From Walter Scott to Edward Snowden: Our lying media
By now, you have no doubt read about Michael Slager, a police officer in North Charleston, South Carolina, who is going to face trial for the murder of of an unarmed black man named Walter Scott. As a result of this incident, many cops in that town will be required to wear video cameras.
Why? Because a bystander shot a video which showed what really happened when Scott was killed. Before that piece of evidence was produced, the cops told a ludicrously false version of what happened.
Before the video became known, a local journalist named Andrew Knapp wrote an account of the incident. That report tells us much about what is wrong with American journalism. In one sense, the way Knapp covered the story is more significant than the story itself.
Here is how he described the situation:
A North Charleston police officer felt threatened last weekend when the driver he had stopped for a broken brake light tried to overpower him and take his Taser.
That’s why Patrolman 1st Class Michael Thomas Slager, a former Coast Guardsman, fatally shot the man, the officer’s attorney said Monday.
We now know that things went down very differently.
Should we excuse Knapp because he did not yet know of the video's existence? No.
Look at the way the opening of his piece is worded. Knapp could have chosen more neutral phrasing which did not presume that Slager was incapable of lying. The first paragraph conveys the impression that the "threat" was an objectively-determined fact of history, as opposed to one man's self-interested version of events.
All of the news coverage of the earlier Ferguson incident should be reconsidered in light of this initial news report about the killing of Walter Scott.
In Ferguson, the good news is that elections are making the city government more representative of the people. The bad news is that millions of Americans still accept the painfully ludicrous claim that an unarmed black man standing in the street somehow posed a threat to a cop in a car.
The North Charleston incident tells us much about the way this country is policed. It tells us even more about the way our news distorts reality. The problem is simple: Journalists habitually genuflect before power.
(Journalists question power only when one side of the power structure does battle with another.)
Coverage of the North Charleston incident resembles coverage of Ed Snowden.
If you have not yet seen the John Oliver segment embedded above, you will be appalled to learn how many of your fellow citizens have never even heard of Edward Snowden. (Yet their votes count as much as yours!)
You will be even more appalled by those who have heard of the guy.
These people have formed all sorts of nonsensical opinions about Snowden based on what they've heard from mainstream news sources. What the media told them about Snowden was every bit as bullshitty as what that mainstream newspaper in South Carolina said about the death of Walter Scott.
All across the spectrum -- from international stories to the coverage of a local killing -- our newsfolk refuse to tell the truth.
My awakening came when I very reluctantly and only as a civic duty went to see Fahrenheit 911. The reviews I saw in the papers all said it was lies (and Christopher Hitchens claimed it was so bad that fact-checking was beside the point). I went, I saw, I was shocked. I did my own fact-checking and found it was not lies--and i felt betrayed by my "liberal media" that they had not told me any of this.
So I read Greg Palast and learned about the election fraud in 2000 in Florida and then I read the blood-curdling articles in Popular Science and Popular Mechanics about the dangers of the hackable electronic voting machines. And then I read the concerns of the statisticians about the divergence between the electronic vote returns and the exit polls. I've never studied statistics, so wasn't in a position to evaluate their concerns, but when the NYT dismissed concerns about the 2004 elections as a bunch of crazy conspiracy theories and on NPR Bob Simon sneered about "exit polls, snort" as if they were a joke, I felt even more betrayed.
And that's when I turned to guys like Brad Friedman and Joseph Cannon--guys who have shown their commitment to journalistic principles--to keep me informed.
I watched "Control Room" about al Jazeera coverage of the Iraq war, and I watched "Outfoxed" and "Orwell Rolls in his Grave" about news media, and I attended media reform conferences and conferences and panel discussions at the university and I learned a lot about distinguishing news from propaganda.
And it angered me that in its Iraq coverage NPR correspondents would tell us about violence in provincial Iraq cities--tell us as if their reports were facts, as if they were there, when I knew they never even left the Green Zone and were simply repeating what their military sources had told them.
And then every time a car bomb blew up in a market square NPR would report it as "sectarian violence" as if they had been there and they knew who had perpetrated the bombing--when they hadn't and they didn't.
But it got worse. NPR had young woman reporters breathlessly gifting us with their strategic analyses of the military situation in Iraq and Afghanistan--as if they knew anything about military tactics--when we knew full well that their analyses came straight from their military sources, and we had good reason to think they were embedded with their military sources.
Media Reform is essential to the restoration of Democracy. Kristina Borjesson's "Into the Buzzsaw" is a good place to start.