Criminal Justice Media’s ‘Twisted’ Coverage

New York Post coverage

Arrestees presumed guilty in the New York Post.

Last week’s Brian Lehrer Show (6/10/14) was pretty remarkable. The popular show, based on New York City public radio station WNYC, had on journalist Daryl Khan from the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange website. Khan had written a piece, “Harlem Residents: We Asked City For Help, We Got a Raid Instead” (6/5/14), that did something a little unusual: It asked residents at the receiving end of a major police operation what they thought about it.

What a novel idea.

Khan strayed from most media coverage around New York’s “biggest gang raid ever” by writing about the people living in the housing projects at the heart of the early-morning 400+ officer raid (complete with helicopters and riot gear), and by including voices of residents critical of it. The initial New York Times story (6/4/14) included only official accounts. The Rupert Murdoch-owned New York Post (6/4/14) printed Facebook quotes of some of the teenagers indicted (an apparent attempt to prove their guilt in the court of public opinion–a guilt assumed by the headline’s flat assertion about “Rival Gangs Arrested”), as well as quotes from the Manhattan district attorney and residents offering comments supportive of the end to alleged violence–if not the raid itself.

During Khan’s interview, residents called in and railed against the raid and the heavy-handedness of police officers–voices conspicuously absent from corporate media coverage of the raid. During the segment, Khan, bureau chief for JJIE, also rebuffed host Brian Lehrer’s description of him as a “think-tanker” and “advocate,” and broader assertions that his article was an “advocate’s story”:

Where I come from, that’s called reporting. Something happens, that’s a big incident…and you go talk to people and see what they’re thinking. I think a problem right now with how a lot of criminal justice reporting is being done is that we’ve really, we’ve got this twisted idea of what being objective about it is. And the idea of talking to the other side, a side I might add that has probably one of the most underrepresented politically, in terms of media, in the entire city; that to give them a fair shake, and say, “Well, what do you think?”‘ has become advocacy journalism is ridiculous.

It’s of course this type of media objectivity that allows for authorities to dominate public discourse through the virtual invisibility of criticism. Their heightened voice, made possible by the media’s willingness to become echo chambers for them, point to a relationship where the line between media and the state is blurred.

Khan’s article, the interview and the stories of residents who called in were enough to bring District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr., who is holding some of the 103 teenagers and men on complex conspiracy charges based at least partly on datamining social media posts, onto the same show two days later to answer questions (read: damage control). It’s very likely that if not for Khan’s work and the voices he helped to highlight, the DA and NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton’s self-congratulatory statements and public musings about “mindless, senseless violence” would have been left largely unchallenged.

They certainly weren’t being challenged by corporate media reporting–to Khan’s point. He noted that a number of NYC press corps members were even tipped off by Bratton’s department hours in advance of the raid, done ostensibly to provide the best photo-ops of the suspects–and seamless coverage for the NYPD.

Another recent example stemming from the raids popped up just this week. The Blinker (6/18/14), a NYC-area blog, posited the question of what happens to the public housing status of the families of those indicted as a result of the raids. To date I could find no traditional NYC-area media that have even broached the topic. The fallout of the raids, the collateral damage of the NYPD and District Attorney’s militarized operation, and even the anger at the Daily News‘ “gangbanger” follow-up coverage (“Harlem Kids Proudly Aligning With Violent Gangs,” 6/12/14)–which families railed against at a family-organized press conference last week–continues to be largely ignored by an “objective” corporate media more likely to simply reprint the official narrative.