A "Shortage" of Punishment Bureaucrats
When the New York Times Is Like a PR Firm for Police Unions
The New York Times recently published a news article about how the United States has a “shortage” of police officers. The article appeared in the news section as objective reporting, not in the opinion section. The news story was written by a New York Times reporter who “covers breaking news and criminal justice.” Taken as a whole, it frames a supposed “shortage” of cops in New York City and nationally as a crisis: “the single most daunting challenge that policing has faced in decades.”
The level of propaganda in this story is astonishing, even by the standards of U.S. corporate news media. The article manages to include almost all of the unethical practices that I’ve written about in this newsletter. Last week, as part of my series on smuggling ideology into the news, I highlighted this article’s laughable use of the term “shortage” multiple times as some sort of objective characterization of the state of U.S. police.
But the broader ethical flaws in the article merit a separate analysis for a reason: we are seeing a concerted effort by the far right, pro-police politicians, corporate media, and a small group of elite academics to build public consensus that the U.S. needs more police. (As I read the article and was working on this post, leading Democrats were trying to sneak in an extra $500,000,000 for cops to end-of-year budget negotiations.) The problems with biased reporting become even more important when the reporting is inserted into an imminent political debate.
The Sources of the New York Times:
First, as with any news article, it’s important to begin by looking at the sources. Here are the sources cited in the article, in chronological order:
Police chief in Colorado
NYC police union president
Head of police policy organization who is former cop
Police chief in Colorado (again, this time with a beautiful photo portrait)
Former Miami cop who works with Florida police union
Professor quoted as an expert (it was undisclosed by the NYT that the professor is a former Israeli cop and officer in the Israeli Defense Forces.)
NYC police union president (again)
The first point should be obvious: the reporter and editors chose not to include a single contrary perspective. At no point in the story does the paper even hint that anyone in the United States—let alone many experts, crime survivors, directly impacted individuals, researchers, and scholars—thinks that there might be too many armed cops in the United States. The paper ignores the scientific consensus that money spent attacking the root causes of violence is more effective at increasing safety than the world record amounts of money that the U.S. already spends on police, prosecutors, and prisons. This is a deliberate effort to shape how people think.
It is not conceivable that elite reporters and editors at the most prominent news organization in the U.S. just forgot to interview anyone else or are unaware that many people study and work on this issue, and many people in New York City and across the U.S. are actively engaged in campaigns to hire more teachers and librarians and doctors instead. No, the people involved in writing and publishing this article did not think that it is worth informing readers that there exists an idea—let alone compelling evidence and tens of millions of people who believe—that the U.S. invests too much in punishment bureaucrats.
More broadly, looking at the sources, it is possible to ask a number of questions that one should ask when reading corporate news stories: Who brought this story to the reporter? Why is this story considered news at this moment? Who benefits from having this story told? Who benefits from the way that it is told? What range of opinions and perspectives are presented in the article as the universe of views? Who benefits from editorial decisions about whose opinion to quote and whose opinion to ignore?
So, What Does “Shortage” Mean?
The dictionary defines the word “shortage” as “a state or situation in which something needed cannot be obtained in sufficient amounts.”
The factual core of the New York Times article is that police departments are having difficulty hiring as many police officers as they have currently budgeted for. (The article ignores the alarming rise of over 1.1 million private police officers in the U.S., a development that seemingly doesn’t exist to the New York Times, let alone merit investigation.)
But reporting the fact that a lot more people don’t want to be old school cops in New York City (and many other places) as a “shortage” is a highly political choice of framing. It assumes both that the number of police that police have budgeted for are “needed” and that our society is thus left without “sufficient amounts” of them.
Many people who study violence—those who care about things like scientific evidence and human life—are of the view that there is a “shortage” of early-childhood educators, affordable places to live, nurses, doctors, after-school programs, non-lead pipes, etc… and not a “shortage” of police. In fact, many credible experts believe that it is the massive investments in police, prosecutors, and prisons—unprecedented in modern world history—that are crowding out investment in the things that actually reduce violence, including by creating political and economic power in the punishment bureaucracy that uses that power to block those investments. Even if you are a paid police union PR consultant and pretend to disagree with the overwhelming evidence supporting this alternative political point of view, what we should all be able to agree on is that using the term “shortage” as an objective description makes it seem like the contrary point of view doesn’t exist.
As a thought experiment, imagine an alternate story pitched by and sourced from library workers or early-childhood educators. By nurses or permanent supportive housing social workers. By child speech pathologists or middle school music teachers. By overworked government employees who inspect pollution levels or building safety codes. It’s hard to imagine, isn’t it? You won’t see Congress debating massive investments in systems of care in the coming weeks, and one of the reasons is that the news media has failed our population in its duty to provide the most basic context about what the scientific evidence establishes about which investments actually make us safer.
One of the most consequential and vibrant debates in the contemporary United States is whether our society needs violent armed government agents equipped with military surveillance and weaponry at anywhere near the rates that it currently employs them. The New York Times just assumes that one side of this debate is the only reasonable position, and then writes an entire article objectively lamenting the difficulty in implementing the policy favored by that side of the debate.
Background on Why This Matters Now:
The manufacturing of public consensus about a “shortage” of police is so consequential because it comes as Congress will again begin considering Biden’s plan for the biggest increase in police in more than a generation and because it is happening amidst the following general trends:
An unprecedented threat of rising fascism;
The greatest police crackdown on access to abortion in modern history, an initiative hindered in some states only by not having the police resources to fully track all women and girls (plus the efforts in some states to use police units to track the parents of trans children and their medical providers);
A plethora of laws and executive actions across the country deploying cops to arrest voters, track movement of vehicles and facial images using massive databases, and search the homes of elected leaders and oversight officials;
A global rise in the sophistication of surveillance technology and weaponry that is being used by police across the U.S. to infiltrate and crush social movement organizing in the areas of labor, environment, migration, abortion, and police violence;
A relentless media onslaught about a “crime wave” prior to the 2022 electionthat has primed the population for new investments in carceral bureaucracies and related for-profit ventures, and a coordinated attempt by pundits and a small group of unethical elites in academia to justify it all with think pieces that don’t stand up to the most basic scrutiny.
Portraying already world-record spending on police, prosecutors, and prisons (see below) as a “shortage” is therefore ideological. And the idea of parroting PR talking points about understaffed and underfunded punishment bureaucracies is also consequential for how ubiquitous it is, especially in liberal circles. This conventional thinking is so pervasive in news stories and unexamined by liberal elites that some journalists repeating as objective news the talking points about “shortages” may not even be fully aware that they are playing a role in a well-funded public relations campaign now being pushed by hundreds of police PR departments across the United States.
It may not look coordinated to the casual news consumer, but multi-billion dollar campaigns like this are coordinated at the highest levels both formally in the sense that many aspects of the PR offensive are planned and paid for, and informally in the sense that many of the most sophisticated elites in each of these domains (politics, media, academia) understand very well what their role should be, what opinions they should have, how and where they should express their opinions, how they will be rewarded professionally for expressing the right opinions, and how they would be harmed professionally if they spoke out differently.
One job of real journalism is to help people see these things, not obscure them further.
A Pattern and A Plan
As I was preparing this post, the New York Times unleashed yet another article covering this same supposed shortage of police. This was a front-page article on Christmas morning covering almost the identical set of issues, this time by a different reporter. Then, I noticed yet another article—a third article in two weeks—on the same supposed shortage of cops, again relying on the same universe of sources (including the same police industry leaders), presented to NYT readers as a special interview with the first reporter about her story.
A few days earlier, as I was editing this article, the New York Times published another article, this one about the rampant sexual abuse of women detained in federal prisons. In an article that makes some otherwise important facts known to the public, the paper inserts the following paragraph as objective news:
This is irresponsible. First, It is hard to convey how absurd it sounds to anyone who has studied sexual violence in prisons or mass incarceration in the United States to suggest that the problems could be solved with more guards (themselves the greatest source of sexual violence) or larger budgets for a bureaucracy that has been violent, lawless, unaccountable, and genocidal since its inception. These are deeply political assertions passed off casually as assertions of truth so obvious no one could question them.
On top of the issues with inserting politicized concepts like a “labor shortage” of prison guards and “budget shortfalls” in one of the most bloated bureaucracies in the U.S. government, it is especially troubling to see these concepts invoked in an article that is otherwise geared at moving sympathetic readers to feel for the plight of women victimized by the federal prison bureaucracy. Articles that get well-meaning people to feel bad before inundating them with propaganda favoring solutions that only exacerbate the problem is a special kind of nefarious journalism that deserves its own place in the seven circles of the copaganda underworld.
This is a broader strategic pattern in liberal corporate media: using the system’s own violence as an occasion to get more resources for the punishment bureaucracy. I will be writing an upcoming series of essays on how police departments conned well-meaning but low information liberals into using the brutality of police themselves into supporting spending billions on outfitting every cop in the U.S. with a surveillance camera linked to costly facial recognition and artificial intelligence databases.
But this article reminds me of how journalists often report on the catastrophic state of prisons. In many stories about prisons, horrific conditions are described in the news media as an issue of “understaffing.” This framing of the problem often includes no reference to the fact that U.S. is caging 5 times more people than historical average and 5-10 times more than other countries, or that another way of framing the problem—a sort of consensus among experts even—is that the problem is not a shortage of guards but too many people in cages. But prison guard unions and others push a narrative in which the problem can be framed as a lack of investment in prisons, so that outrage over the system’s failures can always be channeled into more resources for it. This is what our cat Franklin calls a “vicious circle.”
Other Really Bad Things:
Finally, one of the most egregious aspects of the police “shortage” article is the prominent position given to overt fascist Patrick Lynch, the president of the police union in New York City. The paper allows this purveyor of false information to address its readers as a supposedly reasonable person with no history of misconduct or lies simply asking for decent wages for police. (His comments, and the article, also elide the NYPD overtime pay bonanza and rampant police abuse of overtime and sick leave.) After claiming (bizarrely) that New York does not pay a “market” wage for police officers, things get weird. Inexplicably, the reporter includes this paragraph:
There is a lot wrong with this, but I want to focus on the last sentence. The article contains no context within which a reader could understand this aside. I happen to know, because I follow this issue, that Lynch is invoking the fraudulent and baseless attacks by NYC police on relatively minor changes to the state’s bail laws. But the paper just allowing him to insert this “grievance” as factual without context and without informing readers that NYPD’s false criticisms of bail reform have been entirely debunked, is unethical.
It’s also darkly amusing because the “grievance” of “some officers” voiced here is essentially a complaint that the United States has a Constitution. In this sense, the inclusion of this statement without any context, correction, or explanation is not only unnewsworthy because it provides no meaningful information to a reader, but it reveals a frightening normalization of fascist mentality: the premier newspaper in the world is informing its readers that, if they want cops to keep their jobs, they need to fix some of their grievances, including the grievance that the U.S. is not yet a fully authoritarian society in which people who are arrested are detained indefinitely.
Articles like this are far more troubling and dangerous than many liberal employees of the New York Times acknowledge. They not only fail to inform people about things that any reasonable person would want to know about these issues (like relevant history, scientific evidence, and alternative points of view), but they condition people to accept policies pushed by powerful people without proper scrutiny and without even the most basic awareness that other alternatives exist. When those policies are the expansion of the authoritarian police state at a time of rising fascism, growing inequality, and ecological catastrophe that will require vibrant democratic institutions to resolve, journalism like this poses an imminent threat to us all.
This is more of an aside, but I also want to note, as I explained in How the New York Times Uses Experts, this reporter and editor make the unethical choice to include “a professor” as an expert source without disclosing that the professor is a former Israeli police officer and officer in the Israeli Defense Forces.
This chart captures the broader trend well: