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How the Media Enables Violent Bureaucracy: Part 2
In Part 1 last week, I provided background context for how the punishment bureaucracy has used its own failures to get low-information people who feel bad about overt state violence to support various “reforms.” The key point: the “reforms” sanctioned by powerful bureaucrats do not challenge the size or power of the punishment bureaucracy, and almost always increase both. In this way, violent, wasteful bureaucracies shape popular narratives about the reasons for their own failures in order to get more resources.
All of this is enabled by editorial decisions about how journalists describe the problem of police violence and about whose perspectives to include in media stories about what the solutions are.
In Part 1, I introduced two key New York Times articles that represent the corporate media’s attempt to describe and explain how police responded to the 2020 racial justice protests in Los Angeles and nationally. Here, in Part 2, I discuss why the framing of those articles was so dangerous.
The New York Times and the Art of Framing
I want to first highlight the language that the NYT used. Both articles framed the police response to racial justice protests as a series of “mistakes” and “missteps” that resulted from a lack of “training” and “preparation” and insufficient resources. Here is how the first article framed the problems of police violence against protestors in its own words:
“botched their handling”
“there was a lack of preparation, a lack of planning”
“commanders admitted to the authors of the report that they lacked experience in managing peaceful protests and said they did not receive enough training to maintain order”
“police Department should prioritize the training [in crowd control] going forward”
“their confidence resulted in them failing to plan.”
Similarly, here is the language chosen by the reporters in the second NYT article:
“police officers nationwide were unprepared to calm the summer’s unrest”
“almost uniformly, the reports said departments need more training in how to handle large protests.”
“not planning for protests”
“the lack of adequate planning and preparation”
“they lacked resources devoted to intelligence and outreach that would have put them in better touch with their communities”
“American police simply were not prepared for the challenge that they faced in terms of planning, logistics, training and police command-and-control supervision”
“failing to train officers to de-escalate conflict, control crowds and arrest large numbers of people”
“kits were sometimes outdated,” “did not have enough computers,” “police did not have enough buses”
“did not plan appropriately for field jails”
“planning anti-racism training for all officers”
This language is just a bizarre way to describe what happened. If I went around illegally beating, shooting, kidnapping, running over, chemically poisoning, torturing, mocking, and caging my political opponents before lying about it all repeatedly until video proved otherwise, would the NYT say I “mishandled” it and made some “missteps”?
But the media framing was far more problematic than that. The two NYT articles reveal highly ideological framing that poses a real danger to anyone who wants progressive social change. In this ahistorical, head-in-the-sand view spread to millions of liberal-leaning readers by the NYT, the police are just trying to do the best job they can to help people protest for racial equality, but they just don’t have enough money, training, and technology to do it well. This framing accepts premise that police were trying to keep everyone safe, but they made some unintentional whoopsies. On this view, it’s not that police and ruling class interests benefit from violent repression of social movements seeking more equality or that the entire systemic policing bureaucracy has always been designed to repress social movements that challenge distributions of wealth and power. Instead, the NYT is making well-meaning but low-information readers think that the police violence that we all witnessed on video was a problem insufficient “training,” “intelligence,” “preparation,” and budgets that weren’t large enough. Importantly, the solution to the problems framed this way isn’t to reduce the power of the police, but to give the police more and more stuff.
Compare the NYT’s framing language to the video evidence. Here is a twitter thread collecting just several of many compilations of such videos from the spring and summer of 2020:
I had a different perspective than the NYT on the violence that I witnessed in person and on video. There were tens of thousands of brazen acts of criminality committed by thousands of police officers of all ranks—many of them coordinated and planned in advance. Even more police officers lied or allowed other officers to lie about this violence in subsequent reports without correcting the lies. The videos from tens of thousands of ordinary people show eerily similar intentional criminality, including thousands of federal felony crimes committed by police in virtually every major U.S. police force. It’s almost as if they were well prepared and following consistent training… And this is a vital point: these videos bear striking resemblance to videos and witness accounts of police violence and repression of social justice protests from the 1920s, 1930s, 1940s, 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, 2000s, and 2010s. Why might that be?
In these prior historical eras, an uneasy public was often pacified by government assurances in the media that the police would receive better “training” and funding so that it wouldn’t happen again. And they did: U.S. police have spent and continue tospend enormous sums on an unprecedented amount of training, much of it training them how to be more violent and to spy on dissidents more effectively. To take just one relevant example, Stuart Schrader has documented how, in the wake of prominent public inquiries into police violence against racial justice protesters in the 1960s, police got funding to adopt numerous “reforms,” including new “nonlethal weapons” and widespread “riot-control training.” The result? Police killed more people than ever before after 1967. The idea underlying the NYT’s framing—that these systems are interested in genuine introspection, accountability, safety, democracy, and improvement—is a core lie at the heart of liberal media coverage of police violence, and a core lie that we have been told throughout U.S. history.
This media framing of well-meaning institutions trying to support safety and democracy that will be effective with just a little more cash thus plays a role in manufacturing consent among readers for very particular policy responses. If the problem is diagnosed as a “lack of training” then the logical solution is more training. If the problem is a lack of “preparation” or “coordination,” then the logical solutions are to invest in the personnel, costly consultants, and IT/personnel systems that would help police “prepare” better (whatever that means) or the communications technology/platforms that would help police “coordinate” better. If the problem is understood as a lack of “intelligence” or a lack of computers, handcuffs, or buses for mass arrests, the logical solution is to invest more in those things. This focus on “intelligence” failures is how, for example, police departments parlayed prior failures into more money for spying on people. And so on.
Think for a moment about what it would look like if the New York Times adopted a different, more historically accurate framing. If the New York Times had framed the problem as impressive execution of a historically common and coordinated plan to crush racial justice protests with violence, the logical solutions people think about start to change. If the widespread police violence is instead framed as the product of decades of sophisticated counterinsurgency training, precise coordination of tactical units in similar ways across hundreds of cities, and expert use of military surveillance/weaponry to punish social dissidents in ways that the U.S. and European military theorists perfected in their colonies through the world (especially Algeria and Vietnam), then readers might make far different conclusions about whether the solution is to pay for even more of that “intelligence” and “training.”
If one views police as highly sophisticated agents of wealth protection who have been very effective at infiltrating and repressing progressive social movements for 100 years, then none of this violent behavior becomes anomalous or the result of a lack of “preparation” or “training” or “resources.” And you can see this from one of the most glaring omissions from the NYT’s framing: there is no acknowledgment in the articles that police themselves committed massive crimes.
If the paper acknowledged that police committed intentional crimes, it would have to turn from a piece about a lack of training to a piece explaining why police, prosecutors, and federal authorities in virtually every city largely ignored those crimes. As usual, the NYT ignores some of the most interesting questions. What are we to make of the fact that police, prosecutors, and politicians have made almost no effort to investigate or arrest the thousands of officers who committed those crimes. This is the clearest possible evidence of their actual perspective on what happened and why. You can tell much of what you need to know by how powerful institutions respond to a particular crime. If it hurts their interests, they will crush the people who commit it. Hence the recent “terrorism” charges for forest defenders trying to block the demolition of a beautiful forest to build a new faux-city for police weapons training in Atlanta. If it helps them, they will ignore or even justify and celebrate a crime, as the NYC Mayor did after police deliberately ran over racial justice protestors in 2020. As usual, remember: you can learn a great deal about a society by looking at which of its laws it chooses to enforce against which people, and by looking at which of its laws it chooses to ignore, on behalf of which people.
Simply put, how one talks about what went wrong shapes how one thinks we should fix it. But by misleading people about what went wrong, the NYT obscures what should be a central question of public debate: do we want armed, violent state bureaucrats to spend billions of dollars preventing people from organizing to call for progressive social change? It’s a question similar to that posed by the Church Committee in the wake of the police repression of the civil rights movement. It’s also an important question, and I think one reason the corporate media obscures it so often is that powerful institutions do not like how well-meaning people would answer it.
But it wasn’t just the framing that editors and reporters chose, the articles also had major problems with facts, language, sourcing, and context that have continued in the corporate media’s coverage this week of the Tyre Nichols murder in Memphis. In Part III, I will describe some of those recurring problems as a way of understanding what to make of the Tyre Nichols coverage last week and going forward in the next few weeks, including some troubling dishonesty by the New York Times for which it has never been held accountable.
p.s. I hope you enjoy the second in my latest series of flower mosaics on oil paint! All of the flowers are from our garden.