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Another False Statement by the New York Times
Why does this happen so often when the paper reports on police?
Last night, the New York Times dropped a bombshell. Buried in a lengthy article about supposed “drama” between Democrats over whether to pass even more funding for the militarized police and surveillance bureaucracy, the NYT told its millions of readers that “civil rights groups including the NAACP” were “pressing” for more police funding to pass Congress:
This statement is false.
The story of how such an important false statement gets into the New York Times may always be opaque, but it’s important to unpack exactly what makes it so wrong and so dangerous.
First, neither the NAACP nor any civil rights group of which I am aware supports these monstrous police funding bills, much less is “pressing” to pass them. Indeed, the letter that the NYT quotes in the next paragraph to support its assertion (which our organization Civil Rights Corps also signed) says nothing of the kind. Instead, the letter says the opposite: that investments in non-police alternatives to public safety should be pursued. The paragraph quoted is explicitly about non-police investments. The quoted paragraph is even more glaring in the context of the entire letter, which criticizes the police funding bills and promotes different legislation to increase investments in public safety programs that don’t rely on police.
Did the New York Times read that private letter to House Democrats and still mislead its readers? Did a source give the New York Times only that paragraph and lie to the New York Times about what it was referring to? Was the lead reporter so uninformed that the reporter thought community based “violence prevention programs” was a reference to police? Why did the New York Times not check with the “civil rights groups” before publishing a statement about their position on one of the most important issues of our time? In either case, there is simply no way to read that paragraph or the letter as “pressing” for more police funding or as taking the position that “additional police funding should be paired with accountability measures.”
Second, do you see how big of a bombshell this revelation would be? The New York Times is telling readers that the “civil rights” community, including the most famous Black civil rights group in the U.S., now supports more police funding. This not only ignores years of vigorous advocacy for the opposite among most of the civil rights community, but it also plays an important copaganda role for ruling class elites. A casual reader may reasonably be thinking: “if even the civil rights groups want more police funding, who could possibly oppose it?” So, this flagrant lie helps elites marginalize the view that the U.S. already spends way too much money on an incredibly ineffective and violent militarized bureaucracy despite the overwhelming scientific consensus that other investments in the root causes of crime would make us much safer.
Third, there is another subtle falsity in the article. The article says that the Congressional Black Caucus “pressed successfully for the package to include measures to strengthen accountability for police misconduct.” That was the context for the statement that the civil rights organizations are “pressing” to pass it because it is “paired with accountability.” This is profoundly misleading. The current text of the bills do not include anything that could remotely be fairly characterized as “accountablity” measures, whatever that means. (More on that below).
Fourth, note how the NYT subtly suggests that the entire civil rights community supports more police funding by vaguely using the phrase “civil rights groups.” Even if the NAACP did support more police funding (which the letter makes clear it does not), nowhere in this major article on an issue that has captivated the country for 2.5 years is there a single quote from someone who opposes more funding for police, prosecutors, and prisons. The New York Times makes no attempt to educate readers about why someone (including tens of millions of people, survivors of violence, leading scholars, and many of the experts who work on these issues of police waste, fraud, abuse, surveillance, and violence every day) might look at all of the scientific evidence and police violence and conclude that the solution to safety problems in the U.S. is not more surveillance, armed bureaucrats, and incarceration.
So, what happened? The confusion (or overt manipulation) likely stems from the fact that there are other pending bills that civil rights groups do support. Those other bills include the Mental Health Justice Act (non-carceral crisis response) and the Break the Cycle of Violence Act (community violence intervention). Democratic leadership had packaged these bills that the civil rights community supports with controversial bills that increase militarized police surveillance funding. The most charitable thing I can say for the New York Times is that neither of the three reporters credited as having contributed to the story nor any of their editors has sufficient background knowledge or contacts in the civil rights community to know the difference, and none of them bothered to make a phone call before publishing what would be a major shift in position for the entire “civil rights” community.
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The rest of the article is deeply disappointing for many of the reasons I have discussed before. The entire article is framed as a political “drama” between Democrats. There is no attempt to discuss the underlying issue of police funding in a way that educates readers—instead it is framed as a political horse-race between warring factions or “progressives” and “moderates.” But even within that framing, the article is skewed against progressive policies through several strategic omissions. A few thoughts:
The article leaves out the context that a reasonable reader would need to understand what is actually going on. It caricatures the “progressive” views as leaving Democrats “without an answer” to Republican attacks that they are “soft on crime. This is ludicrous. The only way the New York Times can make this claim is by ignoring the expansive, affirmative safety agenda that these progressives are proposing, including other bills that are also pending right now before the House that I noted above. Those other bills are actually based on, you know, scientific evidence and legal expertise. They are far more of “an answer” to Republican attacks than the police funding bills because they are actually backed by evidence that they can make communities safer. Because they are omitted in the article, the New York Times portrays the progressives as without any answers at all on crime and safety. This is harmful enough as it is, but it is even more harmful because it plays into a longstanding anti-science narrative that progressives who support investments in the root causes of crime are “soft on crime”:
The article keeps telling readers that there needs to be “accountability” measures for more police funding if progressives will support it. But what does this mean? Do the reporters know? I certainly don’t, and I study this issue for a living. There has never been an “accountability measure” in U.S. history to my knowledge that has worked to make U.S. police less violent. We have been talking about “reforming” the police with more accountability for over 100 years. The article completely ignores this history and doesn’t even tell readers some examples of what “accountability” might mean. Uninformed readers are left thinking that there must be good accountability measures out there, and conscientious Congresspersons are pushing for them! It’s a vague appeal to some amorphous concept that can make liberals feel good about supporting more state violence.
The article gives a lot of space to notorious pro-cop and pro-CIA representative Abigail Spanberger. But take a look at the quality of discourse that the New York Times permits. The paper devotes an entire paragraph to a meaningless quote that lets Spanberger falsely suggest that she isn’t aware of the very real, very rigorous, politically popular, and science-based objections to her police-funding bill. This is just irresponsible journalism. People deserve to have news that educates and informs, not “news” that allows politicians to mislead people about the nature of serious and important policy debates. This is like publishing an article on global warming that doesn’t quote any climate scientists, argues that the solution to global warming is more coal mines, and quotes Joe Manchin saying that he hasn’t heard anyone saying why anyone should oppose it!
The assertion that more funding for cops is necessary for conservative Democrats to win re-election is unchallenged. It’s just assumed throughout the article even though it is highly controversial. As I’ve noted, Eric Adams, the poster-politician for this “tough on crime” view is wildly unpopular in New York (29% according to the NYT), and Democrats who have been focusing on investments in health, education, housing, and poverty reduction have done well across the country. It’s much more nuanced.
This marks yet another New York Times article on police funding that not only doesn’t discuss the scientific evidence that investments in root causes is better for safety, but that affirmatively ignores the connection between a massive increase in funds for police surveillance and the widespread criminalization of abortion. This is an editorial choice. The New York Times, despite knowing that many of these cops and much of this money will go to criminalizing women and enabling the arrest and prosecution of women, doctors, and their allies, continues to leave this issue out. At a time of rising authoritarianism, this is a profound failure to educate the public about the known immediate, urgent consequences of increasing militarized police surveillance.
Finally, before I could finish writing this up this afternoon, the New York Times issued a correction in the article.1 (I and others had alerted the lead reporters to the error last night before midnight.) The paragraph now reads as follows:
As you can see, this “correction” still misstates the position of the major groups, who are not in favor of the increases in police funding at all, and who instead are supporting alternate investments in community safety. This article, even after the correction, suggests that the groups support the increased police funding so long as it contains vague, unexplained “accountability,” which the article still falsely suggests to readers are included in the bill.
We are at a vital moment, and some of our most important institutions are making us less and less capable of rigorous discussion and debate about the issues that will determine whether our society survives in any meaningfully democratic respects.
The NYT appended a “correction” to the bottom of the article that says that the article “misstated” the position of the groups and that the groups “are not pressing for passage of the package in its current form.” This is also problematic because the body of the article makes it seem like “the package” being discussed are the police funding bills and that there could be some amendments to change their “current form” that the groups could support. In actuality, as discussed above, the “package” actually includes funding bills for non-police safety alternatives, and those are the parts of the package that civil rights groups support.