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A Really Bad Tweet
In this post, I dissect a single tweet by a senior Washington Post reporter. This tweet provides insight into the problems plaguing how the news media covers public safety, and also some overlooked ethical problems in corporate journalism:
Ethics and discretion in institutional bureaucracy
Before I go word for word through the content and intent of Ashley Parker’s majestic tweet, I want to first point out that it violates the Washington Post’s ethics code for its journalists. As Adam Johnson pointed out, the Washington Post Ethics Policy provides:
When organizations tolerate public, flagrant violations of their policies or codes of ethics, the results are consequential for their own internal culture. The rules not only become worthless as statements of cherished values, but their existence becomes a cruel charade through which the interests that control the organization can selectively discipline those who violate the code in ways that the rulers do not like (for example, tweeting support for Palestinian children in Israeli prisons or tweeting support for reducing investment in military weapons contractors.)
This is a universal point. I’ve just returned from England, where I was doing research at Oxford. There is a national scandal unfolding in England the last few days because the BBC took a popular soccer commentator, Gary Lineker, off the air after he criticized a new migration proposal by right-wing politicians. The commentator, who is a former soccer star for the English national team, said: "This is just an immeasurably cruel policy directed at the most vulnerable people in language that is not dissimilar to that used by Germany in the 30s.” This weekend, a cascading list of television and sports personalities refused to appear on their own BBC shows in solidarity. But I want to make one point about it here. A few years ago, Alan Sugar—a prominent BBC presenter who is hilariously referred to by himself and in British media by his feudal title of nobility, Lord Sugar—made racist comments about the Senegal national soccer team. The BBC chose not to take him off the air despite racist comments relating European migration by the African diaspora:
Ironically considering the subject matter of Parker’s tweet, we see the same strategy the Washington Post is employing—with selective application of its ethics rules for reporters who support increased incarceration—with the police bureaucracy itself. When police ignore basic rules, procedures, and laws, unwritten customs develop that entrench existing power structures but that are a lot more difficult for the public to combat. For example, if an officer beats up a Black person for no reason, unwritten norms require that other officers either ignore it or affirmatively lie about it or omit it from their reports, as they did with the murder of Laquan McDonald.1 Given this culture of accepted rule-breaking and concomitant silence in the face of pervasive brutality and law breaking, casual discretionary violence by police against millions of people each year becomes a defining characteristic of policing even though every police department has a policy against it. Each act of violence is determined by this internal culture but lost to recorded history. As Michel Foucault explained:
“Lawbreaking is not an accident… Its role is part of a general strategy. Every legislative arrangement sets up privileged and profitable areas where the law can be violated, others where it can be ignored, and others where infractions are sanctioned.”
Now, I think this particular Washington Post ethics rule about supposed "objectivity" is bad and incoherent.2 But the importance of the principle I am discussing applies even to baseless rules. Take, for example, the “War on Drugs.” It's a ridiculous set of laws that allows the government to cage people for possessing a plant or substance that the government puts on a list of plants or substances we can't possess. But as Nixon officials later admitted, the "War on Drugs" was not started because it was good policy—no one thinks it even reduces drug use! It was started—and specific substances criminalized throughout U.S. history before it—because it would give the government more discretion to selectively police targeted groups. Even after the “War on Drugs,” boarding school students at Exeter, fraternity brothers at Yale, and investment bankers have been almost completely free to use plants on government lists for decades with impunity. The drug laws exist because everyone who matters to their creation and brutal enforcment understands that almost all of the 40 million people jailed and separated from their families, for whom drug possession is actually a crime, are poor and marginalized people. Thus, I don’t have to agree with the Washington Post ethics rule to understand how its selective enforcement can be wielded by those in power.
Most people don’t realize that one of the most important strategies of modernizing police forces (and strategies of politicians and courts crafting police legal doctrine) in the 20th century was to diffuse discretion to violate written protocols down the policing bureaucracy because it makes plausible deniability of leadership more effective, meaningful accountability of the institution more difficult, and focus on systemic change rather than individual bad apples almost impossible.3
And here’s the critical point: like the police brutality or the violations of criminal law by wealthy people that U.S. police and prosecutors ignore, when organizations like the Washington Post enforce their ethics policies, they are likely to do so in ways that follow certain patterns. If you express political views consistent with wealthy or powerful interests, the rules are not enforced. If you express views that identify with the marginalized, you are crushed.
Every intelligent operator within this bureaucracy internalizes not the written Washington Post ethics policy, but the custom and practice of how they expect the policy to be enforced. This is one of the most important ways in which so many institutions in our society—and our society generally—maintains such an chasm between our stated values and how our society actually works.
In my view, it is the task of all people of good will constantly to help our society identify the enormous and tragic gap between the values we profess and the world we actually create.
This was a really bad tweet, and it’s really important
Now I want to go word by word through Ashley Parker’s tweet. Take the first sentence: “Crime in DC is out of control.”
I may have done permanent damage to my brain trying to figure out what she meant. First, what does she mean by “crime”? She cannot possibly be referring to “any and every violation of the criminal law,” because most crimes are intentionally not recorded by the government at all and because the editorial that she linked to did not discuss rampant white-collar fraud, political bribery, government corruption, wage theft, building code violations, or violations of environmental laws like criminal dumping of chemicals that are not meaningfully enforced but that kill 100,000s of people each year. Judging by her twitter feed, the general establishment media zeitgeist, and the editorial she linked to, it appears that she was talking about a narrow range of what the article called “violent crimes” committed by poor people that police record.
Second, what does she mean when she says this crime is “out of control”? If she means this in a literal sense, it would be an unremarkable observation not worth making because in no society in modern history has a government ever “controlled” crime to the point of avoiding pervasive law-breaking. Total “control” over crime is something beyond what even Orwell imagined in 1984. There are literally billions of crimes every year in the U.S., and there have been during the course of Parker’s entire life.
But if she instead chose the phrase as a hyperbolic exaggeration meant to covey a vibe she was feeling, as it seems clear that she did, that’s also quite odd. For that sentiment to be coherent and a remotely acceptable form of exaggeration in service of underlying truth, it would need to represent some kind of shift or something new. Her phrasing would make no sense if, for example, there is less police-recorded violent crime in DC now than at any point in its modern history. Or even if police-recorded crime in DC was fairly close to recent and historical levels. Her phrasing would still make no sense even if police-reported crime were up, say 25% in 2023.4 Under such circumstances, police-recorded crime would still be far below police-recorded crime rates for the entire period of Parker's life. Even if one were to focus on murder, as some pundits have, murder went slightly down in 2022, and there have been 9 more murders this year than at this time last year in a city of over 700,000 people. Every murder is a horrific tragedy, but that statistic is not a basis for claiming “crime is out of control.”
So, given that she probably meant only to convey a general vibe she was feeling rather than to make a defensible, rational journalistic claim, I was still confused. I live in D.C., and I’m aware of what the actual police-reported data shows: even, to use the Washington Post editorial’s words, the “violent crime”that pundits and police focus on is at historic half-century lows.
Third, Parker communicates to readers that she is so distraught by “crime” that it is “depressing” her, weaponizing her feelings as a white upper class woman with 418,000 twitter followers. Crucially, she then adds that the newspaper “needed” to intervene because people in D.C. have a right to “be safe” but, and she listed this first, a “right” to “feel” safe. This sentiment is almost too self-evidently ridiculous to comment on intelligently, but I’ll try. As an initial matter, codifying a general “right” for everyone to certain “feelings” is not an administerable standard for either governments or media institutions. More importantly, as the existence of this newsletter demonstrates, the entire media establishment of which Parker is a leading member is engaging in a misinformation war to make people feel unsafe. As a result of this propaganda, for three decades, polls have shown that U.S. residents continuously overestimate rates of police-reported crime and almost always think—wrongly for about 25 years in a row—that police-reported crime is going up. As with the editorial Parker disseminated, establishment media institutions also engage in something akin to climate science denial by deliberately making people “feel” unsafe when even extremely modest proposals are made to reduce criminal sentences that are higher in the U.S. than anywhere in the world, including the many comparable countries who have far lower rates of violence. They do this in the face of enormous empirical consensus that longer and longer sentences do not make anyone safer. Parker is therefore asserting the existence of a new “right” that her own tweet is violating with reckless disregard for context and truth.
In sum, this prominent journalist—“Senior National Political Correspondent” at the Washington Post, current MSNBC “analyst,” and former White House Bureau Chief for the Post—chose vague, uninformative phrasing in such a way that the only reasonable conclusion is that she meant not to convey journalistic precision or help a mass audience learn more about an important issue, but to create a sense of panic and fear for a particular political goal.
This is a more serious ethical problem than her violation of Washington Post policies. In misleading the public on an important issue, at a time of rising misinformation and authoritarianism, she chose to speak with a deliberate lack of nuance, context, and concern for informing the public about truth. Why even become a journalist if you are willing to distort like this and if you don’t have passion, with every fiber of your being and in every moment of your public life, to helping the public find its way in a complex world where lots of entrenched interests are trying to mislead us at all times?
Parker is one of many
But it wasn’t just Ashley Parker. It was huge numbers of the DC punditry and “objective” journalist class, including the people currently in charge of writing editorials on behalf of the Washington Post, one of the most influential newspapers in the western world. A man with no business being let near a computer to write about these issues produced a wild Washington Post editorial, followed by an unhinged twitter thread in which he suggested, contrary to all available evidence that: 1) that increased “sentences for violent crimes” are necessary for safety; 2) local D.C. residents “want” increased sentences despite a veto-proof body of democratically elected representatives approving a law that had consensus among local punishment system stakeholders; and 3) safety and democracy are mutually exclusive because safety requires authoritarian human caging, so if democracy ever produces less human caging, it must be overruled:
James Hohmann’s tweets and editorial, as well as Parker’s retweet of his post with her own misleading political commentary, were timed both to insert themselves into the crucial moments in which Democratic politicians were deliberating how to act and to boost the Washington Post editorial that spread false information, failed to include any contrary perspectives at all, and openly called for authoritarian intervention. This is journalism used as a weapon. This is journalism strategically used against the marginalized people in our society who are never made safer by investments in police instead of root causes, but who always bear the brunt of the police bureaucracy’s violence.
The bigger picture, and what this portends
After these Washington Post editorials and tweets, establishment Democrats engaged in an entirely unnecessary and damaging series of political acts. No doubt to Parker’s and Hohmann’s delight, President Biden announced that he would agree to overturn a local D.C. law modernizing its criminal code, supposedly because it reduced the maximum penalty for carjacking from 40 years (which no one ever got) to 24 years (still about 9 years longer than the typical carjacking sentence in practice!) Based on this single articulated reason by Biden in a tweet, a supermajority of Democrats in the Senate and dozens of Democrats in the House capitulated and overturned a law that the democratic process produced for the District of Columbia, all acting within a system that deprived people in DC of representation to vote on it.
Other political observers have pointed out that this move will likely have catastrophic political and strategic consequences for Democrats because it promotes fear and misinformation and because it centers an issue and framing that are losing ones for them. But because this newsletter is about copaganda, I was to be clear that the entire episode was based on three lies spread by elite journalistic institutions:
Lies about what the new DC code does;5
Lies about DC crime rates;
Lies about longer sentences reducing violent crime. (The overwhelming scientific consensus is that the evidence does not support that view, and studies show that the longer sentences the U.S. has compared to median countries actually reduce overall U.S. life expectancy by almost 2 years because of how jails and prisons kill people faster and have enormous public health consequences.)
This may be be one of the most consequential political moments during my time involved in fighting against the criminal punishment bureaucracy. I think this is so important for at least two reasons.
First, as I have explained before, it is always terrible strategy to appease fascists like this, while also adopting their lies and their framing of the problem. Entrenching false narratives that safety requires more human caging as opposed to investment in root causes (e.g., reducing inequality, providing housing, healthcare, and education) and embracing fear-mongering while still appearing to be a weaker alternative than the fascists for frightened people are political (and, perhaps, civilization-wide) suicide. When the right-wing wins political battles and has its underlying mythologies validated, it does not just go away happy. It comes back harder for more. This episode boosted rising authoritarianism more than anything I can remember at a time when the U.S. stands as close as it has ever come to descending into fascism.
Both the Washington Post and Tom Cotton now agree: there can be no safety without preserving the greatest levels of human caging in world history, and if there is a conflict between democracy and slightly reduced human caging even in ways that will make almost no difference, then democracy itself must give way:
Second, I think Biden’s tweet was meant to signal to mainstream Democrats (and the subsequent Congressional action confirms) that party leaders have ended the era of “criminal justice reform.” It is no longer acceptable Democratic politics to try to make the system less harsh and to curb the excesses of the punishment bureaucracy. It must grow and grow and grow no matter how ineffective and violent it is, and no matter what the scientific consensus shows. With the underlying false narratives about “crime” cemented and the the supposed solutions for it limited to more state violence, Democratic leadership has sent the message: good policy does not matter because the powers that be now demand a bipartisan authoritarian consensus.
Similarly, the U.S. intelligence community applies different rules to those who leak classified information the government wants released than to those who leak classified information that embarrasses the government or exposes its crimes.
Many corporate media ethics code provisions are laughable because they suggest that their reporters can and should be “objective,” whatever that means, and that their public commentary should be free from politics, which is not possible. This charade causes far more harm than good, especially because representing establishment views is typically seen as “objective.”
Kristian Williams explains in his comprehensive book on the history of modern U.S. police, the propagation of discretion to break the law to individual officers is a crucial element sustaining systemic police violence because it allows for plausible deniability among political actors for any act of violence even as they all create systems designed to be unaccountable precisely because rampant police violence and resulting fear and social control benefit the elites who control our society.
There has been a slight increase this year in police-recorded property crime, led by increases in vehicle-related thefts. But those numbers are still far below what they were a few years ago.
Relying on Fox News lies, Biden and other Democrats complained that the law would reduce sentences people get for carjacking. The code revisions would not, in practice, decrease sentences for carjackings. They simply adjusted the maximum potential sentence for that crime from 40 years to 24 years (24 years!—that’s longer than many murder sentences and longer than the maximum sentence for any crime in some other countries), about 9 years more than DC judges typically give for the crime. DC judges never give people 40 years in carjacking cases, largely because there is an overwhelming consensus in the fields of prosecution, criminal defense, judging, and criminology that such sentences are not in the public interest.