Staples of crime coverage face legal challenges
The “perp walk,” in which recent arrestees are paraded for news cameras, and the “ride along,” in which media accompany cops on the job, are standard features of mainstream media’s reporting on crime. But both practices, which involve close relationships between reporters and police, have been challenged by courts in recent months.
Media aren’t dedicating much coverage to these legal questions about how they do their job. What reporting has appeared has been an oddly theoretical discussion, sidestepping basic questions and relying on frequent references to a “watchdog” press corps: intrepid, critical, responsible–and wholly unrecognizable to any regular consumer of corporate media.
Perps and PR
The “perp walk” is a wearyingly familiar element of, in particular, local TV news. The practice was suspended in New York City after a federal judge ruled that it violates suspects’ constitutional rights to privacy when it serves no “legitimate law enforcement purpose.” While ruling against the police department, Judge Allen Schwartz also rebuked media for their role in a process designed mainly, he said, for “incident dramatization and arrestee humiliation.”
The case involved an apartment doorman charged with burglary by a tenant. The tenant, who had videotaped the doorman rummaging through drawers, sold the tape to Fox affiliate WNYW-TV, which then called the police precinct and asked for the suspect to be “walked.” He was brought out of the station house in handcuffs, led to a police car, driven around the block and returned to the station house—all so the TV station could get pictures of him by deadline. (No evidence was found to convict the doorman, who was subsequently released.)
A few journalists said the ruling (which didn’t say police couldn’t alert media when suspects were to be moved for legitimate reasons) just meant they’d have to work harder: “It puts the onus back on us to obtain pictures if we think it’s warranted,” one news director told Electronic Media (3/8/99). But from the New York Post‘s “Handcuffed by Ban” (3/1/99) to Editor & Publisher‘s “demand that the perp walk march again” (3/6/99), the consensus was that without the ability to order up the open air parading of people accused of crimes they find intriguing, media are severely curtailed in their ability to cover the news.
The New York Times‘ John Tierney (3/1/99) opined semi-facetiously on how a criminal suspect’s “changing social status necessitates a rite of passage,” and cited an anthropologist who described “displaying a person in handcuffs” as an important “ritual degradation.”
His smarmy tone may be trademarked, but the thrust of Tierney’s argument was echoed widely. ABC News reporter John Miller, for example, explained to the New York Times (2/26/99) that “part of the deterrent against committing crimes is public exposure, the idea that you’re going to be known and seen by your neighbors and your community as someone who has done wrong.” The fact that some suspects, who are of course innocent until proven guilty, turn out not to have “done wrong” after all appears not to be a consideration.
Besides the idea of social sanction–that “humiliating a perp sends a message to would-be perps” (New York Post editorial, “Keep the Perps Walking,” 2/27/99)–media claimed the display of those charged with a crime improves public safety by alerting the community, putting “a face on fear” (New York Times, 2/27/99). “Unless this is overturned,” declared one local TV news director, “we are not very likely to be able to show pictures of serial rapists or serial murderers who are captured” (Electronic Media, 3/8/99). (Presumably the populace requires equally urgent warning about nosy doormen.)
Since they seem to implicitly view media as partners with police in maintaining the social order, it’s not surprising that most reporters don’t question the use of “perp walks” as a PR tool for cops, letting them “show off their cunning in nabbing bad guys,” as the New York Times (2/27/99) put it.
But given that, the simultaneously offered defense–that the “perp walk” offers some kind of protection against police brutality–sounds painfully disingenuous.
“In many Third World countries where justice is a bitter joke,” Editor & Publisher (3/6/99) pontificated, “the perp walk is sometimes the only human rights protection for those seized by authorities.” While it’s not clear that the Guatemalan death squads, for example, ever conducted “perp walks,” the more relevant consideration of how these displays are used here in the “First World” U.S. seemed beyond mainstream media’s ken.
One exception was an op-ed column by National Public Radio host Ray Suarez (New York Times, 3/13/99). “But What if the ‘Perp’ Walks?” pointed out the effect visual images have of collapsing distinctions between suspect and criminal; even if reporters use “all the right words—’accused’ and ‘alleged’ and ‘according to police,'” he says, the pictures say “guilty, guilty, guilty.”
That impact would be countered if reporters tracked cases thoughtfully, but, Suarez acknowledges, few “perps” become “the subject of follow-up stories. Long before justice is meted out, television’s Cyclopean eye turns to the next tragedy, forgetting its recent service as judge and jury.”
Finally, Suarez made the elephant-in-the-living-room admission missing from the larger discussion: that the “‘perps’ trotted out for the press are mostly black or Latino and usually poor—reinforcing the image that television has painted of crime. Suburban police forces don’t always play ball with television stations, and white middle-class or wealthy suspects often have lawyers to stand between them and the humiliation of the walk.” These are facts the “social sanction” crowd doesn’t engage.
Along for the ride
Reporters absolutely need access to police activities. And it ought to be judgment, not court rulings, that prevents the abuse of the process. But media’s insistence on discussing the value of image-gathering techniques without any reference at all to how these images are actually used is eerie. The tension was even more evident in the wider coverage given to the Supreme Court’s review of ride-alongs.
The Court was considering whether Fourth Amendment rights to protection from unreasonable search and seizure had been violated in two cases: In one, a Washington Post reporter and photographer went along with officers searching the home of a Maryland couple in pursuit of their son, who had violated parole. Guns drawn, police forced the couple to the floor (he in underwear, her in a thin nightgown) and let the Post take pictures. The son, as it happened, didn’t live with them and wasn’t there. The Post did not run the photos, but the ACLU, representing the couple, charged that by inviting the press, police turned a legal search into an unconstitutional invasion of privacy. The suit was thrown out by a lower court.
The other case involved a CNN camera crew “riding along” with agents of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as they raided the Montana ranch of owners suspected of poisoning wildlife, including eagles. CNN wired the agents for sound before they questioned ranchers, and mounted a camera on a government car; not even the magistrate who signed the search warrant was told CNN would be taping.
The ranchers were eventually acquitted of killing eagles, but penalized for misuse of a pesticide. CNN then aired the footage numerous times, as part of a story about how hard it is to prosecute Montana ranchers (Connecticut Law Tribune, 4/5/99). The ranchers sued both the agents and CNN, claiming that the network’s close cooperation with government agents made them a “state actor.” An appeals court supported the rancher, claiming that the USFWS turned a search warrant “into television entertainment” (L.A. Times, 3/22/99).
Telegraphing their eventual unanimous ruling against ride-alongs (New York Times, 5/25/99), the justices expressed skepticism about the government case for allowing media access to arrests and searches on private property. Scalia joked (NPR, 3/24/99): “Why bring in just the media? Why not bring in your sister-in-law?” Several reports noted O’Connor’s “incredulous tones” as she asked if reporters could indeed “ride right into the house” (L.A. Times, 3/25/99; Long Island Newsday, 3/25/99).
Some 24 news organizations, including the New York Times, AP and Gannett, signed a friend-of-the-court letter on CNN‘s behalf–“to defend the media’s watchdog role,” as AP explained (3/24/99). In their coverage, too, media earnestly suggested that the purpose of ride-alongs is to let journalists serve as surrogates for the public in preventing the secret abuse of state power. One local daily editorialized (Topeka Capital Journal, 3/26/99): “If news media aren’t allowed to monitor the actions of government officials, we’re all a bit less free.”
At stake is a question of “which takes precedence, privacy or public awareness,” PBS‘s NewsHour‘s “media correspondent” summed up (3/24/99). The president of the Radio-Television News Directors Association (Broadcasting and Cable, 3/29/99) said ride-alongs “serve as a safeguard for people,” and Jane Kirtley of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press told USA Today (3/25/99): “It effectively means we’re not going inside people’s houses along with police anymore. This was not a happy day.” (Kirtley had similarly commented on the “honorable purpose” of the “perp walk”–New York Times, 2/27/99.)
Grittiness and Drama
Of course, the likelihood of ride-alongs being used to document police abuse is essentially undermined by the reality that reporters have to be invited by police, with those who write unflattering stories often subsequently shut out. But media accounts sidestep that fundamental conflict, leading one ACLU lawyer to declare the press “out to lunch on this issue” (USA Today, 3/23/99).
The symbiotic relationship between cops and media was made clear in an article for Harper’s (11/93) by a former editor for ABC‘s “reality-based” American Detectives. She described viewing tape of an exciting chase scene that ended with a police officer kicking the captured motorist in the head. “Too bad,” her colleague commented. “Too bad we can’t use that footage.”
And a quick viewing of ride-along-based programs like Cops confirms vividly that probing explorations of the criminal justice system, they ain’t. They’re highly edited, action-packed docu-dramas that celebrate the use of state-sanctioned power against a range of street-level criminals and suspects, often minorities in low-income areas. Research has found that programs produced in this way create a distorted picture of crime, with “whites as the heroes and people of color as the villains.” (See Extra!, 5-6/94.)
Besides utterly ignoring complicating factors like poverty and racism, these shows present an inflated sense of the “success” of police; one survey found TV’s “reality” cops enjoying a resolution rate of 62 percent, compared with the 18 percent of crimes the FBI indicates are resolved in real life (Extra!, 5-6/94).
Mainstream crime coverage isn’t all that different. It also oversimplifies the causes and solutions to crime, pathologizes communities of color and low-income groups and privileges and protects official sources that ought to be subject to scrutiny. And in their defense of the ride-along, mainstream news reporters sometimes sounded a lot like their “entertainment” counterparts. Describing the practice as “an arrangement between police and the news media that seems to serve the needs of both groups,” ABC World News Tonight (3/24/99) defined the “needs” of media as “gritty stories and dramatic pictures.”
“The perp walk is boisterous, unruly, messy—just like the work of preserving liberty itself,” pronounced Editor & Publisher (3/6/99). And the Boston Herald (3/29/99) defends ride-alongs, saying, “The better reporters understand and explain to readers the challenges facing police every day, the better for everybody.”
Doubtless ride-alongs and even “perp walks” have led to some good stories in some cases. But media’s high-minded brandishing of the First Amendment in these cases invites some questions: Wouldn’t outlets that care so much about access to suspects be doing more than stand idly by while the rights of the actually incarcerated to speak to media are being severely curtailed? (See Extra!, 7-8/96.) Where are the editorials demanding access to U.S. prisons? Where are the friends of the court demanding police records on search and seizures?
Where, finally, are all the independent, critical examinations of the hidden workings of the criminal justice system that are the putative purpose of the “perp walk” and the ride-along? My TV must be missing that channel.