The Media Bias No One Talks About
Editor, New Haven Advocate; Lecturer, Yale University
Brian Stelter wrote last weekend about the news coverage of Occupy Wall Street and of its offshoots. Stelter reports that the Pew Research Center's new survey found that OWS captured just 10 percent of national news coverage (presumably liberal, moderate or conservative media combined) starting in October. Coverage fizzled to 1 percent until last Tuesday when the NYPD muscled protesters out of Zuccotti Park. No surprise: News coverage soared.
With a few exceptions, the general tendency has been to ignore OWS. It doesn't have obvious leaders or an obvious agenda, both of which make OWS hard to understand if you don't try to understand it. So it gets a pass from most newsrooms -- unless the cops get involved. Then you have a story that lends itself to the genre of news writing. It has characters, conflict, chronology, drama. Every reporter wants to cover such news. But it's this habit of waiting for the cops that leads me to my point.
The media has a bias but not the one everyone talks about.
The media's bias favors cops.
This has always been true. Journalists need access to power. Those in power provide information that cannot be obtained otherwise. Reporters trade access for favorable coverage. Such is life. The best reporters succeed without compromising their integrity. There are obvious exceptions. Judith Miller comes to mind. But I'm talking about everyday run-of-the-mill manifestations of power and for most American journalists, and Americans generally, that obviously means law enforcement.
Media's natural tendency is to sympathize with the police. They are the good guys, criminals the bad guys. And I think this is the right presumption until facts compel one to think otherwise. But I also think this habit of deference is so ingrained in the minds of journalists that even when it's totally obvious that the cops are so completely the bad guys in a story, the media still can't avoid false equivalency.
False equivalency is a term coined by James Fallows. It has other names. Eric Alterman calls it on-the-one-handism. Paul Krugman calls it the cult of balance. In any case, it means the journalistic convention of representing two sides of a story equally, no matter how unequal they may in fact be. For Krugman, this means putting Republicans and Democrats on the same plane, even though Tea Party Republicans have been far more radical than Democrats. For the media coverage of OWS demonstrations, this means portraying non-violent civil disobedience as if it were the same as outright acts of police violence.
By far the most exasperating example I can think of is contained in one word: "clash."
Google this: "protesters clash with police." Among those 6,200 or so links you will find stories with pictures of cops armed with rifles and batons, wearing body armor and face shields, and squaring off with unarmed and peaceful protesters. In many of those photographs you will see cops blasting pepper spray into the faces of Americans whose only crime appears to be exercising an inalienable right. Pepper spray is one of those "non-lethal" weapons, like rubber bullets and sonic grenades, that have come into widespread use in the past 15 years. You'd think police would deploy them sparingly, only in cases in which officer safety is endangered. But instead, OWS has revealed what observers have known for some time -- that police, with the approval of courts, have used them increasingly to intimidate, coerce and terrorized crowds. What else explains the horrible stories of police officers casually pepper-spraying an expectant mother (who claims to have miscarried as a result), an 84-year-old woman and dozens of students at University of California-Davis?
These are not conflicts between rivals of equal proportion, as "clash" connotes. These are incidents of police violence and media should start calling it for what it is. With so much amateur video out there, the media has little choice, I think, but to set aside convention, examine bias and report what's happening. At the very least think of it this way: Fire hoses and German shepherds were preferred "non-lethal" methods of dispersing crowds in the twilight years of the Jim Crow South.
They would if they were in a foreign country. I'm not the first to point out that President Obama would have condemned what happened at UC-Davis if it had been in another country. And I'm not the first to note such false equivalence misrepresents reality. Fox News' Chris Wallace recently said he believes most people are sick of the violence. I have no doubt that he's right, except in my mind I'm not omitting the actual agents of most of the violence.
Worse, police violence appears to be institutionalized. According to the Associated Press, what we saw at UC-Davis -- a campus police officer, who did not appear in any way to be in danger, casually doused students who were peacefully protesting -- is considered "fairly standard police procedure."
Though the UC-Davis chief was put on leave and the chancellor has called for a review, that doesn't address how police forces nationwide have become increasingly militarized, according to Norm Stamper, former Seattle police chief. As he writes in The Nation: "It's showing in cities everywhere: the NYPD 'white shirt' coating innocent people with pepper spray, the arrests of two student journalists at Occupy Atlanta, the declaration of public property as off-limits and the arrests of protesters for 'trespass.'"
And let's not forget the two dozen journalists arrested during the evacuation of Zuccotti Park. Some have said the media landscape has changed so much that cops can't tell who's a professional reporter and who's an amateur. That's why they ended up arresting reporters and photographers. But another reason for so many arrests is that the cops are increasingly militarized and indifferent to the First Amendment.
If this were a war zone, the OWS protesters would be called innocents, victims of war, or some such thing. Police violence would be described as a crackdown, a suppression. As it is, they are "clashing" with police as if they have anywhere near the weaponry police have. As if they have weapons at all. Most are just engaging in acts of civil disobedience. Perhaps, with enough people being traumatized by police, the media will start talking about the police in terms actually experienced by those who "clash" with them.