The Media Today

The Breonna Taylor decision, violence, and power

September 25, 2020

On Wednesday, Black Lives Matter protesters in Louisville and around the world waited with bated breath for an announcement from Daniel Cameron, Kentucky’s attorney general: a charging decision, or lack thereof, in the case of Breonna Taylor, an emergency medical technician who was killed by police at her home. Cameron called Taylor’s killing a “tragedy,” then revealed that none of the officers involved would face criminal charges for it. A grand jury in Taylor’s case did indict one of the officers, Brett Hankison, on three charges of “wanton endangerment”—related not to Taylor, but to Hankison’s spraying bullets into a neighboring apartment. (None of the occupants of that apartment were harmed; a federal investigation into Taylor’s killing has yet to be concluded.) “In our system, criminal justice isn’t the quest for revenge,” Cameron said. “It’s the quest for truth, evidence, and facts.”

On the streets of Louisville and other cities, where protesters have massed every day for months to demand justice for Taylor, the announcement triggered a fresh outpouring of shock, sorrow, and anger. Initial coverage on MSNBC, in particular, channeled similar emotions—Joy Reid called the decision a “Black Lives Don’t Matter ruling”—and chyrons and headlines accurately communicated, sometimes in pained terms, that no officers had been charged. The coverage wasn’t uniform, though. In push notifications and breaking-news tweets, numerous major news outlets linked the indictment to Taylor’s killing without mentioning the crucial detail about her neighbors’ apartment; at least one tweet (by Axios) inaccurately stated that the grand jury indicted the officer who killed Taylor. (According to a ballistics analysis, it was a different cop, Myles Cosgrove, who fired the fatal shot.)

New from CJR: Deconstructing the News Desert

Subsequent coverage was mostly about protesters’ reaction and Taylor’s life, but many cable hosts and news reports dwelled in the weeds of what Cameron said had happened in Taylor’s apartment the night that she was killed. I wish they hadn’t. We don’t know exactly what evidence Cameron gave the grand jury; publicly, key claims officials have provided about Taylor’s killing remain in dispute. Cameron said that a civilian witness heard officers identify themselves before they raided her apartment—but a lawyer for Kenneth Walker, Taylor’s partner, claims that the witness initially told police that he didn’t hear any identification, an account that matches those of many other witnesses in Taylor’s building. There are big question marks, too, over the legal basis for the warrant that the officers used to justify entering Taylor’s apartment. Some coverage—on CNN, for example—raised queries; other coverage glossed over them. But there’s a bigger problem here: focusing on the legalese instead of the human tragedy.

Since Cameron’s announcement, reporting has also highlighted “unrest”—in particular, the shooting, on Wednesday night, of two Louisville police officers; the news came in a flurry of push alerts. (Both officers survived and are recovering.) Even before any protests got going—before Cameron’s announcement, in fact—coverage fed ominous warnings: downtown Louisville was being boarded up; the mayor had declared a “state of emergency”; a curfew would be enforced. These were all statements of fact—but they also adopted the narrative framing devices of law enforcement. Militaristic police tactics have become so commonplace in America that, too often, we fail to note how inappropriate they are. As the hours went on, I saw much less reporting—and received no push alerts—about the incidents of police aggression: officers in Louisville threatening to deploy tear gas; cops in Minneapolis and Atlanta actually deploying tear gas; an officer in Seattle rolling his bike over the head of a protester lying on the ground. In Denver, Buffalo, and, last night, LA, members of the public drove their vehicles into the crowds.

Yesterday, business owners in Louisville told the local Courier-Journal that, although they had anticipated property damage and violence on Wednesday night, they hadn’t actually seen much. (“Don’t believe what the news says,” a restaurant worker told the Courier-Journal. “It wasn’t bad at all.”) That is often true of protests, and yet, as Fabiola Cineas has reported for Vox, all summer long, coverage has tended to overemphasize isolated incidents of violence and vandalism while peaceful demonstrations have struggled to receive press attention. Which, of course, plays right into the hands of President Trump, who believes that conjuring the impression of devastation in cities run by Democrats will help his chances for reelection.

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On Wednesday, as news of the Cameron announcement started to circulate, Brian Karem, a White House correspondent for Playboy, asked Trump whether—in light of the “rioting in Louisville” and elsewhere—he’d commit “to making sure that there is a peaceful transferral of power after the election.” Trump refused to do so; yesterday, he refused again. The idea that Trump might foment violence for political gain is, of course, not hypothetical—he’s already done it. (Lest we forget a recent example: in response to protests in Portland, Oregon, federal agents fired weapons at protesters.) Media coverage needs to train its focus on the actors who have the greatest institutional power to inflict violence, be they Trump or a local police department. Interrogating power imbalances is at the heart of our job, and essential to seeking justice for Breonna Taylor.

Below, more on Breonna Taylor, the protests, and Trump:

Other notable stories:

  • Breaking this morning: four people have been stabbed near the former offices of Charlie Hebdo, a French satirical magazine, in Paris. Two of the victims are thought to have life-threatening injuries; according to Le Monde, they both work for Premières Lignes, a company that makes investigative documentaries. Two suspects have been arrested; the story is still developing. In 2015, two jihadists murdered eleven staffers in Charlie Hebdo’s offices after the magazine published cartoons mocking the Prophet Muhammad; recently, alleged accomplices of the jihadists went on trial, and Charlie Hebdo republished the cartoons, which led to further threats, including from Al Qaeda.
  • The Facebook Oversight Board, a group of experts that will have the power to rule on controversial posts, will begin their work next month, in time to hear cases related to the presidential election. The board has been likened to a “Supreme Court” for Facebook—but as CJR’s Mathew Ingram has written, many observers fear that it will prove “an elaborate exercise in window-dressing.” This morning, prominent critics of Facebook, including the journalists Carole Cadwalladr and Maria Ressa, announced that they’re forming an unofficial counterpart to the board, called the “Real Facebook Oversight Board.” NBC’s Olivia Solon has more details.
  • Yesterday, a federal judge dismissed a defamation suit that Karen McDougal—a former model whose story of an affair with Trump was killed by the National Enquirer—brought against Tucker Carlson, of Fox News. Carlson accused McDougal of extortion. Fox’s lawyers convinced a judge that since Carlson clearly practices “nonliteral commentary” and “exaggeration” on his show, his remarks were protected by the First Amendment.
  • Recently, leaders of the Miami Herald discovered that El Nuevo Herald, its Spanish-language sister paper, had routinely been publishing paid inserts that contained racist and anti-Semitic statements. No editor had reviewed the inserts before they were published. Now, according to Because Miami, Nancy San Martin, the managing editor of El Nuevo Herald, has resigned, and Mindy Marques, who served as executive editor and publisher of both Herald papers, will relinquish her publisher role.
  • On Wednesday, bosses at Tribune Publishing—which has imposed sharp cuts on local papers that it owns, including shuttering their physical offices—told employees, in an email, that they’d soon be receiving big bonuses. But the bonuses were fake: bosses were dangling them to test staffers’ susceptibility to phishing scams. A spokesperson later conceded that the exercise was “insensitive.” The Post’s Erik Wemple has more.
  • For CJR, Jorge Bello profiles the Red Hook Star-Revue, a free community paper in Brooklyn that aims to reacquaint readers with “the magic of print.” George Fiala, its owner, uses the cash flow from a mailing company that he runs to help fund the paper, which has continued to print despite the coronavirus downturn. “If the Star-Revue still exists,” Bello writes, “it’s only because Fiala wills it into existence every month.”
  • The Washington City Paper, a storied alt-weekly in DC, hoped to continue printing on a weekly schedule through the pandemic, but has concluded—with ad sales and events revenue cratering—that it can no longer afford to do so. The paper will now come out monthly, a cut that management is describing as a “temporary” measure to “protect staff and salaries as best we can.” It will continue to publish new stories regularly online.
  • Lauren Johnson, a former advertising executive at Esquire, is suing Hearst, the magazine’s owner, on the grounds that Jack Essig, her boss, engaged in gender- and age-based discrimination. Hearst says that it investigated Johnson’s claims and found them to be meritless. Patrick Coffee and Lucia Moses have more for Business Insider.
  • And Sir Harold Evans—a giant of British and American journalism who held prominent positions at The Times of London, Reuters, and Random House, among other accomplishments—has died. He was ninety-two. Tina Brown, his wife, wrote that he was her “soulmate” and “the most magical of men.”

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.