Part 4—Evading "the whole truth:" Late at night, we gather the analysts and dream of research projects.
One project would involve the ability of Americans to name the various states.
Respondents would be shown a map of the fifty states. As on a typical U.S. map, the states would be yellow, pink, green and blue, just as they appear from the air.
On this map, though, there would be no state names. Instead, each state would have a number. Respondents would be asked to supply the names of the various states.
Among the Lower 48, we'll guess that Florida, Texas and California would be correctly identified by the highest percentage of people. That said, what percentage of people can identify a standout state like Florida? And how many people can identify Arkansas? We'd be curious about the results.
There would be no particular "point" to that research project. It would simply be a test of general "cultural literacy."
In the last year, though, we've imagined a research project which would have a bit of a point. This project would involve the frequency of fatal police shootings. It would draw on these important data from the Washington Post:
Victims of fatal police shootings by race, 2015The Washington Post has performed a rare service in compiling those national data. In our imagined survey, the researcher would ask a question like this:
Possible research question:There might be better ways to ask that general question. Who knows? It might make sense to ask the question like this:
According to a journalistic study, 258 black Americans were shot and killed by policemen last year. If you had to make an estimate, how many white people were shot and killed by policemen last year?
Possible research question:There might be various ways to ask that general question. That said, we'd love to see what respondents would say.
According to a journalistic study, 258 black Americans were shot and killed by policemen last year. If you had to make an estimate, how many white people were shot and killed by policemen:
a) Approximately twice as many
b) Approximately the same number
b) Approximately half as many
d) Virtually none at all
We've been following the Washington Post's accumulation of data since some time last year. We recall being surprised when the general ratio of white-to-black fatal shootings began to emerge.
Specifically, we recall being surprised by the number of fatal shootings of whites. Twice as many whites were killed, as compared to the number of blacks? We recall being surprised by that fact. We recall thinking something like this:
When do you ever hear about policemen shooting white people?
Truly, we couldn't think of a case. In retrospect, it seems rather dumb. But we recall being surprised when that ratio began to emerge.
Who knows? Maybe other people are savvier than we were at that time. Maybe others would make a reasonable guess about the number of whites involved in such fatal shootings.
That said, we'd like to see the data! Our guess would be that many people would be way off if they had to guess that number. We'd love to see how many people would give some version of this answer:
"Virtually none at all."
Would many people give answers like that? If so, we'd quickly claim that their false belief may represent one of the problems with novels.
To what "novel" do we refer? We refer to the novel the press corps has compiled starting with the death of Trayvon Martin in February 2012.
Trayvon Martin wasn't shot by police, of course. (It's often said that he was shot by a "vigilante.") That said, Martin's death started a social/journalistic movement involving the fatal shootings of blacks by police.
It makes perfect sense to explore the question of police shootings. But as often happens in our culture, the "press corps" started writing a novel as this subject took hold.
What does the "press corps" do when it composes a novel—when it novelizes the news? The corps does several things:
First, the press corps is strongly inclined to pick and choose its examples.
We've learned a great deal about the shooting death of Michael Brown, as is completely appropriate. At the same time, we learned nothing about the shooting death of John Geer, whose death was disappeared.
This selective presentation of cases can, of course, be misleading.
The press corps may do something else when it starts composing one of its endless string of novels. It may fail to mention basic statistics which help define some overall state of affairs.
In this case, we've rarely seen reporters mention that two-to-one ratio of white-to-black shootings which emerged in the Post's statistics. We're starting to see that ratio mentioned just in the past week, most often by conservatives. But in our experience, it was rarely mentioned before.
Omission of data may enhance the power of a novel. On the down side, it may mislead us rubes.
There's something else the press corps has done in service to this particular novel. It has invented, embellished and disappeared facts about its selective examples.
In the case of specific police shootings, the mangling of basic facts has often been extreme. This mangling of facts about specific incidents has come from many quarters.
In the case of Michael Brown, our own liberal world was eager to avoid the findings of the Justice Department probe conducted under Eric Holder. Let's draw a quick comparison:
In the past week, conservatives directly attacked John B. Comey when he failed to reach a conclusion they desired. In the case of Michael Brown, we liberals simply ignored (or misstated) the factual findings with which Holder said he agreed.
They attacked Comey; we ignored Holder. In each case, we'd have to assume that people were misled.
To what extent have facts been mangled about specific cases? When a narrative gains great currency, the mangled facts may come from many quarters. Consider what happened on February 27 when Candidate Clinton won the South Carolina primary.
As Candidate Obama had done in 2008, Clinton was sweeping the Southern primaries on the strength of the black vote. When she gave her victory speech, she made some sensible remarks—and she gave a rather sketchy account of a high-profile shooting:
CLINTON (2/27/16): Breaking down all the barriers means we also have to face the reality of systemic racism that, more than a half a century after Rosa Parks sat and Dr. King marched and John Lewis bled, still plays a significant role in determining who gets ahead in America and who gets left behind. We have to invest in communities of color, reform our broken criminal justice and immigration system.Was that highlighted statement accurate? Is it accurate to say that Trayvon Martin was "shot and killed just for walking down the street?"
We have to guarantee opportunity, dignity and justice for every American. And tonight, I want to pay tribute to five extraordinary women who crisscrossed this state with me and for me.
Five mothers brought together by tragedy: Sabrina Fulton, mother of Trayvon Martin, shot and killed in Florida just for walking down the street; Lucia McBath, mother of Jordan Davis, shot and killed by someone who thought he was playing his music too loud in his car; Maria Hamilton, mother of Dontre, shot and killed by police in Milwaukee; Gwen Carr, mother of Eric Garner, choked to death after being stopped for selling loose cigarettes on the street; and Geneva Reed-Veal, mother of Sandra Bland, who died in police custody in Texas. They all lost children, which is almost unimaginable. Yet, they have not been broken or embittered. Instead, they have channeled their sorrow into a strategy, and their mourning into a movement. And they are reminding us of something deep and powerful in the American spirit.
At best, we'd have to call that a highly selective account of the facts. In a fairer assessment, we'd have to say that Clinton's statement was basically inaccurate.
That said, we liberals prefer the story that way, and the mainstream press has tended to follow our lead in this general area. Feelings can be inflamed this way—and people can be misled.
Have people been misled in recent years by the press corps' treatment of police shootings? We would assume that the answer is yes. But that's where our research project comes in.
We'd love to see the American people asked the question we proffered above, the simple question about the number of fatal police shootings.
We've been exposed to a string of cases in which black people were shot and killed by police. Obviously, this is a serious topic. It deserves to be explored.
That said, it seems that roughly twice as many white people get shot and killed by police. But even a striking case like John Geer's failed to gain press corps attention.
People can get misled that way, and in the other ways we've mentioned. Once again, we'll close with a horrible question:
Had the killer in Dallas last week possibly been misled?
Tomorrow: Listing some problems with novels