Recent protests across America against excessive and biased use of police force began after ordinary people in those communities recorded official (to the point of murderous) actions, and then shared their recordings with others. It was not government – local, state, or federal – that promptly shared these recordings of excessive force; it was ordinary residents speaking while their local governments betrayed American ideals of proportionate force and transparency.
Those communities likely had processes, policies, and committees, but it was residents’ cameras that showed the dark truth about those processes, policies, and committees.
It’s often hard for professional journalists to report on government misconduct – including unlawful violence – as Monika Bauerlien notes in When It Comes to Policing, Journalism Is Part of the Problem:
We also need to consistently shine light on the systemic part—to not drop the ball after the high-profile cases (that themselves can become voyeuristic spectacles) fade from the headlines, and to avoid the wide-eyed implication that “this is not who we are.” We need to look out for how we use language such as “riots” or “unarmed black man.” And we need to be serious about pursuing truth, not the he-said-she-said regurgitation of conflicting accounts.
Journalism has a choice, and it takes a side, whether we acknowledge that or not. We can be complicit in disinformation, sensationalism, or racialized narratives of law and order, or we can work to oppose them. And that choice is particularly stark at this moment, when gaslighting is so pervasive it can seem, in the words of MoJo‘s Nathalie Baptiste, “as if everyone from the highest levels of government, to police officers, and randoms on Twitter are embarking on a campaign to make you feel as if you’re just imagining the widespread brutality raining down from the state.”
The press should not be part of that list. But too often we are.
There’s a naive (at best) or deceptive (at worst) view that some communities are necessarily above reproach. This is fantastically false, and contrary to any serious understanding of human nature. (Fantastically – literally, a belief remote from reality.)
While the possibility of something is not proof of something, an assessment of reasonable possibilities should – and so must – begin with a recognition that there are no human places free from human failings.
If professional journalists struggle with candid reporting, it’s unpersuasive to the point of delusion to assume that goverment officials, themselves, can both make policy and honestly report on those policies. The hubris in an effort like that is enough to refill Whitewater’s Cravath Lake many times over.
Finding new people to play the same conflicted role as their predecessors will prove futile. (Politician-Staff Writer is no more convincing than Rock Star-Brain Surgeon.)
The 1984 film Gremlins had a 1990 sequel, Gremlins: The New Batch. Despite the passage of six years’ time, both films were about…gremlins. (“The Gremlins are back, and this time, they’ve taken control of a New York City media mogul’s high-tech skyscraper.”)