The Philadelphia Daily News tries to accuse the local D.A. of a conflict of interest in the Cosby case. In the process, the paper gets everything exactly backwards. Beldar explains.
Jack Dunphy’s Outside the Tent piece today is titled The Times Quotes Firebrands and Convicts the City’s Cops. It is excellent. Some highlights:
Like its reportage on the Rodney King trial, the Margaret Mitchell shooting and other police-related controversies over the years, The Times’ coverage of the Brown shooting seems designed to raise expectations that the involved officer, Steve Garcia, will be punished or even imprisoned for his actions that morning.
The first sentence of The Times’ first story on the shooting, described Brown as “unarmed.” This is true in the sense that Brown did not have a gun, but if he was in fact attempting to run Garcia down, as Garcia has reportedly offered as his rationale for firing, then Brown was armed with quite a weapon indeed. And not until the final paragraph does the story mention that Brown’s car collided with the police car. The extensive damage to the police car was not described.
Readers of this site will recall that I have previously registered similar complaints about the paper’s coverage of this incident. For example, by using words like “allegedly” to discuss the damage to the police car, the paper actually suggested that there might be a dispute about whether the patrol car had suffered damage — as if the paper lacked resources to send a reporter to observe the damage first-hand. (I had seen the damage to the car myself when I watched the evening news.)
Other details of the coverage also tilt sympathy away from the police.
In a Feb. 9 story about the shooting, a minister was quoted describing Brown as an “honor student.” The story was accompanied by a picture of a cherubic Brown (taken years earlier, apparently) in the cap and gown of a graduation ceremony. This only added to the already growing perception that an innocent child had been gunned down without cause. Brown’s foundering academic record was more accurately described in a story the following day, perhaps too late to influence the opinions already formed.
This is a telling point: the presentation of information matters, even when all relevant information eventually gets out. What information runs on the first day after a major event? What runs on the front page as opposed to the end of the story? These details of presentation will inevitably shape readers’ perceptions. And readers of The Times will note a consistent pattern: this presentation almost always emphasizes facts that contradict the police’s position.
Dunphy makes another excellent point, about facts left out of these stories:
In fact, if The Times were interested in presenting a balanced picture of the Brown shooting, it might run a story about the 21 police officers who were deliberately struck by cars and killed in the United States in the last five years.
No kidding. Dunphy ends the piece by effectively saying something I have been telling people for years: this paper actually contributes to racial polarization — and, yes, rioting — through its unbalanced coverage of racially charged incidents involving police:
In 1992, The Times’ then-media critic, David Shaw, reported that one cause of what came to be known as the Rodney King riots was the public’s expectation that the four officers involved in King’s arrest would be convicted. This expectation, Shaw said, may have been raised because Los Angeles media outlets, including The Times, tended to dismiss or underreport those details that favored the officers’ defense.
When the story of the Devin Brown shooting is finally concluded, will The Times have made the same mistake? If the city again goes up in flames, will The Times shoulder any of the blame?
I think we know the answer. But I really wish that Times editors would think about this, deeply and seriously, before covering a story this way. Sadly, I don’t think they’re capable of the kind of real introspection this would require. And we may all end up paying for it.
UPDATE: The Times has run a weaselly correction of Dunphy’s piece.