winter, Kohen added, “could have made the same point about his inflammatory rhetoric while also reporting about the situation in the hearing.”

From Winter’s point of view, the inflammatory rhetoric is the key issue—and it is on this point that she has dished out some media criticism of her own. Back in early February, she questioned why the Lincoln Journal Star (where she once worked) and other mainstream Nebraska outlets did not report on previous eyebrow-raising comments by Chambers, and she repeated the criticism last week when those outlets did not report on his latest statements. (Reporters for the Journal Star and the Omaha World-Herald declined to comment for this story.)

Winter has a point. It’s understandable why these legacy outlets want to refrain from the “gotcha,” outrage-driven reporting that has become the rage in the social-media era. They obviously have more important tasks at hand than wall-to-wall coverage of “shit Ernie says.” And after years of covering his filibusters and floor digressions—he is the longest-serving senator in state history—they may simply tune him out, like the senator who dismissed Chambers’ recent comments as just “Ernie being Ernie.”

But they don’t do their readers any favors by ignoring Chambers’ boldest, angriest, most outrageous statements, either—or waiting for them to go viral before reporting them. When a state senator compares the police to terrorists, you expect the local paper to have the first say on it, rather than ceding it to the outrage peddlers; these reporters know more about Chambers, and more about the legislative issues at hand, than the national, mainly ideological outlets that have driven the most eyeballs to this story. Both the World-Herald and Journal Star editorial boards agreed that Chambers’ comments were newsworthy and offensive, although not entirely without merit in context; it would have been better if their reporters had been quicker to the story.

Chambers doesn’t deserve a break from the media; he’s responsible for his own words, and it’s easy to understand why a reasonable person might deem them offensive.

But despite his bouts of logorrhea and foot-in-mouth, he’s a formidable legislator with a constituency and serious points to make. Some reporters may be tuning him out, others may take notice only when he borders on offensiveness or crosses the line entirely. Serious reporters should pay attention to what he says—all of it, and in context—and not try to ignore it, soft-pedal it, trivialize it or sensationalize it.

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Deron Lee is CJR’s correspondent for Iowa, Missouri, Kansas, and Nebraska. A writer and copy editor who has spent nine years with the National Journal Group, he has also contributed to The Hotline and the Lawrence Journal-World. He lives in the Kansas City area. Follow him on Twitter at @deron_lee.