The Media Today

Resetting the relationship between the press and the police

June 11, 2020

In the two and a half weeks since George Floyd, a Black man in Minneapolis, was killed in police custody, the US has entered its most sustained evaluation of law enforcement in years. In Minneapolis, a veto-proof majority of city councilors pledged to abolish the city’s existing police department and start again. Camden, New Jersey—which took a similar step in 2012—is having a media moment as a possible case study, and broader calls to “defund the police,” previously dismissed as a niche concern, are echoing in mainstream coverage.

The centrality of law enforcement to American popular culture is being questioned; this week, the police reality shows Cops and Live P.D. were canceled—the latter despite high ratings and a recent long-term renewal—amid concerns about the narratives and perspectives that they promote. Yesterday, Amazon imposed a one-year moratorium on police use of its facial-recognition software. Democrats in Congress are pushing a package of police reforms, and their Republican colleagues (for now, at least) have left the door open to some kind of bill; even President Trump, who has been more reticent and has pushed an aggressive “LAW & ORDER” message, is reportedly mulling an executive order that would offer a “framework” for legislative reform. Previous tipping points have come to nothing, but they also haven’t involved the massive swings in public sentiment that we’ve seen since Floyd’s killing. “I’ve never seen opinion shift this fast or deeply,” the Republican pollster Frank Luntz said this week. “This is big. This is ‘Beatles on Ed Sullivan’ big.”

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The reforms under discussion include measures that would boost police transparency, both within and between departments, and as they face the public. On the federal level, proposals put forward by Congressional Democrats would create a publicly-searchable national database of police misconduct, and impose other public reporting requirements, including around use-of-force and body-camera policies. (The Republican package, so far as one exists, contains transparency suggestions, too.) Locally, legislators in New York state voted Tuesday to scrap a decades-old law that kept police disciplinary records, including complaints made against officers, from being publicly released; Governor Andrew Cuomo has said he will sign the repeal. Similar steps are being mooted across the country, from Delaware to Hawai’i. Such reforms would clearly help the press hold the police to account. Some reform proposals involve the media more specifically; in New York City, for instance, Comptroller Scott Stringer is calling on Mayor Bill de Blasio to end the NYPD’s authority over press credentials—a power officers have used to exclude disfavored outlets and threaten reporters—and run the process through the mayor’s office. As Noah Hurowitz writes for CJR today, this would be welcome, even if the mayor’s office isn’t an ideal arbiter of press rights, either. The current NYPD system, Hurowitz notes, is a “classic catch-22”: you need to show work requiring a press pass to get a press pass.

At this moment of reckoning, the press has a dual responsibility with respect to the police. Firstly, we must continue to shine a spotlight on reform efforts, and not—as has so often been the case with gun legislation, for example—let both lawmakers and law enforcement off the hook for inaction by dropping the issue the minute attention turns elsewhere. Lives are on the line here. It’s our job to help convene a debate about the best way to save those lives, and to ensure that all options for reform, including those that are radical, are given a fair hearing, and not dismissed, as they often are, as immature progressive fads. Secondly, we must reevaluate how we cover policing, in terms of the behaviors we choose to spotlight, the language we choose to use, and—most crucially—whose accounts we choose to believe.

News organizations have long been credulous of the police, and communicated that credulity to news consumers. For CJR’s recent print magazine on disinformation, Alexandria Neason charted the history of the press-police relationship, looking, in particular, at the skewed narratives we’ve allowed officials to build around police brutality. For decades, reporters relied on cops for tips, so avoided coverage that might alienate them as sources; post-Watergate, that started to change, but the professionalized police comms operations that superseded unofficial information-trading have themselves become vectors of misinformation. The advent of body cameras and the wave of citizen videos of police brutality have been helpful, but very often, the police continue to control the dissemination of basic facts. “Law enforcement still has the upper hand,” Neason writes. “American culture, including the press, gives cops the benefit of the doubt.” (Shows like Cops may not be journalism, but we all float on the same societal currents.)

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Since Floyd’s killing, some of the problems with our coverage have been glaringly apparent, including, as CJR’s Mike Laws explored last week, the discrepancy between the passive, soft language we use to describe police misconduct, and the active, hard words we reserve for protesters. We’ve also seen a wave of examples—many of them caught on camera—of officers physically abusing journalists, and of outright lies to the public. The Minnesota State Patrol claimed it released three CNN journalists it arrested when it confirmed they were members of the media, even though they could be heard repeatedly identifying themselves as such during their arrests. The Park Police in Washington, DC, denied tear-gassing peaceful protesters outside the White House, then said they shouldn’t have denied doing so, then denied it again. Police in Buffalo initially claimed that Martin Gugino, an older man who was violently shoved to the ground by officers, “was injured when he tripped and fell.” Police in Philadelphia said a student pushed an officer off his bike; in fact, the officer beat the student with a baton. The list goes on.

Such recent conduct—and the killing of Floyd—has been eye-opening for many in the press (not that we should have needed it to open our eyes); consequently, law enforcement generally is facing sharper scrutiny than it has for years. On Tuesday, Mike O’Meara, the head of New York City’s police union, lashed out at this scrutiny; standing in front of a group of officers (who appeared overwhelmingly to be white), O’Meara brandished his police badge, and accused politicians and the press of treating cops like “animals and thugs.” “We’ve been locked out of the conversation,” he said. “We’ve been vilified. It’s disgusting.” The problem, of course, is the reverse—for too long, many police departments have dictated the terms of the conversation, and the press has been complicit in laundering their one-sided stories. It’s time for that to stop. This present, transformative moment might be the push we needed to permanently change our approach.

Below, more on this moment:

  • “Breaking point”: For The Atlantic, Wesley Lowery has a definitive account of how Floyd’s killing in Minneapolis became a “breaking point” in the conversation over police brutality and racial justice. “Activists I’ve spoken with in recent days share a unanimous belief that this time is different,” Lowery writes. “Years into the movement, the potential for true progress may finally be at hand, in no small part because the same cycle of unabated violence that has infuriated black activists is finally, due to the unrelenting stream of video evidence, forcing many white Americans to wake up.”
  • Mainstreaming narratives, I: For the Times, Charlie Warzel argues that the present shift in public opinion proves that online movements—which are often dismissed as being disconnected from “real life”—can have huge, tangible impact. “What begins online and is castigated as an unrepresentative view gradually builds consensus, in this case, tracking to our current moment,” Warzel writes. “When, at last, it reaches critical mass it is treated as conventional wisdom by those who once dismissed it.”
  • Mainstreaming narratives, II: CJR’s Neason reports from a (virtual) conference, hosted by CUNY’s Center for Community Media, that convened leaders from America’s Black press to discuss their role in covering the protests and this broader moment. Elinor Tatum, the editor and publisher of New York’s Amsterdam News, said, “It’s interesting to see how the Black press will begin stories and the mainstream will start to run with them and then get them so wrong.” Katrina Louis, the managing editor of Q City Metro in Charlotte, said she didn’t send a reporter to every protest, because doing so wasn’t safe.
  • Regret and resignations: According to Page Six’s Sara Nathan, Anna Wintour recently wrote staff at Vogue acknowledging that the magazine has not done enough to promote Black contributors, and has published work that was “hurtful or intolerant.” Elsewhere at Condé Nast, Matt Duckor, the company’s head of video, resigned amid staff accusations of bias; per Edmund Lee, of the Times, Duckor worked closely with Bon Appétit, whose editor, Adam Rapoport, also quit this week. And after Bill Miller, Sr., the editor and publisher of The Missourian, ran a racist cartoon in yesterday’s paper, his daughters Susan Miller Warden and Jeanne Miller Wood, who co-own the paper, denounced him and resigned. Miller, Sr., (eventually) apologized; later, he resigned as well.
  • No regret: In recent days, unionized staffers at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette have spoken out in support of Alexis Johnson, a Black reporter at the paper who was barred from protest coverage over a tweet. A second Black journalist, Michael Santiago, said he was benched, too. Yesterday, Keith Burris, the paper’s top editor, hit out—calling claims that he mistreated journalists based on race “an outrageous lie,” and claiming that normal editorial decision-making processes had been weaponized “as a tactic in a labor dispute.” NPR’s David Folkenflik, who has followed the story, notes that Burris did not address claims that management treated a white staffer’s tweet differently to Johnson’s.
  • No mugshots: This week, Gannett removed mugshot galleries from 26 news sites it acquired from GateHouse last year, expanding a policy that Gannett implemented across its existing portfolio in 2018. Poynter’s Kristen Hare has more details. As a note on the Gannett sites now acknowledges, mugshot galleries have limited news value and can feed harmful stereotypes around race and crime.
  • Juneteenth: Various institutions and news organizations—including Twitter, BuzzFeed, Vox Media, and The 19th—have made Juneteenth, the annual marking of emancipation from slavery on June 19, a company holiday.

Other notable stories:

  • Yesterday, Trump’s reelection campaign demanded that CNN retract a recent poll which found that Trump trails Joe Biden by 14 points among registered voters; the campaign called the poll “phony” and “a stunt.” CNN said the campaign’s objection was riddled with false and misleading claims. “To my knowledge, this is the first time in its 40-year history that CNN had been threatened with legal action because an American politician or campaign did not like CNN’s polling results,” David Vigilante, the network’s general counsel, wrote back. “To the extent we have received legal threats from political leaders in the past, they have typically come from countries like Venezuela.”
  • Recently, John Bolton, Trump’s former national security adviser, pressed ahead with plans to publish his tell-all book on June 23, following repeated delays as officials dragged out a prepublication review process. Now the White House is warning Bolton’s lawyer, Chuck Cooper, that the manuscript contains classified information that could prejudice national security. Cooper denies this; in an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal, he accused the White House of a “transparent attempt to use national security as a pretext to censor Mr. Bolton,” and insisted that the book will still be released on June 23.
  • Twitter will start prompting users of its Android app to open articles before they share them—a test run for a possible new feature to “help promote informed discussion.” BuzzFeed has the details. In other platform-news news, Facebook rolled out its News tab to all US users this week, eight months after the feature’s test launch. Facebook is also adding local news sources to the tab. TechCrunch has more.
  • In April, Amazon slashed commission rates for members of its affiliate program, a network of partners that get a cut when they refer customers to Amazon from their sites. Steven Perlberg reports for Digiday that major publishers in the program—including brands owned by the Times, CNN, and Vox Media—were exempted from the rate slash; still, the episode highlighted the “ever-present danger of relying too much on platforms.”
  • Tucker Carlson has officially severed ties with the Daily Caller, the conservative site he helped found; he told the Journal’s Keach Hagey that he wasn’t “helping in any way” at the site due to his Fox News commitments, so decided to sell his stake. Neil Patel, the site’s cofounder, bought Carlson out and now holds a controlling stake. Patel claims that the Daily Caller is now “the largest digital-media company owned by a person of color.”
  • The City is collaborating with the journalism schools at Columbia and CUNY to launch “Missing Them,” an ongoing project seeking to memorialize every New Yorker killed by COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus. So far, the project includes around 5 percent of New York’s COVID victims; you can help expand it via this link. (ICYMI, I wrote on Tuesday about the importance of remembering COVID victims.)
  • And Swedish prosecutors said yesterday that they believe a man named Stig Engstrom killed Olof Palme, the country’s then-prime minister, in 1986—potentially closing a 34-year-old mystery. Engstrom died in 2000, so cannot face charges. In 2018, Thomas Pettersson, a Swedish journalist, published reporting that linked Engstrom to the killing.

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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.