Sharpton rejects Storyline: Catherine Herridge, an experienced journalist, is currently a senior investigative correspondent for CBS News.
Needless to say, she's a Harvard grad (class of 1987). She also holds a master's degree from the Columbia Journalism School.
For what it's worth, Herridge always struck us as a serious journalist, even during her long tenure at the Fox News Channel.
If memory serves, she was typically brisk and to-the-point. We've never studied her work for Fox, but it seemed to us that Herridge was one of that network's actual reporters, not one of its partisan hacks.
Beyond that, she typically struck us as thoroughly competent. In our view, that's a good thing to be.
Last week, Herridge got a chance to interview the American commander in chief, President Donald J. Trump. At one point, she asked a question which struck us as somewhat peculiar.
In fact, the question struck us as downright strange. The question went exactly like this:
HERRIDGE (7/14/20): Let's talk about George Floyd. You said George Floyd's death was a terrible thing."Why are African-Americans still dying at the hands of law enforcement in this country?" To our ear, that question was odd.
HERRIDGE: Why are African-Americans still dying at the hands of law enforcement in this country?
Why did that question seem odd? It seemed odd because all sorts of people are "dying at the hands of law enforcement in this country." Sometimes, though not always, these deaths occur in ways which can't be justified.
Over the past five years, the Washington Post has maintained an award-winning site, Fatal Force. The invaluable site attempts to keep track of all people shot and killed by police officers in the United States.
Roughly one thousand such shooting deaths occur each year. From the start of 2015 to the present day, the Post has recorded 5,480 such deaths.
A lot of people have been shot and killed by police officers during those years! At present, the Post reports this demographic breakdown:
People shot and killed by police officersAs you can see, in about ten percent of the cases, the Post hasn't been able to identify the race or ethnicity of the deceased. Also this:
2015 to present, nationwide:
Looking through the Post's capsule summaries of each event, "other" victims tend to be Asian-American, Native American or Middle Eastern.
Roughly a thousand people get shot and killed by police officers in a typical year—but as you can see, these people aren't always black. For what it's worth, this is the breakdown in the state of Minnesota during these same years:
People shot and killed by police officersWe checked those numbers after reading Wesley Lowery's recent fiery essay for The Atlantic—an essay which may have conveyed a misperception about the matter at hand.
2015 to present, state of Minnesota:
Why did Herridge's question sound strange to our ear, especially coming from a fully competent journalist? It sounded strange because it might have seemed to imply that only black people are being shot and killed in this manner.
(Or something! We have no idea.)
Why are black people being shot and killed by police officers? It isn't clear why a reporter would ask that question about one group only. It would be a little bit like asking a question like this:
Why are college professors still giving reading assignments to female students?As far as we know, professors routinely give reading assignments to all their students. Absent further explanation, it would almost surely seem strange to hear a question like that.
What did Herridge mean by asking that somewhat peculiar question? What was her larger point?
We can't answer that question. But we can report two points:
First, the question produced the rarest of all known human phenomena. In response to this somewhat peculiar question, Donald J. Trump made an accurate statement!
(Needless to say, he also berated Herridge for having asked the question. But in the course of berating Herridge, he made a accurate statement.)
In all honesty, we were surprised by that result—by the speed with which Trump was able to show that he knew an actual fact. But now, we'll make a second point:
It seemed to us that Herridge's question, framed that way, came straight outta Storyline.
What did Herridge actually mean by her somewhat peculiar question? We can't tell you that.
But her question seemed to emerge from a focus on black shootings deaths—a focus which, in its current incarnation, seems to date to the shooting death of Trayvon Martin in early 2012.
Perhaps Herridge meant to ask why so many black people are shot and killed by police. Perhaps she was wondering why so many black people are shot and killed by police in ways which can't be justified.
Perhaps she meant to ask Trump if he thought those 1,302 shooting deaths reflect a problem at the heart of American policing. That would have been a perfectly sensible question. Trump would have said that he didn't.
Starting today, we expect to spend several weeks exploring the way this general topic is being covered by our major journalists and our major news orgs. Just so everyone understands, we'll mainly be assessing the journalism, not the behavior of the police.
In the years since 2012, a giant Storyline has emerged around this important topic. As typically happens in such matters, our journalists have responded in several typical ways.
We humans! According to major anthropologists, our brains are wired to encourage us to embrace Preferred Storyline. When a certain Storyline becomes preferred, other considerations will tend to give way.
Our journalists will tend to push preferred Storyline in an array of ways:
Routinely, they will invent inaccurate facts—inaccurate facts which enhance their preferred Storyline. Routinely, they will disappear accurate facts which undercut Storyline.
They'll emphasize wholly irrelevant facts if this heightens pathos. Our journalists will rush to perform these various tasks in service to Storyline.
In the case of police shooting deaths, something else will occur:
Our journalists will devote sweeping coverage to the shooting deaths of black victims, as may be completely appropriate. At the same time, they will completely ignore similar events if the victims are white or Hispanic or other.
In theory, our journalists are only showing us how much and how deeply they care. We'd be inclined to recommend that you ignore theories like that.
Our journalists routinely do such things in service to Storyline. They've routinely done these things in the past in the course of covering major topics which had nothing to do with race.
This conduct has often produced gruesome outcomes. But our journalists are doing these things once again, as we speak, in the way they cover this topic.
It seemed to us that Herridge's somewhat peculiar question was drawn from Storyline. Tomorrow, we'll recall the accurate statement the president made, and we'll look at the angry response which emerged from within our own liberal tents.
Before the week is done, we'll also do something uplifting. We'll look at something Al Sharpton said to Ali Velshi last Friday night.
Sharpton made his statement on the air, as Velshi guest-hosted for Lawrence O'Donnell. Is the reverend allowed to say this?:
"The real question you have to ask yourself is, why are whites or blacks being killed unjustifiably by police...why police are killing anyone if it is not justified?"
Is Reverend Sharpton allowed to say things like that? Because that's what he actually said, on the air, this past Friday night—and he broke with current standard practice in one other way.
It's very, very, very rare to see President Donald J. Trump make an accurate statement. When he did so in response to Herridge, our tribe quickly pushed back.
These reporters and pundits today! They tend to throw their journalistic skills away as they bow to Storyline's power.
This tendency comes outta tribal war. In the history of our floundering species, how often have wars ended well?
Tomorrow: New York magazine fights back