Reporting the News Like Black Lives Don't Matter

Protester confronting police in New York City's Times Square. (Photo: AP)

Reporting the News Like Black Lives Don't Matter

"Black lives matter" is the rallying cry of the burgeoning nationwide movement against police killings. The Associated Press (12/5/14), covering that movement, has produced a perfect example of what journalism looks like when black lives don't matter.

Tom Hays and Colleen Long began their article with a litany of victim-blaming:

Eric Garner was overweight and in poor health. He was a nuisance to shop owners who complained about him selling untaxed cigarettes on the street. When police came to arrest him, he resisted. And if he could repeatedly say, "I can't breathe," it means he could breathe.

AP attributes "such arguments" to "rank-and-file New York City police officers and their supporters," making the case that Garner "contributed to his own demise." But there's no one but police and their supporters quoted in the article, so there's no one to point out the moral pathology of suggesting that killing a "nuisance" is somehow less than blameworthy.

Or that death is a suitable punishment for resisting arrest. Or that a victim's poor health reduces a killer's culpability, as though we excuse a robber who fatally brains an elderly woman because it's not his fault her skull was so fragile.

Or even to make the basic medical point that being able to talk is a sign that you don't need the Heimlich maneuver-not that you don't need a cop to stop administering a notoriously lethal chokehold.

You don't get any of those points in the article, because AP didn't feel any need to quote (or, seemingly, talk to) anyone who thought that the life of Eric Garner was more important than the feelings of New York Police Department officers. Because, one has to assume, to AP black lives don't matter.

We do hear a lot about those feelings:

Officers say the outcry has left them feeling betrayed and demonized by everyone from the president and the mayor to throngs of protesters who scream at them on the street.

"Police officers feel like they are being thrown under the bus," said Patrick Lynch, president of the police union....

In private and on Internet chat rooms, officers say they feel demoralized, misunderstood and "all alone."

Then, in the midst of reporting that rank-and-file NYPD officers feel themselves to be the victims when their force kills yet another unarmed black man, AP expresses puzzlement that members of the public would think they needed to send some kind of message to these same officers:

At the noisy demonstrations that have broken out over the past few days, protesters have confronted police who had nothing to do with the case.

The adjective "noisy" there tells you how much black lives matter to the Associated Press.

"Everyone is just demonizing the police," the piece quotes Maki Haberfeld, a John Jay College professor of police studies. "But police follow orders and laws." No one is allowed to point out that NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo was spared indictment despite the fact that he defied official orders not to use a chokehold.

AP, to be sure, advances the idea-unrebutted, naturally-that Pantaleo did not actually use a chokehold on Garner, but "had used an authorized takedown move-more like a headlock than a chokehold-to subdue him."

This is similar to a line of police apologetics offered by NPR's Martin Kaste (Morning Edition, 12/4/14), who suggested that Pantaleo may not have been attempting a chokehold but rather a "sleeper hold," something which is getting "a bad rap." Like Kaste, AP didn't bother to cite the NYPD's unequivocal ban on using any kind of pressure on the throat to subdue someone:

Members of the New York City Police Department will NOT use chokeholds. A chokehold shall include, but is not limited to, any pressure to the throat or windpipe, which may prevent or hinder breathing or reduce intake of air.

AP, though, leaves open the possibility that Pantaleo's arm wasn't around Garner's neck at all: Describing the videotaped death, AP reports that the officer "appeared to wrap his arm around Garner's neck." While the New York Times (FAIR Blog, 12/4/14) wasn't sure that Pantaleo's arm was under his control, AP suggests that this magic limb might actually be somewhere other than where the evidence of our eyes tells us it is.

A reading of the NYPD's regulations on handling suspects turns up several other ways in which the officers arresting Garner appear not to have followed orders-including, most pointedly:

If a person appears to be having difficulty breathing or is otherwise demonstrating life-threatening symptoms, medical assistance will be requested immediately.

Emphasis in the original-because preventing a person from breathing can kill them quickly, as the sad history behind these regulations has proven.

But is repeating, over and over, "I can't breathe" really a sign that someone is "having difficulty breathing"? Not according to the final expert in AP's story, Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.), IDed as "the son of a police officer"-and, apparently, a reader of restaurant choking victim posters: "The fact that he was able to say it meant he could breathe," he says-of course without rebuttal, because he's given the last word in the piece:

If you've ever seen anyone locked up, anyone resisting arrest, they're always saying, "You're breaking my arm, you're killing me, you're breaking my neck." So if the cops had eased up or let him go at that stage, the whole struggle would have started in again.

And Eric Garner might have survived that struggle. That's something that might be worth mentioning-if you're reporting like black lives matter.