Interlude—Windy City script: Truly, script is all around in this, our nation of script.
This morning, Monica Davey writes the featured report in the New York Times National section. Her report concerns the drop in murders in Chicago in the past year.
There’s nothing automatically “wrong” with that topic, which the Times gives very big play. But even as the new year began, our script alarms started to sound:
DAVEY (1/1/14): Chicago Killings Fall, as Officials Praise ProgressWhere does the demanding god Script rear its head? In that one peculiar word: “staggering.”
A year after this city, the third largest in the United States, drew national notice for its staggering number of homicides, killings have slowed here.
Officials in the administration of Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who has faced scrutiny over his handling of the violence in Chicago, said the improvement was a result of an array of efforts, from new police tactics to after-school and summer programs.
Did Chicago have a “staggering number of homicides” in 2012? Today, in its featured National report, that’s what the New York Times says.
Presumably, one homicide is too many. But where does “staggering” come from in that peculiar assessment?
It comes from the press corps’ mighty god, Script. As she continues, Davey starts to provide the numbers:
DAVEY (continuing directly): In 2012, Chicago witnessed more than 500 killings, many of them shootings tied to gang rivalries in some of the toughest, struggling neighborhoods. As of Dec. 30, Chicago had reported 413 homicides, a 17 percent drop from the same period a year before and the fewest killings to date since 1965, city officials said.Later, we learn that “more than 500” means 506.
Was that a “staggering” number of killings? Yes, it was, says the jealous god Script. On a journalistic basis, we’re not real sure why you’d say that.
After all, 413 killings (and counting) is 81 percent of the total which is said to be “staggering.” (81 percent and counting.)
When does a “staggering” number cease to be same? As you ponder that puzzle, consider two additional points:
Numbers from the recent past: Was that a “staggering” number of killings in 2012? On a journalistic basis, we’re not sure why a person would say that.
Consider something Davey tells us just a few paragraphs later:
DAVEY: As in many big American cities, the level of killings in Chicago was far worse a few decades ago; in the 1990s, the yearly death toll here sometimes reached more than 900. But the 506 deaths of 2012 represented an uptick and was a painful reminder of this city’s divisions of race and wealth; many of those deaths took place in only about half of the city’s police districts, south and west of the prosperous downtown. The city’s official murder tally does not include certain types of deaths, like those deemed as self-defense.Say what? In the recent past, the number of killings was almost double last year’s “staggering” figure! (This happened on a fairly routine basis.)
Davey was a reporter in Chicago during the 1990s. On a journalistic basis, if last year’s number was “staggering,” what would she say about the totals from that recent era?
Given Chicago’s recent history, it’s hard to see, on a journalistic basis, why last year’s number was “staggering.” That said, the point which follows is much more significant:
Murder rates in other cities: Davey never mentions the following point. But here goes:
Chicago’s murder rate, even in 2012, was nowhere near the nation’s highest.
Newflash! Chicago is bigger than most big cities! This drives up its absolute numbers in all sorts of matters, pleasant and unpleasant alike.
That said, how staggering was Chicago’s murder rate in 2012? As every reporter must know by now, Chicago’s murder rate wasn’t anywhere near the nation’s highest.
Just among well-known famous big cities, the murder rates in Detroit and New Orleans were around 54 murders per 100,000 residents in 2012. The murder rates in Baltimore and St. Louis were around 35.
Newark’s murder rate was 34. We single it out for a reason.
By way of contrast, Chicago’s murder rate in 2012 was about one-third that of Detroit—18.5 murders per 100,000 residents. Not a word of this journalistic context is offered as Davey gasps, in paragraph 2, about the “staggering” number of murders in Chicago that year.
On a journalistic basis, was there a “staggering” number of murders in Chicago in 2012? With the 2013 number at 81 percent and counting, is the new number no longer “staggering?”
On a journalistic basis, we don’t know why you’d say such things. On a Scriptural basis, the reason is perfectly clear:
For some reason, the great god Script decided to punish Chicago last year.
Some said this action was taken because Chicago is Obama’s home city. Some said the punishment was aimed at Mayor Emanuel.
Whatever! Chicago’s murder rate was nowhere near the highest among the nation’s big cities. But the great god Script fingered the Windy City. Today, Davey and her unnamed editors continue to work from that script.
There’s nothing “wrong” with reporting the fact that the number of murders has dropped in Chicago. On a journalistic basis, there is something odd about singling Chicago out in the way the Times has (once again) done.
Has the murder rate dropped in New Orleans? In Detroit? Why don’t we care about that?
On a journalistic basis, there’s also something odd about Davey’s instant use of that key word—“staggering.” And on that same journalistic basis, it’s astounding that Davey would do a full-length, featured report of this type without ever mentioning Chicago’s rather pedestrian murder rate.
(Note: If you do a quick Google, you’ll find an array of American journalists who don’t seem able to distinguish between murders and murder rates.)
In our suffering land, script is never far off. That said, Davey’s reliance on script today isn’t hugely important.
But the great god Script is no journalist, and he’s never far off. On one major topic after another, the press corps’ devotion to his commands has turned us into the dumbnified nation we so plainly are.
A nation of cutting and pasting: To review some work which Davey tracks, see this NPR report from yesterday’s Morning Edition.
NPR at least managed to mention Chicago’s crime rate, noting that it doesn’t come close to being the nation’s worst. The Times, which strives to make all matters dumber, left such considerations on the cutting-room floor.
That said, how dumb is the Times prepared to be? Go ahead—consider the highlighted passage.
Cover the children’s eyes:
DAVEY: As in many big American cities, the level of killings in Chicago was far worse a few decades ago; in the 1990s, the yearly death toll here sometimes reached more than 900. But the 506 deaths of 2012 represented an uptick and was a painful reminder of this city’s divisions of race and wealth; many of those deaths took place in only about half of the city’s police districts, south and west of the prosperous downtown.Many of the deaths took place in only half the city’s districts! In what realm would that not always be the case?
That utterly hapless formulation should make concerned citizens cry. Who except the New York Times publishes such monster piddle?
Newark si, Chicago no: In 2012, Newark’s murder rate was more than twice that of Chicago. Except to the jealous god Script!
The jealous god barked out his decrees. As a result, we read about Mayor Booker’s good acts—and about Chicago’s staggering number of murders.
Why were we asked to ingest such scripts? On a journalistic basis, we can’t answer that!