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‘Spotlight’ on Police Violence Fails to Illuminate

Media connection sparks interest, not introspection

Janine Jackson

Seattle freelance videographer Jud Morris thought he saw news April 17 when he found a police officer standing over a man lying on the sidewalk, telling him, "I'm going to beat the fucking Mexican piss out of you, homey. You feel me?" and kicking him in the head.

Morris captured the incident, including the next moment when a second officer stomped on 21-year-old Martin Monetti's leg--and the next, when the officers realized they had the wrong guy and let Monetti up, bloodied, without offering medical assistance--and brought it immediately to local Fox affiliate KCPQ (known as Q13), where he was told it would not air (Stranger, 5/7/10): "They said it is not that egregious. Those were the exact words."

Morris put his video on YouTube, which got him fired as a freelancer from Q13. Then rival station KIRO bought and aired the tape to tremendous public response, leading Q13 to sue them for ownership, claiming Morris was on their clock when he shot the video they wouldn't air.

There was fallout: The Q13 news director who'd claimed they weren't suppressing the tape, only holding it until they unearthed "important facts that we believed would add context to the story," resigned, and a senior assignment editor was fired (Stranger, 5/18/10). The officer, gang unit detective Shandy Cobane, apologized tearfully, "I know my words cut deep" --without mentioning his boots. Police launched an "internal investigation" (Seattle Times, 5/7/10).

But somehow it's that "not that egregious" that sticks in the mind, for what it suggests is journalists' tolerance level for police abuse and racism. And though reporters credit themselves with a "national media storm" (Seattle Times, 5/15/10) around the incident, nothing about their coverage suggests any serious grappling with that part of the story.

There was acknowledgment of institutional closeness between media and police departments, particularly Q13's airing of Washington's Most Wanted, which Morris suggested reflected a relationship with police the station didn't want to compromise. (Q13 denied any conflict in a May 11 statement: "We're proud of our relationship with law enforcement and the capture of 124 fugitives through our Washington's Most Wanted program. However, we have not and will not hesitate to report on issues surrounding police.")

Fewer reports took note of the fact, also recounted by Morris, that "a key [Q13] staffer was talking to the police as she was viewing" the tape, which he found "kind of odd" (Seattle Times, 5/8/10). The Stranger alt-weekly (5/19/10) published claims by an unidentified Q13 employee that management was bowing to "friends at SPD" in not airing the footage, but it doesn't sound as though pressure was required.

(Indeed, in SPD's version, the station staffer who called "didn't think the video constituted a major issue. But [Interim Police Chief John] Diaz said it was up to police commanders to decide if an incident rises to the level of possible misconduct"--Seattle Times, 5/21/10.)

Journalists seemed genuinely not to understand that what was disturbing was not the "language" Cobane used with Monetti, but the casually violent racism it evinced in combination with physical abuse. How might such an attitude affect all aspects of Cobane's policing? Is this racism reflected in gang unit policy? Is it OK for police to "beat the piss out of" people, or to threaten to? Media overwhelmingly declined to pull back from the incident to ask the questions it suggested about law enforcement's approach to communities of color.

The Stranger's Dominic Holden (5/11/10) noted that the cops who beat Monetti showed no interest in helping him once they realized he was innocent; it wasn't a detail that interested other reporters. Nor was much made of the non-response of Cobane's colleagues, though, as an op-ed in the Kansas City Star (5/11/10) suggested, "Had Cobane's policing ‘technique' been unusual, at least one of the officers should've demonstrated some discomfort." Members of a community coalition (Seattle Times, 5/19/10) pointed to an "insidious culture of tolerance" for misconduct among police, but such critics were rarely heard from.

Another Seattle Times story (5/8/10) included a provocative comment from Rich O'Neill of Seattle's Police Officer Guild: "If people believe that in the course of police work everything is ‘Officer Friendly' and ‘Mr. Rogers,' that's a very naive view of what goes on." But coming at the very end of the article, the statement reads as a case closer, rather than an invitation to inquiry.

Speaking of systemic concerns, is it coincidence that the story got near-zero play on national TV, except from CNN's Rick Sanchez, a Cuban-American (5/13/10). (Sanchez didn't precisely elevate his subject, following it up on "Rick's List" with another video: "That is Hannah Montana, and I'm told that what she's doing is called grinding....")

It was clearly the "caught on tape" angle, more than what was caught on tape, that pushed Monetti's beating past media's threshold of newsworthiness. Likewise, when ABC's Good Morning America (5/23/10) reported the Detroit police killing of 7-year-old Aiyana Stanley Jones with a screen tag asking, "Is Reality TV To Blame?," they might as well have added, "Because That Would Make It Interesting."

Jones was asleep on her sofa when police, looking for a suspect in a murder, lobbed a "stun" grenade through the window of her home and charged in. Initially police claimed officer Joseph Weekley's gun discharged in an altercation with Jones' grandmother, which she disputed; police later suggested the two "may have simply collided" (Detroit News, 5/19/10). The errant shot struck Aiyana in the neck. Her singed clothes suggest she may also have been burned by the grenade (Detroit News, 5/20/10). The actual murder suspect, who was in an upstairs apartment, surrendered without incident.

The raid raises questions enough, but most accounts zeroed in on the fact that Detroit police were accompanied at the time by crew from A&E's true-crime show The First 48. This provoked outrage: Mitch Albom fulminated, "What on earth is a television crew doing in this mix?... Even if they ask one question, they are in the way" (Detroit Free Press, 5/23/10). But more pointed questions, as when the Detroit News' Charlie LeDuff wondered (5/20/10) why "Hollywood [is] allowed to run around behind the scenes when the police department does not even put out a routine crime blotter informing the public about daily happenings," were rare.

Ostensibly considering the relationship between police and media, reporters stubbornly avoided half the story, asking only how such arrangements might affect police behavior. Are journalists or reality show producers impartial recorders of police they're embedded with? Do police exercise influence over what is taped or aired? Do journalists pursue analogous relationships with institutions like community groups that might counter or complicate the police view of things?

A Detroit News editorial (5/19/10) rightly asked whether the show affected the raid's timing and procedures, but stated, "These are questions the department's brass must answer." Why not ask A&E? Surely journalists have sources in the media business? Yet with police reps on record everywhere, A&E "denied comment" left and right (New York Times, 5/22/10; Washington Post, 5/18/10; ABC, 5/23/10). In what sense does such coverage "put a spotlight on police reality shows" (Good Morning America, 5/23/10)?

Media professor Laurie Ouellette was virtually alone in noting how such "cheap" shows suit the needs of cable channels (New York Times, 5/22/10), and also addressed the specific sorts of distortions they promote: "There is evidence that they do tend to go into lower-income neighborhoods and are less likely to be shown policing affluent white suburban spaces." The Times paraphrased Ouellette's point as "cameras even affect what type of police calls are shown," though she was talking about choices made by human beings.

The New Zealand Herald (5/21/10) answered questions many outlets didn't even ask, with just a phone call to Dallas police, who chose not to renew their contract with A&E in 2008. The First 48 "did help recruiting and portrayed police in a favorable manner," former Dallas Police Chief David Kunkle told the paper, noting that "department brass had final say on editing and exercised its rights on several occasions."

Not having dug very deep, corporate media didn't dislodge any of their own standard practices. These include a never-ending credulity for law enforcement--at least, if an individual suspect changed their initial explanation for how they killed someone, it's unlikely that reporters would say he or she had "pulled back from that a bit" (NPR, 5/18/10)--and risibly short shrift to community voices, as reflected by NPR host Allison Keyes' question (5/18/10) to her Detroit correspondent: "Jerome, let me ask briefly, how are people in Detroit feeling? Are they angry or sad--and I mean briefly."

Not listening leads to tone-deaf reporting, as when the New York Times followed (5/22/10) the heart-rending words of Mertilla Jones about her granddaughter's final moments, "Lord Jesus, I ain't never seen nothing like that in my life," with reporters' insipid reference to Detroit, "where deadly violence can seem routine."

The NPR segment (5/18/10) indicated how media see things. Asked whether Jones' death has affected people's trust in police, NPR's correspondent, WDET news director Jerome Vaughn, explained:

It has. You know, I guess the other thing to say, though, is there was a police officer killed on May 3 in the same neighborhood. He was killed; four others were wounded. And so there's been a lot of questions about what it means to have raids like these, and how much police have to do to protect themselves. So there's been a lot of tension on both sides.

Both sides? Both the not-killing-police side and the not-killing-children side?

When community voices are heard from, they complicate that divisive frame. Ron Scott of the Detroit Coalition Against Police Brutality noted (Detroit News, 5/24/10) how the group tries "to resolve neighborhood disputes before they require" police, going "door-to-door in neighborhoods to identify the problems." "It's something the police department would be able to do if it had far more officers. ‘That's where we're taking up the slack,' he said."

There is much that might be said about cops and media. But talking about talking about it is not the same thing. Without genuine inquiry, "serious" news reporting of stories like that of Aiyana Stanley Jones or Martin Monetti just feeds the same beast shows like The First 48 do, alarming people more than informing them, distorting understanding of the sources of crime and contributing to a state of affairs where reporters watching a tape of a cop kicking a prone man in the head just don't see anything wrong.

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Janine Jackson is FAIR's program director and and producer/co-host of FAIR's syndicated radio show CounterSpin. She contributes frequently to FAIR's magazine, Extra!and co-edited The FAIR Reader: An Extra! Review of Press and Politics in the '90s (Westview Press).

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