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Police Public Relations Spending: Part 2
Part 2: What do they do and why does it matter?
In Part 1, I sketched out some of what we know (and don’t know) about how many police employees and consultants are devoted to manipulating public discourse. Here, in Part 2, I offer a few examples to start a discussion about what this means—and why it matters. In keeping with the theme of furthering knowledge about media complicity in state violence, I’m offering another picture of one of my wise cat friends named Nori.
Newsrooms, Resources, and the Reality of News Production
I was contacted by a lead news anchor for a local television station who reads this newsletter, as well as by several local and national nightly television news producers. I learned a lot from these conversations, but I want to focus on one thing in particular: they face enormous pressure to fill 20-24 minutes of programming several times per day (for each 30 minute local newscast). Depending on the station, this can include a morning news show, a dinner-time news program, and multiple late-evening news shows. It’s not uncommon for even small local tv news to have shows at 6:30am, 6:00pm, and 11:00pm. A mid-market anchor I spoke with works for a station that does several hours of news in the morning, 90 minutes in the evening, and 60 minutes late at night. In speaking with other producers, I learned that it is very common for mid-market news stations to produce even more content than that each day. National cable news producers face a different kind of crunch, but some of the pressures operate in similar ways with respect to their coverage of public safety.
Another producer explained to me that police public relations employees do not just call reporters and tell them about a story. When police give stories to the media, they often contain video, audio, screenshots of documents, or other easy visuals. Police and prosecutors also routinely have teams ready with (often ludicrously inaccurate) charts and graphics showing supposedly relevant statistics. Police (and DA Offices, which have their own publicly funded PR teams) also routinely pay spokespeople to be briefed and prepared for sound byte interviews, or otherwise make available employees to ensure that there is a person who is prepared to be on camera for a news interview or to a person who can give a quote or spend time with the reporter “on background” to shape the reporter’s understanding of the story. I talk “on background” a lot with dozens of reporters every month, so I know how time consuming it can be to provide context to news reporters who are not specialists in criminal law.
The many thousands of public relations employees in police departments across the U.S. understand how to make things easy on busy journalists. This intervention in news production through the sheer brute force of the content they produce should be seen as one of their chief functions.
Once one starts to think about the reality of how news gets produced every day by busy people, one understands that ideological support for police is often not the most important reason that police exercise such influence over the content and volume of local news. And once one understands even a little bit about how daily news is produced one understands that it isn’t that difficult to manipulate it if you have a lot of money: you produce things for the news, in a format that allows reporters, editors, and producers to have as much content as they can have with as little work as possible. There are many ways to refine the points I’m making here, including understanding which kinds of stories lend themselves best to video, mapping the ideology of particular reporters and stations, having your finger on the pulse of current news trends and the local zeitgeist, etc. The best police PR departments are more sophisticated in understanding these dimensions. But the basic point that police departments and their media consultants understand is this: we can shape the news simply by producing content and sending it to news professionals.1
The Police PR Apparatus Is Not Directed Only At Journalists
There is another key function of police public relations: seeding an ecosystem of validation. As I noted in Part 1, a key role for many of these publicly funded PR units is conducting message testing and focus groups. But it does not stop there. Police public information staff build strong relationships with ideological allies in local and national academic institutions and opinion punditry. They build lists of experts and cherry pick studies (often of questionable validity), and spend time working with these experts on talking points.2 They routinely have calls with editorial board leadership and key opinion columnists, many of whom are happy to meet upon request, but do not otherwise seek out experts independently of their own networks.
According to academics I’ve spoken to and a trove of emails my colleagues at the extraordinary Stop LAPD Spying Coalition have obtained through FOIA, the public messages involving academic “experts” with ties to police are often coordinated and planned, revisions and drafts circulated, and then the “experts” are either directly offered or indirectly suggested to reporters as independent validators of the police perspective (over time, this process becomes more and more informal in a local ecosystem, with reporters and experts originally introduced to reporters by police PR teams coming to build their own professional and often personal relationships).
What develops is a sort of groupthink, and for many years many reporters and news organizations end up being exposed to such a small slice of opinion from such a narrow social group with particular interests, that it produces its own conventional wisdom about issues like crime and safety. Then the Maureen Dowds and David Brooks’s of the world write confident opinion pieces further entrenching the groupthink. I don’t mean to suggest all of this is intentionally corrupt (some of it definitely is)—I think some of these experts genuinely hold pro-police, pro-punishment views, and I think they come to convince journalists of those views in what amounts to a sort of elite ecochamber of conventional wisdom.
It is important to see that many aspects of this conventional wisdom, from what counts as “safety” to whose “safety” matters to what is considered a “crime” to how to think about “reform” are importantly (but obviously not completely) shaped by the concerted (and expensive) effort of police to cultivate expertise that serves them and to help connect that expertise to news professionals. This web of easy, go-to relationships seeded by police PR spending is one reason many local tv news stories end up including one of a small group of experts week after week; how many of the same experts appear in outlet after outlet touting fringe discredited theories like James Comey’s “Ferguson Effect” that “violent crime” is caused by racial justice protests; and how a small group of “think piece” pundits confidently repeat the same talking points citing the same circles of experts across news outlets.
This is all far more complicated, and I am researching it in more depth now as part of a book project. I only mean to offer these sketches and to make one basic point: Let’s pay attention to police PR budgets. It matters how much money and how many employees local government budgets devote to police public relations. When people devote a lot of money and time to building a network to influence the production of news, they can be effective, just as corporate public relations teams are, at influencing public opinion through building symbiotic relationships with reporters and seeding an ecosystem of expertise that reinforces their ideology in a way that draws less skepticism from well-meaning news readers.
A Thought Experiment
The content of daily news would be very different if, let’s say, the local bureaucrats who test lead levels in water or workplace safety code violations had the same infrastructure and commitment to producing news and conventional wisdom.
For example, imagine a daily news segment called “bad landlord of the day” where local news simply reported on the worst eviction law or building code violations that government agencies document each day. Same for a “bad employer of the week” segment for child labor or wage theft violations that local, state, and national regulators are finding every day. The same could be true with nurses and doctors at public hospitals or teachers in local schools, who could, with proper resources, produce a stream of daily news stories for journalists that would be of tremendous local interest and value given the important public health and educational events and trends that they see every day but do not think to (or cannot with limited resources) package for news production. By tweaking some of these bureaucratic processes, it would not be that difficult for a local government or a group of local bureaucrats in a different area to significantly change how urgently the local public thinks about the issues they work on and their connection to community safety and well-being.
These processes are important for how we all see and understand the world. In my articles on What Is News and the Volume of News, I discussed how decisions about what counts as news and decisions about which stories receive higher quantities of coverage shape what we see as urgent and which problems we as a society care about addressing.
****NOTE: Because I am focused here on the influence of police PR spending on the news, I’m not delving into the large, corrupt world of police spending to influence movies, fictional television shows, and other artistic work. As with the military, there exists an entire industry of consultants who work to plant police perspectives in fictional media, such as the catastrophic show Law and Order. But sometimes the corruption is more overtly paid for by police, police unions, or police-department affiliated foundations. Don’t forget that when Spike Lee made BlacKkKlansman—perhaps the worst, most irresponsible movie of copaganda I’ve ever seen—he was being paid over $200,000 on a marketing contract by NYC cops.
One of the most striking example of this is the sheer number of stories planted by police PR departments about police rescuing baby ducklings. When journalist Radley Balko did a quick internet search, he found 30 such stories in just the past two years before he decided that he had done enough searching to make his point.
Police also build symbiotic relationships with academic researchers and institutions, such as by sharing their vast data troves contingent on confidential and proprietary contracts.