Injustice, Virality, and Mourning in Minneapolis: How the press is covering the death of George Floyd

On Monday, Derek Chauvin, a white police officer in Minneapolis, arrested a Black man named George Floyd. Chauvin pinned him to the ground, his knee pressing on Floyd’s neck. Afterward, Floyd died, at the age of forty-six. His death—the latest in a long line of examples of racism and police brutality, also seen recently in Georgia, Kentucky, and New York—sparked fury. Last night, protesters in Minneapolis set fire to a police precinct; officers fled. Cable news carried footage of the blaze. MSNBC’s Ali Velshi, who was live on the scene, tried to explain the unfolding chaos to a colleague, Brian Williams, while wearing a medical mask to protect against the spread of covid-19. Williams cut in, and when he threw back to Velshi, Velshi could be heard saying, “We got gas. Masks on. Masks on, guys.” Williams waited as Velshi strapped a gas mask over his face covering. “Trump’s America is the cable correspondent having to change from his anti-pandemic mask to his anti-teargas mask on live TV,” CNN’s Amanda Katz tweeted.

Floyd’s death became national news hours after his arrest, when a distressing video, documenting his abuse, circulated on social media. It’s a tragically common trajectory. Recently, CJR’s Alexandria Neason reflected on the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, a Black man who was shot while out for a run in Brunswick, Georgia, and Breonna Taylor, an emergency medical technician in Louisville, Kentucky, who was killed by police officers who stormed into her home. Video (belatedly) emerged of Arbery’s death, but not of Taylor’s; Arbery got more play in the press. In virtually every instance of violence against Black Americans, Neason wrote, “the stories that received the most attention were those that came with a sensational, horrible video.” Writing for The New Yorker yesterday, in response to the death of Floyd, Jelani Cobb weighed the dilemma these videos pose. “They are the macabre documentary of current events,” he wrote, “but the question remains about whether they do more to humanize or to objectify the unwilling figures at the center of their narratives.”

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Once the Floyd video went viral, protesters gathered—not only in Minneapolis, but also in Louisville, New York, Los Angeles, Denver, and elsewhere. Chauvin and three other officers were fired. Yesterday, law enforcement officials in Minnesota called a press conference to discuss the case, which was carried live on cable. Speculation mounted that charges would be brought against Chauvin, but they were not; Mike Freeman, the attorney for Hennepin County, of which Minneapolis is the seat, acknowledged that the video of Floyd’s arrest was “graphic, and horrific, and terrible,” but also said “there is other evidence that does not support a criminal charge.” Freeman’s office later clarified that he had misspoken, and was merely saying that all possible evidence should be reviewed. But the damage was done. The presser left journalists incredulous. On CNN, Don Lemon slammed the officials for requesting that further witnesses come forward, especially any who might have footage of Floyd’s arrest. “How much more video do they need?” Lemon said. “Is this some sort of a joke?”

In the same monologue, Lemon mentioned that “no one wants to hear” from President Trump right now. Soon, however, Trump weighed in. Early Friday morning, he tweeted that he might send in the National Guard to restore order in Minneapolis, called the protesters “THUGS,” and suggested that he would have them shot. “When the looting starts, the shooting starts,” Trump wrote. “Thank you!” (Trump seemed to be quoting a Miami police chief from the 1960s.) In response, Twitter did something that it had just started trying out a few days earlier: acknowledge the harm of Trump’s message. Citing a rule against “glorifying violence,” Twitter hid the “shooting starts” tweet behind a warning notification and limited users’ ability to like and share it. It was the second time this week that Twitter had taken action against Trump; on Tuesday the company appended fact checks to misleading tweets he’d posted about mail-in voting. Trump lashed out, first threatening to shutter Twitter (he can’t); yesterday, he signed an executive order intended to make social media platforms face greater legal liability for users’ posts. Some legal experts said Trump’s order was likely unenforceable, but it’s an unresolved question. By hiding Trump’s tweet about Minneapolis, Twitter raised the stakes.

In the meantime, extraordinary images continue to emerge from Minneapolis. The demonstrations persist, and reporters have become part of the picture, too. About two hours ago, Omar Jimenez, a CNN correspondent, who is Black, and two crew members who were with him—Bill Kirkos, a producer, and Leonel Mendez, a photojournalistwere arrested live on air. They appeared to be complying with police instructions and could be heard identifying themselves as journalists, but police officers proceeded to make the arrests anyway. Josh Campbell, another CNN correspondent, who is white, said that he was also approached by police, but was allowed to stay put. “I was treated much differently than [Jimenez] was,” Campbell said. Shortly before 8am, Jimenez, Kirkos, and Mendez were released. Tim Walz, the governor of Minnesota, reportedly spoke with Jeff Zucker, CNN’s president, and “deeply apologized” for the arrests.

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With so much to parse—including the safety of reporters, and Trump and Twitter’s ideas—the press must not lose its grip on the plot: systemic racism in America. It’s a story of urgent importance, and not only when we have disturbing images to show non-Black people. “All too often, Black people’s lives become pawns in a war of attention and scarce resources,” as Neason wrote. “The dominant storylines are the ones that shock people on social media; eventually, the general public moves on and the consequences of trauma inflicted on Black people retreats back to the corners where it has always been.”

Below, more on Minneapolis, Trump, and violence:

  • “Unarmed black man”: Kelly McBride, of the Poynter Institute, writes that descriptions of Floyd as an “unarmed Black man,” which have been common in media coverage this week, reinforce biased assumptions that journalists should debunk. The phrase, McBride argues, channels a “premise that rooted deep in the collective American psyche is…a false assumption that black people are more likely to be criminals.”
  • “Looters”: Some coverage, especially in right-wing media, has increasingly focused on the lawlessness of the protesters in Minneapolis, often at the expense of Floyd’s death. For Jezebel, Ashley Reese writes that that’s the wrong focus. “For far too many Americans, it is easier to mourn the destruction of a series of chain stores, owned and operated by millionaires, than the death of a Black American,” Reese observes. “A stolen lamp is worthy of a kind of empathy that a black person could only dream of.”
  • On the ground: On Tuesday, Andy Mannix, a reporter with the Minneapolis Star Tribune, tweeted that he’d been struck with what appeared to be a rubber bullet while he was out covering the protests. Yesterday, Mannix wrote on Twitter that he’d been contacted by people asking him to remove photos he’s been posting during his reporting, because they make protesters identifiable. Mannix declined, arguing in a tweet that deleting the photos runs counter to his job. He later deleted that tweet, claiming that he’d received death threats for posting it, and that he’d been doxed.
  • On Twitter: Yesterday, Trump retweeted a video that included the line “The only good Democrat is a dead Democrat.” Amid all the chaos elsewhere, the retweet didn’t get much attention. Mehdi Hasan, of The Intercept, argues that that’s evidence of “how broken the media coverage of Trump is.”


Other notable stories:

  • CBS News laid off roughly fifty employees this week. In a memo, Susan Zirinsky, the network’s president, blamed the cuts on both “the economic fallout from the pandemic” and “cost-savings initiatives” linked to the merger of CBS and Viacom.
  • For CJR, David Roth assesses the coverage of “Obamagate,” a poorly defined conspiracy theory, pushed by Trump and right-wing media, that Roth compares to “a Benny Hill chase scene unfolding endlessly inside an Escher landscape.” The ambiguity of Obamagate, Roth writes, “reveals Trump not as a savvy maestro deftly playing the atavism of cable news to his advantage, but as just another customer—a junkie not just wholly beholden to his habit, but sky high on what is very much his own supply.”
  • The White House typically publishes economic projections each summer, but it won’t do so this year. Sources told Jeff Stein and Josh Dawsey, of the Washington Post, that the volatility caused by the pandemic makes such projections moot. Critics say the administration is simply trying to downplay dire economic news in an election year. The projections have been released annually since at least the seventies.
  • For the Post, Hank Green argues that Spotify’s ambition to corner the podcast market is bad news. To date, podcasting has been “blissfully free of the deep-moated, monopoly-chasing platforms that control so much of the video and text-based internet,” Green writes. Spotify’s expansion could change that. “My guess—and I’m hardly alone—is that Spotify wants to become to podcasts what YouTube is for video.”
  • For CJR, Zoë Beery rounds up bad news stories—about politics, the environment, and more—that have been buried during the pandemic. “Whether by design or coincidence, politicians and others are taking cover under coronavirus news to move forward on their plans,” Beery writes, “and with so much to say about the pandemic, journalists have been letting slide what might otherwise land above the fold.”
  • Yesterday, lawmakers in China authorized their government to institute a sweeping crackdown on dissent in Hong Kong; China is expected to extend mainland security measures there until September. The plan sparked protests in Hong Kong; police pepper-sprayed people on the scene, including journalists. Vice has more. Hong Kong’s legislature is moving separately to criminalize “insulting” China’s national anthem.
  • And for the Times, Dana Rubinstein profiles a “breakout star” of pandemic TV: The Power Broker, Robert Caro’s hefty biography of Robert Moses, which has appeared in the background of “TV interview after TV interview with journalists and politicians working from their homes in New York City and beyond.” Caro said that his book’s recent ubiquity on-screen has been “a stunning and humbling experience for me.”

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.