Discover more from Alec’s Copaganda Newsletter
What we don't tell people
I’m taking a little break from writing these posts because I’ve been asked to turn the newsletter into a book on Copaganda. That is taking up a lot of the time I’m not working on our civil rights cases. But, in researching for the book, I kept coming across a pattern that I wanted to write about: the news either ignores or distorts the actual substance of the ideas held by people challenging the status quo.
Erase and Distort
I have been reading hundreds of articles across news outlets and watching as many news videos as is possible while still living a life full of joy, and I am continually shocked at the superficiality with which critiques of the status quo are presented. This has a consequence: the public has almost no understanding of what critics of the punishment bureaucracy are proposing or that overwhelming evidence supports those critiques.1
A cartoonish example of this phenomenon is a recent video in which journalist Glenn Greenwald interviewed journalist Lee Fang. The theme of the interview was that “working class” people want and need more and better police, and that the people who oppose expanding the punishment bureaucracy are wealthy elitists playing games to boost their own profiles who don’t care about poor people’s safety. Fang unleashed a tirade against “Soros” and other supposedly progressive philanthropists, and he complained of marauding bands of “anarchists” who were not from local communities but who nonetheless were mostly the people leading “violent protests” against police in cities across the country. Much of the interview, which was filled with false misinformation, looked like some sort of job interview to co-host a podcast with Steve Bannon or Sean Hannity. (Fang also briefly resorted to Democratic Party and for-profit police industry talking points promoting vague and useless “reforms” like more cash for lucrative body cameras and police training and even “community policing” that would only make matters worse. He apparently knows nothing about those issues or the industries, corruption, history of counterinsurgency, and political agendas behind them.)
But then Fang and Greenwald said some stuff that is interesting. According to Fang:
“…there’s another faction of Black Lives Matter that’s just kind of this catchall liberal bandwagon that’s angry at, you know, 40 different issues that just wants to abolish policing altogether but has no solutions for how to keep a community safe.”
Greenwald responded that poor people want “better policing” not reduced policing:
“On the other hand, political leftists who seem to have been born into this privilege bubble and who see all this as a game, as just kind of like a way of expelling their own personal and psychological deficiencies and problems and just spewing hatred at whatever institutions they can find only to kind of elevate their own image without any concern with results because they don’t actually care because none of these problems affect them.”
These are not good faith arguments. Both Fang and Greenwald know that there are extremely detailed, evidence-based “solutions” being proposed, and that they are often being proposed by poor people and survivors of violence. It is an insulting erasure of the movement to improve safety that is both led by working class people who are the most harmed by the punishment bureaucracy and overwhelmingly supported by the available social scientific evidence. But I want to focus on something more interesting: these talking points reflect a failure of the news to explain the substance of radical critiques of police, prosecutors, and prisons.
Exchanges like this are a broader representation of how what start (and continue) as far-right police union and punishment industry talking points—for example, that opponents to state violence have no actual policies to improve safety but are merely spotlight-seeking rich people who roam the country as “outside agitators”—can become pieces of centrist conventional wisdom if people are rarely told what opponents actually believe! As silly as Greenwald and Fang sound, the crux of their erasure is basically the same as nearly every mainstream news outlet that I’ve been tracking on this issue.
One representative example was a hit piece last year in the New York Times on New York City Councilmember Kristin Richardson Jordan. Describing her as “a revolutionary activist and poet” who wants to abolish the police, the theme of the piece was to demonstrate that Jordan’s views on police were out of touch, especially after the recent killing of two cops in her district.2 Minimizing her recent election victory on her chosen platform, the article quoted a single ordinary person, who expressed that police were “underpaid,” that police were needed to “keep order,” and that he was opposed to police abolition. (The intrepid reporters unearthed this ordinary person by finding him outside a memorial for the two murdered police officers at a police station.) The article then quoted a series of political figures bashing Jordan:
The paper then gave space to the pro-Trump, fascist police union leader:
I want to highlight something remarkable: the article never actually explains her views. Unwittingly, the New York Times instead gave us a motto for our times: “I’ve never had a conversation with her.”
The closest the article comes to saying anything of detail about Jordan’s policy positions is repeating her general view that “New York City should invest far more in social services while cutting spending on law enforcement.”
This is fine, but a reader of the article would be left completely ignorant of Jordan’s platform, and perhaps believing that this was the extent of it. But even a brief visit to Jordan’s website—let alone conversation with her or reviewing her public positions—would reveal a wide range of detailed policy proposals. These include specific policies for various investments and divestments relating to policing of sex work, arrests for drugs, treatment, building community-based safety systems to replace some of what police currently do, removing police involvement in certain mental health response situations, removing policing and surveillance of the subway, ending cooperation between police and immigration authorities, and much more. I don’t know Jordan, but it took me four minutes and thirty seconds to find this cursory information and write these eight lines.
Jordan is a survivor of domestic violence. She and many working class people and people of color who elected her in Harlem and support her are proposing actual, tangible, often beautiful things, and these things are supported by the weight of available evidence. There is no reason to believe that all of these people do not care about safety. Or that they are anarchists from out of state. Instead, people like this and the politicians they elect like Jordan are routinely portrayed in the news as naive dreamers with nothing concrete to offer but platitudes.
This should alarm people who care about the role of the news in creating a better world.
This same pattern of not telling people what critics of the punishment bureaucracy are proposing or the evidence behind it characterizes hundreds of articles that I have reviewed from 2020-2022 that reported on the political debate about whether Democrats were too lenient on crime and didn’t support police enough without mentioning a single policy. This genre of reporting—about the political implications of anti-status quo policies without adequately describing what those policies are, what evidence supports them, and why people advocate them—is one of the most consequential forms of copaganda.
Here’s an example of one of the many similar articles in the New York Times covering calls to “defund” the police:
There is a lot wrong here. The paper claims that “abrupt reversals” in police budget policy “have come in response to rising levels of crime.” This is remarkable. First, recorded crime was down in 2021! The gold standard National Crime Victimization Survey found a 23% decrease in “violent” crime in 2021. The FBI’s national crime estimates, while less reliable, also estimated that “violent crime” went down by 1% and property crime by about 4% in 2021.
But even more bizarrely, the premise that “police departments get their money back” after an “abrupt reversal” seems to presume that it was taken away in the first place. Only a tiny number of police agencies saw even small reductions, and overall police spending increased. There was never any defunding of national police—funding continued to rise even as a few departments had brief, minuscule decreases that did not touch operations.
Thus, the paper is contributing to the false narrative that progressives somehow got what they wanted, tried their policies, that their policies failed, and that these policies are now running headlong into reality. Indeed, almost the entire piece is about Dallas, which the paper fails to note didn’t defund its police force at all. Think about this for a minute: the New York Times is telling people that a progressive policy proposal that was never implemented caused bad things to happen later even though those things didn’t happen.
The New York Times nonetheless tells readers that the increase in police budgets shows politicians are now back to “prioritizing public safety.” It does this, once again, without explaining anywhere in the article what kinds of policies people who support reducing police budgets are proposing, let alone explaining how the evidence on safety supports them.
A true connoisseur of copaganda recognizes that propaganda can be most successful if it subtly suggests—in an unsupported clause in the middle of a sentence presented as so unarguable that it requires no citation—that more money for cops means being serious about “public safety.” In contrast to the vague threatening warnings about how everyone is understandably rejecting defunding, the New York Times gets specific about how Dallas police are returning to an “old-school” approach of “hot spot” policing, which means flooding poor areas with cops. The paper tells readers that “criminologists” say that this works to make people safe! See what they are doing? Vague efforts to “defund,” which readers are given no information about, are said to have failed and led to increased crime, but the specific strategy of sending police to “high crime” areas to do mass incarceration apparently works, according to anonymous experts who are portrayed as having the only consensus view on the issue. As I have explained, the research by a cabal of pro-police authors on “hot spot” policing is a joke, and the most recent gold standard randomized control studies find that it does nothing to improve safety. All of this is ignored: the paper did not note the many other criminologists and experts disagree, and that those people believe based on the overwhelming weight of the available evidence that other very specific proposals to redirect some spending from police budgets to policies that work better.
Instead of being engaged, inspired, activated, and able to ask hard questions to learn more and participate in public life, people are left to assume that there really isn’t a genuine debate, that critics aren’t serious, and that there aren’t immediate, concrete proposals out there to make their lives better. And to make it all worse, they are told that, if there are progressive things that could help, whatever they are, we’ve tried those things and they didn’t work.
This relates to another theme: how the news uses vague words to describe reforms without educating people about what they actually do. Thousands of articles and tv segments across the U.S. talk about “accountability” or “training” or “community policing” without telling people what those things look like. I can say with near certainty that none of the Democratic political leaders issuing press releases about how they were going to craft laws finally delivering “accountability” for police after 150 years either knew what specific policies they were talking about or intended to change anything that would make the punishment bureaucracy responsive to democratic forms of scrutiny and control. Moreover, I can also tell you with near certainty that people promoting more cash to the lucrative “police training” industry either don’t want anything to change or have no idea what police training looks like in this country.
One of my favorite examples of this was a fawning profile of an Atlanta-area District Attorney. The article ignores the bulk of what this DA’s office does: ruthless prosecution of poor people, usually for minor things. It also omits how this DA covers up and even exploits police corruption and ignores corporate crime, which this DA barely prosecutes. The function is to mislead people about what kind of a people DAs are. They read this article and they see a skilled, brave crusader rather than a ruthless bully peddling wanton brutality against scientific consensus. As I wrote about another liberal hero prosecutor in my book Usual Cruelty:
[A]bout eighty percent of the people prosecuted by his office in Manhattan were impoverished. During his time in charge of the office, about fifty percent of his cases were prosecutions for drug offenses and of undocumented immigrants accused of crossing a geographic political boundary. In 2016, despite jurisdiction over the New York Police Department (NYPD), he chose not to prosecute a single civil rights case…. No officers were prosecuted for perjury, even when they were caught lying in Bharara’s cases.
Bharara, like all of us, knew that the people he chose to cage were significantly likely to be physically and sexually assaulted, receive inadequate medical care, and be tortured in solitary confinement. For years, he oversaw all of the things, large and small, that federal prosecution entails in our society: pursuing mandatory minimum sentencing to coerce guilty pleas, working with police with long histories of abuse and constitutional violations, covering up police lying, rejecting science in forensic evidence, placing metal restraints on criminal defendants and immigrants in court so that they cannot hug their families, threatening people with longer imprisonment unless they give up their right to a jury trial, imposing pretrial detention in dangerous and grotesque conditions, creating racial disparities, separating children from their parents without evidence that it benefits anyone, and displaying massive disregard for the crimes of elites.
Instead, the New York Times reporter cherry picks a few high profile cases to suggest this is a “no nonsense” crusading specialist of uncommon skill and bravery. It gives a spokesperson from DA chance to tell readers she has a “90% conviction rate.” Do you have any idea what that means? Me neither, and neither does anyone who knows that such calculations are both meaningless and not possible. Giving readers contested and context-free statistics like that is journalistic malpractice. In order to understand that number, a sophisticated reader would need to know a great deal more about how it's calculated (does it include face-saving, coerced guilty please to far lesser charges, for example?), as well as have some understanding of which cases the office decides to charge. Without that, it's just words like a used car commercial.
But why does this matter here? Pay attention to how the article discusses the profound criticisms to be made, and how it lets her deflect them:
This is the only moment in the article where the news reporter gestures at the real problems, although the story gives no detail or context for a reader to understand them. Then, instead of explaining what this critic means or giving some examples or statistics or data or context that would demonstrate what her office does every day, the story gives the last word to the DA herself.
Her answer is embarrassing. What passes for serious discussion of important public issues in the New York Times is a threat to a reasoned democratic discourse. The paper knows that readers have no idea what “alternative sentencing,” “diversion programs,” or a “criminal justice class” are. It knows that they probably sound good to a liberal reader skimming the paper over morning coffee. But these “reforms” are a fairy tales, and many of them make the problems identified by the critic worse. Around the country, many of these things have expanded onerous probation supervision (Georgia is by far the national leader in probation per capita), for-profit money making diversion that actually enables police and prosecutors to arrest, prosecute, jail, and make money off of more people, and such classes are often places where police spread propaganda to kids. Readers have literally NO idea what is meant by them, let alone information to evaluate whether they are good, and whether they can in any way be said to respond to the profound critique that she is mostly prosecuting too many poor people and Black people for low-level crimes.
The New York Times knows this. It knows that readers have no idea how to evaluate her response. But the reporter lets the DA end the article as if these vague (and minor and bad) policies are somehow a rejoinder to the devastating, foundational criticism that the bulk of what her office does is unnecessary, ruthless prosecution of poor people.
Instead, we are left thinking that it was the critic who is ignorant and uninformed, and readers of the most prestigious publication in the United States are less informed than when they began reading the news because they have now been told that reforms they do not understand are solving problems that are never explained.
Being vague makes bad things possible
A final related pattern that I’ve noticed is that defenders of the status quo take advantage of the fact that the news does not inform people of the actual views of radical critics—and they exploit this ignorance. This is what Greenwald and Fang were doing by mischaracterizing and erasing the views of the people they criticized. Time and again, pundits and reporters criticize the critics or oppose some elected official taking a step to reduce the power and size of the punishment bureaucracy without explaining what that means they do support. In a now deleted tweet, for example, one of the most infamous pro-police operatives in the think tank/non-profit/government world criticized the work of sociology professor Alex Vitale in his book The End of Policing by calling it “a seriously misguided endeavor.”
What often happens in the news is that the critics of the critics do not engage in any of the substantive arguments. Like Greenwald and Fang, they lie about or ignore the specific policy questions and evidence. Do these critics support the war on drugs? Human caging for possessing the marijuana plant, mushrooms, or other scheduled substances? Caging people for sex work? ICE raids? SWAT teams raiding homes at night for drug possession? Do they want more or fewer children arrested by cops in schools? Do they object to unarmed traffic enforcement? To they object to audits of police overtime fraud? To mental health first responders? To gang databases? To police using facial recognition and license plate readers as we move in public? Do they want to use the plurality of cop budgets to cage people for driving on licenses suspended for owing debts, trespassing, shoplifting, and drug offenses? Why or why not?
They avoid this and much more because they have no good argument for continuing many of the daily realities of the system. No one could. By ignoring all of this, though, these people are able to avoid losing debates about what the punishment bureaucracy mostly does with its money and time. They are instead able to paint the entire “defund” movement as “misguided” or “wealthy anarchists” who don’t care about anything, and having vilified them, these areas that would likely have huge public support for reimagining get killed in the crossfire.
These punishment bureaucrats and their allies who appear in respectable news sources don't say in public that they support ineffective, brutal violence against the most vulnerable people in our society. If they and the reporters who carry their water spelled out the logical consequences of their views, it would horrify the liberals they are trying to manipulate into preserving things mostly as they are.
I’ve made this point before when talking about how popular reducing police budgets is when poll questions are framed differently—and it polls especially well among people with families who are police officers. I’ve also point out that, in private, dozens of police leaders I’ve spoken to almost universally acknowledge that their budgets have enormous waste, overtime fraud, misplaced priorities, and that large portions should be handled by civilian employees. In my career, I have seen that the more someone knows about police budgets or the research on alternative social investments, the more likely they are to support significant change. So the news keeps people ignorant about the details.
The piece contained a series of bizarre paragraphs questioning whether her whereabouts and social media posts in the hours after the shooting (she quickly went to the hospital where the officers were taken) expressed sufficient remorse and care relative to other politicians.