How the Media Enables Violent Bureaucracy: Part 3
In Part 1 of this series, I discussed the historical and background context for how police and their allies concoct narratives about their own failures and violence to support “reforms” that increase their size and power. In Part 2, I analyzed how the New York Times framed its coverage of the 2020 racial justice protests to cement a controversial (and wrong) premise about the causes of and solutions for police violence: that police were well-intentioned actors during the 2020 protests who made “mistakes” and “missteps” because of a lack of sufficient resources, “preparation,” “training,” and covert surveillance “intelligence” capabilities.
In part 3, I have written my last post for a few weeks as I take a little sabbatical break to focus on bigger projects, but I think it is one of the most important posts I have written. I hope you will take the time to read it because it builds on what I have written before. (Also, I include the third and final in my recent series of dried flower mosaics from my garden!)
In this post, I bring the themes from Parts 1 and 2 together and use the two main New York Times articles about the violent police response to the 2020 protests to analyze recurring flaws in media coverage that are key drivers of systemic misinformation in our society about issues of police, violence, safety, liberty, reform, and democracy. These thematic media flaws include gross dishonesty, hidden ideology, ethical lapses, factual inaccuracy, misleading language choice, inadequate context, and biased sourcing.
We are going to be living through this misinformation in the coming days weeks of coverage about the police in the aftermath of their murder of Tyre Nichols.
What Is the Story Here?
In 2021, I raised concerns about the articles to some of the New York Times reporters who wrote one of the stories. Several reporters were respectful and engaged with me, including having a productive meeting at which it appeared to me that the small group who met with me was skilled, experienced, and well-intentioned. There’s a lot more to say, but I want to highlight the main aspect of one reporter’s first written response to me before our meeting: “I don’t write editorials or opinion pieces. This story was really about what these reports said.”
There are two interesting aspects of this response. First, the second sentence is revealing. In it, the reporter was asserting to me that the kind of critique I was suggesting—one with accurate historical context and cognizant of ideological bias around words like “mistakes” and “missteps”—was considered an opinion piece. This often happens: critiques that challenge conventional wisdom are seen as lacking “objectivity,” while reporting based on certain premises, however absurd and contrary to the evidence those premises are, is seen as “objective” so long as it parrots conventional wisdom among certain subcultures of the professional class.1
Second, and this becomes vital after you’ve read the next section, the reporter was telling me that the story their editors chose to write was actually not a story about the police violence or its true causes or its true solutions, but a story about what official reports said were its causes and solutions.
Here, NYT ceded its own editorial judgment to disseminate the talking points that the officials who commissioned and authored the reports want them to tell the public. This is a version of the kind of state-run media that the NYT has decried in other countries. It also tends to absolve the NYT from its own ethical obligations: it no longer needs to make sure what it is telling people about the world is accurate or complete, because it is just reporting to readers what officials are saying about the world.
Factual Inaccuracy and Manipulation:
The most egregious factual problem with the NYT articles is one common to reporting on police: obscuring to the point of misleading readers about the origins of a key fact or, in this case, the entire story. Both New York Times articles portray the report about the LAPD violence as “independent.” Take a look at one example from each article:
This is a serious ethical lapse. The supposedly “independent” report about the failures of LAPD was in fact written by six former LAPD officials. Every single member of the “review team” who was contracted to write the report was a former high-ranking LAPD official. It is journalistic malpractice to tell millions of readers across the country that a “scathing” report was “independent” when it was written not only by former cops, but by former high-ranking cops with decades of experience at LAPD, who have spent careers seeking to increase the resources of LAPD, and who still have deep relationships with LAPD personnel.
One of the two New York Times articles didn’t address this issue at all. It simply called the report “independent,” hiding the report’s origins from millions of readers. Yikes. A correction should be issued immediately, and the paper should explain how this happened. The other NYT article, after calling the report “independent” in the sub-heading, waited 15 paragraphs into the story to tell readers that the report was “completed by a panel of former police commanders and led by Gerald Chaleff, who has served on police oversight panels in Los Angeles dating back to the city’s 1992 riots.” Even this explanation, which stretches the meaning of the word “independent” beyond anything recognizable to English speakers, did not explain that Chaleff himself was former LAPD or that he had been in charge of “constitutional policing” at the LAPD and therefore had a vested interest in how systemic constitutional failures were described. Slightly better than the other article, but still below the bar of what we should expect on important issues from the most prestigious news source in the U.S.
In short, here’s what NYT hid from readers: The people who wrote this “independent” report are among the individuals alive in the world today most responsible for, beholden to, and invested in the way that LAPD policing looks.
This PR tactic of laundering proposals through “independent” commissions is common—so common that our society is entitled to expect its best journalists to help an engaged public understand it, rather than help police hide it.
Instead, the corporate news media routinely ensures the effectiveness of this propaganda charade. Here’s how it works: The government often creates commissions, panels, and expert bodies to “study” an issue, but stacks them with people of a particular type in order to lend a veneer of legitimacy to conclusions that powerful institutions want but that would otherwise appear suspect if those institutions themselves proposed them. Think about it: what would it look like if an LAPD internal report had been the one to recommend more money to cops and more money for more spying on protesters in the wake of their catastrophic violence and criminality caught on video?
That’s why it benefits LAPD and corporate profiteers who make money from an ongoing orgy of police contracts to have the NYT describe recommendations for lavish new police spending as “independent.” The fact that this cycle of liberal “reform” giving police more money and power keeps happening again and again and again after police violence should be a story well-meaning journalists want to help the public understand, not a discrete stage of cyclical historical violence that reporters themselves play a starring role in:
Not surprisingly given who wrote it, as we will see below, the “independent” report that the NYT called “scathing” reads like an unhinged wish list of police union and police leadership fantasies: huge budget expenditures for new technology, weapons, and training. Better pay and “wellness” benefits for cops, etc… But I want to focus on just one of the most terrifying examples. In the NYT’s words: “the department’s intelligence operations have become less effective as positions in that field were cut.”
This is chilling. This is nothing short of a call for even more spying on Black people and the political enemies of the LAPD, despite an outrageous historical record of cartoon-villain abuse of those very powers. Here we have the NYT helping a bunch of former high-level LAPD officials use a rare moment of public consciousness about egregious police violence to launder extremist proposals for more LAPD “intelligence” expenditures by portraying this as a sober, serious “independent” analysis to readers. To understand how absurd this is, read this thread by one of the preeminent community organizers, civil rights lawyers, and scholars of the LAPD, Shakeer Rahman:
Rahman and others also noticed something that should shake people to the core: “The report also says LAPD “shadow teams” infiltrated protests last summer. But instead of analyzing dangers of that (at a minimum, did the teams instigate/entrap anyone?), the report applauds it and calls for better Public Order Policing coordination of the infiltration.”
What is so terrifying about this situation, Rahman reminds us, is that LAPD used to have a public order division that, among other things: infiltrated civil rights organizations after the Watts Uprising; blackmailed critics of LAPD to maintain anti-democratic, brutal repression; and illegally shared surveillance information with right-wing extremist groups in a way that encourages vigilante violence against progressives. The unit was disbanded in disgrace after a lawsuit. The LAPD is not alone—across the country, police forces devoted huge resources to create entire squads for decades with the goal of crushing progressive movements for racial justice, social justice, labor organizing, LGBTQ rights, peace, and environmental sustainability using murder, violent felonies, surveillance, infiltration, false flag operations, wiretapping, blackmail, fraud, and more.
In these articles, the New York Times is manufacturing consent among low-information liberal readers—people who want to do something after witnessing rampant police violence—to bring back one of the scariest, most Orwellian chapters in LAPD history, but portraying it as the recommendation of “independent” police accountability experts. Yikes.
Failure to Provide Important Facts, Context, and History
The choice to do a story about what “independent” reports said about the police violence gives an illusion of a system working well and as designed, with serious people doing serious things to implement a system of checks and balances, transparency, oversight, and accountability. Nothing could be further from the truth. In reality, any reporter who covers this stuff for any period of time or who has read basic police histories should be able to see through this facade.
This is what makes it so troubling that these NYT reporters chose to exclude relevant historical and contemporary context.
The reporters left out the prior historical examples of when LAPD engaged in rampant corruption and violence but then used public reports to get more resources for “training” and “intelligence” and technology that it then used to commit more crimes.
This would be like telling the story of the Trojan Horse but leaving out the part where hidden soldiers appear and conquer the unsuspecting recipients of the gift. If people are to make reasoned judgments about their views on police reform, they should know if the policing bureaucracy responded to dozens of previous instances of rampant violence with similar reports and proposals, if those proposals were implemented, and if the same or greater violence nonetheless occurred. Instead, the latter parts of this endless cycle of expensive (but profitable) bureaucratic “reforms” are left out of media coverage, making a lot of low-information people just starting to pay attention every few years think that our society is doing something helpful each time.
This fraud is boosted thematically by the language that pervades corporate news articles.
By leaving out essential context—even simply omitting all the previous times similar reports were written and similar recommendations for “training” implemented or even by leaving out widely held knowledge about what police “training” actually looks like—reporters lie by omission. And these lies are aided by very specific words that dominate these articles. Every few months or years, journalists in major cities report on new reports finding systemic corruption and brutality in *every major US police force* and then they quote important officials saying that “mistakes were made.” The reporters, unable or unwilling to draw any connections and with no context/analysis about the history or function of U.S. police, spend the article talking very specifically about lack of “preparation” and “training” and “planning” and the need for more “resources” for cops. Although similar reports from cities across the U.S.—Dallas, New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, etc…—find widespread human rights violations, the NYT somehow uses words like “botched” to suggest a certain haplessness that police bureaucrats are only happy to embrace because it obfuscates the true functions of the police bureaucracy.
The reason that every credible report on police response to progressive protests since 1900 has found systemic illegality and corruption isn't because the police aren't “prepared” or haven’t, in a century, received proper “training.” Many historians of these issues and sociologists studying the policing bureaucracy have demonstrated that brutally squelching progressive movements is **exactly what police prepare for.** It is one key thing for which the bureaucracy is built. Virtually every word, sentence, and paragraph in these articles is carefully constructed to avoid people coming to that conclusion.
The language used by the NYT is not limited to the copaganda context. It is a common form of propaganda used a lot throughout U.S. history, especially in the “foreign policy” context. For example, when hundreds of U.S. drones kill civilians, the murders are often portrayed as “mistakes” each time, even if they are part of years-long patterns and the direct and predictable result of intentional policies like bombing medical personnel who come to rescue people after an original drone attack or classifying all young men in a geographic area as military targets, etc. (In the ordinary U.S. legal system, by contrast, one is typically deemed to intend the natural and foreseeable results of one’s actions.)
To see this point, take a look at the language choice of the New York Times and other outlets when other governments attack protestors. When an enemy foreign government violently assaults crowds of protestors, it is often deemed in the U.S. media as a strategic response planned at the highest levels to curb dissent, not a series of isolated failures to properly “train” their security forces or to give their security forces enough technology. For example, it would be absurd to U.S. editors and readers if a response to the recent police violence by Iranian government morality police was to lavish the Iranian police bureaucracy with more money and surveillance technology because they needed better training.
In an ironic copaganda twist, the Iran government seems to have studied the PR response of U.S. police and deployed it repeatedly in the wake of its own recent mass violence against protestors, recycling many of the same lines that U.S. police do. The basic goal of both governments with these statements—which media in each country have parroted—is to maintain the view that a particular institution is well-meaning, and any horrific things it does are just the result of either a few bad apples, some unfortunate errors, its own lack of resources, or some other cause that can be remedied with a little more study and investment.
The same is true with recent reporting about the Taliban in Afghanistan, where violence against protestors is portrayed not as “missteps” and “mistakes” resulting from poor “training” and not enough surveillance money, but as an intention expressed at the highest levels of a national government that it “will not tolerate peaceful dissent”:
Somehow, decades of almost identical police violence in thousands of U.S. cities and towns against the same groups protesting similar issues is not seen by the media as expressing any intention at the highest levels of U.S. government and society.
All of these issues are made worse by the lack of critical contrary perspective in the articles. These NYT journalists may not realize it, but by giving no space to critical analysis and synthesis, they are serving a racist propaganda function for the police. This kind of reporting, free from historical and empirical context, limits people’s understanding of the scope and causes of police violence and their imagination of solutions. It traps people in a cycle of senseless violence and laughable “reforms” that misdiagnose the problem and consign millions more people to pain, family separation, and death.
If you're going to cover police, you should at least read and think genuinely about the history and current function of U.S. police. Start with books like Our Enemies in Blue (you can read it free online), Are Prisons Obsolete, and The End of Policing. Use what’s in them. Use my primer on U.S. prosecution, police, and courts.
I am calling on news editors and reporters of good will to stop publishing articles about U.S. policing with no critical sources. Bad journalism limits the scope of what human beings think possible. It narrows the Overton window. It is an enemy of progress. We will be trapped in this cycle unless you change.
An Army of Charlatans
All of this is made worse because, whenever there are billions of dollars at stake and cherished mythologies of race and class to defend, there is an army of pseudo-intellectuals mobilized to seed public discourse with superstition and confusion.
One of the most reliable aspects of U.S. discourse is the arrival of the smart-sounding, ostensibly caring, intellectual apologist for state violence. These people are everywhere. In 2020, many of them emerged from the woodwork to begin the reactionary backlash by arguing in ludicrous fashion that “police reduce crime,” without bothering to think about the most basic questions about what constitutes “crime,” how it is measured and by whom, and whether the scientific evidence demonstrates that other investments are much more effective. Then, in 2021, another phalanx of (wealthy) intelligentsia writing “think pieces” emerged to foment fears about “retail theft,” the “disorder” of criminal trespassing by the homeless, addicts using drugs in public, and the supposed crisis caused by “progressive” prosecutors. The New York Times, for its part, numerous times misled its readers about these issues.
It’s all happening again in the wake of the murder of Tyre Nichols. To take just one example, in the wake of the intentional Tyre Nichols murder, a popular substack writer with hundreds of thousands of followers named Noah Smith wrote a silly article calling for the largest expansion of police “training” in modern world history. (He blocked me on twitter after I pointed out how irresponsible it is to write publicly about issues in which one has no experience and about which one has read almost none of the relevant literature, especially if one is using easily debunked facts and nonsensical arguments about “police training” to push state violence.)
As I explained in Part 1, the same cycle of “reform” has repeated itself for decades in many areas: body cameras, police “training,” police data technology, “community policing,” bail, probation, parole, tasers, diversifying police, prison conditions, etc.
Journalists of good will should no longer be a part of this assembly line of ignorance, gullibility, and horror.