Part 2—We didn’t know that was allowed: Increasingly, our journalism is characterized by overreaction.
Also, by single vision—by the refusal to see an event from more than one point of view.
In this morning’s Washington Post, sports columnist Sally Jenkins provides a strong example. Then too, there’s the new slop at Salon.
Jenkins writes about an overreaction—the overreaction of a St. Louis police association to a gesture by five members of the St. Louis Rams.
Whatever you think of the players’ gesture, the police association overreacted in its official statement. The association asked the NFL to “discipline” the players for their gesture, which occurred at the start of Sunday’s game.
In its official statement, the association listed reasons for its reaction to the incident; those reasons are well worth reviewing. That said, the association misstated the nature of the evidence which emerged from the grand jury proceedings. Almost surely, they could have made a better case on their own behalf if they had reacted with more sorrow and a bit less anger.
Playing the role of the modern “journalist,” Jenkins proceeded to overreact to this overreaction. She found “veiled threats” from the police under every bed; that term is used in the Post’s synopsis of the column.
She ended her column as shown below. This strikes us as an example of classic single vision:
JENKINS (12/2/14): Five members of the St. Louis Rams made an edgy gesture on Sunday, and you may not agree with them. But they merely joined a long tradition of athletes using their celebrity for symbolic public protest, and the NFL was right to reject the call to punish them. Punish them for what, after all? For showing an alertness and sensitivity to current events in their community, and holding an opinion on them?Alas! The police association didn’t say that the players should be disciplined “for showing an alertness and sensitivity to current events in their community, and holding an opinion on them.”
Jenkins skipped the nature of their complaint, which appeared in their official statement. As she did, she engaged in an act of single vision, in which all the merits and concerns involved in some case fall on the scribe’s favored side.
Single vision is everywhere in the current media landscape. Facts are selected and discarded to serve the pundit’s preferred point of view.
It’s painful to read and watch such work. And yes, this type of work is being done by pundits of the pseudo-left and the pseudo-right, despite the latest effort by Salon’s Elias Isquith to insist that this sort of thing is only done by Them.
This brings us to today’s good news. We recommend much of Gene Robinson’s work in his own column in the Washington Post.
Incredibly, Robinson attempts to traffic in information and facts. In this early part of this column, he discusses the large number of police killings in this country, as compared to the number of killings in other developed nations:
ROBINSON (12/2/14): According to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report, in 2013 there were 461 “justifiable homicides” by police—defined as “the killing of a felon by a law enforcement officer in the line of duty.” In all but three of these reported killings, officers used firearms.We wouldn’t use the term “outraged” ourselves. In part for the reason cited below, we’d use the term “deeply concerned:”
The true number of fatal police shootings is surely much higher, however, because many law enforcement agencies do not report to the FBI database. Attempts by journalists to compile more complete data by collating local news reports have resulted in estimates as high as 1,000 police killings a year. There is no way to know how many victims, like [Michael] Brown, were unarmed.
By contrast, there were no fatal police shootings in Great Britain last year. Not one. In Germany, there have been eight police killings over the past two years. In Canada—a country with its own frontier ethos and no great aversion to firearms—police shootings average about a dozen a year.
Liberals and conservatives alike should be outraged at the frequency with which police in this country use deadly force. There is no greater power that we entrust to the state than the license to take life. To put it mildly, misuse of this power is at odds with any notion of limited government.
ROBINSON (continuing directly): I realize that the great majority of police officers never fire their weapons in the line of duty. Most cops perform capably and honorably in a stressful, dangerous job; 27 were killed in 2013, according to the FBI. Easy availability of guns means that U.S. police officers—unlike their counterparts in Britain, Japan or other countries where there is appropriate gun control—must keep in mind the possibility that almost any suspect might be packing heat.The kinds of statistics Robinson cites always seem impossible, shocking. But as he notes, they reflect the “easy availability of guns” within our wider society, and the danger produced by that and other aspects of our national culture.
Police officers didn’t create those dangers, but they have to confront them. We’re always amazed by the certainty with which our headstrong pseudo-liberal youngsters, who have never served in such dangerous work, instruct and lecture American cops about the proper way they should be performing their duty.
How did you handle the danger of your job when you were a policeman? Because we’ve never been a policeman, we ourselves are somewhat slow to lecture those who are.
As far as we know, Robinson has never been a policeman either. He has served as a journalist, including in the 1990s, when he advanced the view of Establishment Washington by sliming Candidate Gore.
Perhaps because he has never served, we would say that Robinson is a bit too quick to blame police, in sweeping ways, for engaging in misconduct. Still and all, he’s presenting information today. This includes the following highlighted fact, which we found a bit surprising:
ROBINSON (continuing directly): But any way you look at it, something is wrong. Perhaps the training given officers is inadequate. Perhaps the procedures they follow are wrong. Perhaps an “us vs. them” mentality estranges some police departments from the communities they are sworn to protect.It’s amazing how stingy we humans can be with the little word “some.” How badly would it have hurt to insert that word in the passage above—to say it’s “hard to escape the conclusion that [some] police in this country are [sometimes] too quick to shoot?”
Whatever the reason, it is hard to escape the conclusion that police in this country are much too quick to shoot. We’ve seen the heartbreaking results most recently in the fatal shooting of 28-year-old Akai Gurley, an unarmed man who was suspected of no crime, in the stairwell of a Brooklyn housing project, and the killing of 12-year-old Tamir Rice, who was waving a toy gun around a park in Cleveland.
Which brings me to the issue of race. USA Today analyzed the FBI’s “justifiable homicide” statistics over several years and found that, of roughly 400 reported police killings annually, an average of 96 involved a white police officer killing a black person.
For want of the simple word “some,” Robinson may seem to attack a whole profession in that passage. Sometimes, as occurred St. Louis, police organizations respond by overreacting to such representations.
We mentioned that highlighted statistic. The available numbers are imprecise, for reasons Robinson describes. But after consuming the highly tribalized work of the past few weeks, we were surprised to be told that fewer than 25 percent of police killings in recent years have involved white officers killing black people.
(Our preference would be that no police officer ever killed anyone.)
Fewer than 25 percent? Given the way facts are currently being sifted, that seemed like a surprisingly low percentage to us. (For our preference, see above.)
But then, everyone’s vision can be skewed when fiery pundits take turn overreacting to everyone else’s overreactions and overstatements, often in service to some tribal or corporate imperative. (Salon is more pleasing when all the facts tilt in one pleasing direction.)
Tomorrow, let’s return to Nicholas Kristof and the case of those NBA refs. Kristof continues to lecture the world.
Will his lectures be helpful?
Tomorrow: A missing statistic