Tuesday, October 31, 2017

On Public Displays Of Affliction

In 1962 historian Daniel J. Boorstin released The Image: A Guide To Pseudo-Events in America. Pseudo-events are planned, often highly choreographed public relations stunts. Boorstin's concern  was that when politicians sell policy the same way commercial advertisers sell products, democracy suffers. His concern was real, and democracy HAS suffered. Immensely. Perhaps it was inevitable that by 2016 we would elect a man that pundit Conor Friedersdorf calls "the master of the pseudo-event."
The pseudo-event ethic in the political world and other institutions of power is today so deeply internalized among institutional participants that it is naive to think we can reverse the trend. When systems of power are addicted to the creation of bullshit, and the masses to its consumption, we're in dire straits. Perhaps the best we can do is (1) label and critique the pseudo-event phenomenon and try not to enable the exploiters of it and (2) work with principled citizens' organizations committed to rising above the BS while advocating for sound public policy. Neither is easy, but each is necessary. 

The Media Rants column can [at least try to] help with the labeling and critique. In this rant I'd like to focus on a particular type of pseudo-event gaining traction in the Trump years, mostly among Republican politicians. I call it the "Public Display of Affliction" (PDA). In the remainder of this piece I will describe the essential features of the PDA, give some examples, and briefly address the consequences of it. 

The epitome of the PDA occurred on October 8th, 2017. That was the day Vice President Mike Pence, in a highly calculated maneuver consistent with his overall midwest Machiavellian style, traveled to Indianapolis to walk out of the Colts/49ers game in response to players taking a knee during the national anthem. Immediately after leaving the event, the Veep tweeted that "While everyone is entitled to their own opinions, I don't think it's too much to ask NFL players to respect the Flag and our National Anthem." In Pence's staged event we can locate the essential features of the PDA: 
*The chief participant (in this case Vice President Pence) needs to look pained and hurt; i.e. he must be visibly afflicted. 

*The audience must identify with the chief participant's pain. In VP Pence's case, viewers were supposed to say, "I too would walk out if I saw spoiled athletes disrespecting our flag." Indeed, three weeks after the VP's stunt, two referees walked out and refused to officiate a high school game in New Jersey after players took a knee during the anthem. Their rationale parroted Pence: "What they are doing with this kneeling and everything, they have the right to do that, but the National Anthem has nothing to do with them kneeling." 

*The PDA seeks to distort the message of the targeted group. In spite of the fact that NFL players have been clear from day one that their protests are about racial inequality and police brutality, VP Pence continued to repeat the alt.right canard that it is about soldiers, the flag, and the anthem. The irony of course is that while the Vice President and POTUS put on an act of affliction, the NFL players are calling attention to real, ongoing, actual afflictions in America

*The PDA attempts to marginalize the targeted group. Already called "sons of bitches" by the POTUS, on October 8th the protesting NFL players experienced further piling on by Pence. In response, San Francisco 49er Eric Reid said, "This is what systemic oppression looks like. A man with power comes to the game, tweets a couple of things out leaves the game with an attempt to thwart our efforts."
The Public Display of Affliction pseudo-event genre did not begin with Vice President Mike Pence walking out of a football game. As with all rhetorical genres, it is impossible to locate one genuine starting point. However, the calculated PDA as I've described it does seem to have deep roots in the efforts of politicians (mostly Republicans) to offer up "thoughts and prayers" for victims of mass shootings. The "thoughts and prayers" for victims of gun violence, typically offered up by those politicians in receipt of most gun lobby campaign contributions, substitutes personal affliction for public policy. It's like Bill Clinton's legendary "I feel your pain" pronouncement on steroids. 

Almost every word out of President Trump's mouth is a form of PDA. He reminds us continuously of afflictions he suffers as a result of unfair attacks launched by the "failing" New York Times and other establishment news media, late-night comics, members of the US Congress, football players, Steph Curry, the mayor of San Juan, the wife of a fallen soldier, and many others. Almost never does the president address in any meaningful way any of the issues at the root of his conflict(s) with these people and institutions; instead he shifts the focus to how terrible it is that they all "hate Trump."  In true Trump fashion, after the Charlottesville tragedy he somehow found a way to make himself the victim

White House Chief of Staff John Kelly's extraordinary statement supporting President Trump and attacking Florida Congresswoman Frederica Wilson suggests that Public Display of Affliction might now be the official communication strategy coming out of the White House. Rep. Wilson had critiqued the president for what she said was an inappropriate condolence call to Myeshia Johnson, widow of fallen soldier LaDavid Johnson. Generally Kelly, who in the speech inaccurately portrayed remarks by Rep. Wilson, seemed to take the condolence controversy as a personal affront:

It stuns me that a member of Congress would have listened in on that conversation. Absolutely stuns me. And I thought at least that was sacred. You know, when I was a kid growing up, a lot of things were sacred in our country. Women were sacred, looked upon with great honor. That's obviously not the case anymore as we see from recent cases. Life -- the dignity of life -- is sacred. That's gone. Religion, that seems to be gone as well.
Gold Star families, I think that left in the convention over the summer. But I just thought -- the selfless devotion that brings a man or woman to die on the battlefield, I just thought that that might be sacred.
And when I listened to this woman and what she was saying, and what she was doing on TV, the only thing I could do to collect my thoughts was to go and walk among the finest men and women on this Earth. And you can always find them because they're in Arlington National Cemetery. I went over there for an hour-and-a-half, walked among the stones, some of whom I put there because they were doing what I told them to do when they were killed.

What are the consequences of powerful people persistently employing Public Displays of Affliction as a rhetorical strategy? Three things come immediately to mind. First, public displays of affliction make it all but impossible to resolve--or even address--issues at the root of the conflict between the powerfully afflicted and their targets. A strong leader would try, for example, to use the bully pulpit of the White House to address inequality, police brutality, and other issues sparking the NFL protests. Because they have 24/7 media attention, all presidents in a real sense role model how the population at-large should treat controversies involving emotionally charged subjects. What kind of model have President Trump and Vice President Pence set when it comes to the NFL protests? That whenever a group makes a public statement of protest you should distort the message and make the issue about how pained the protest makes you feel? Seriously? Is that what leaders do? 

Second, PDA coming from the powerful has a kind of domino effect: before you know it, the default response of almost everyone to everything is some kind of highly charged personal revulsion. Think of the supreme irony of Republicans in the White House and Congress creating the PDA domino effect. For years they have chastised the political left for being intolerant, taking everything too personally, and substituting "political correctness" for legitimate clash over ideas. I don't think the political left ever engaged in those behaviors to the level portrayed in the conservative caricature of them, but today there can be no doubt that in the Trump era the political right now behaves that way in the extreme. 

Finally, Public Displays of Affliction seem to be the latest sign of the erosion of political conservatism as an intellectual force in public life. Charlie Sykes, once the Dean of Wisconsin's conservatives, has argued cogently that the right "lost its mind" and consequently conservatism in the Trump era dedicates itself almost exclusively to mocking and trolling liberals. The Public Display of Affliction rhetorical strategy is but one more sign of that. This is tragic because conservatism--by which I mean REAL conservatism rooted in an understanding of the Constitution and Bill of Rights as living documents that ought to inform current debates--can and should be a powerful force for generating creative public policy options. That kind of conservatism is dying a slow death right before our collective eyes, drowning in a pool of public displays of affliction coming from those who have co-opted the conservative movement. 

Candidate Trump told us that if he got elected we would win so much that we would be "sick of  winning." President Trump's given us the culture of the Public Display of Affliction, and I know I'm not alone in saying that I'm sick of the WHINING. 

Sunday, October 01, 2017

Cop Culture and Mindless Media Collusion

On July 31st of this year, 28-year-old Isaiah Tucker of Oshkosh was shot and killed by an Oshkosh police officer when he refused commands to leave a vehicle that he allegedly tried to run over the officer with. In September Winnebago County District Attorney Christian Gossett, citing Wisconsin's self-defense statute, announced at a press briefing that no charges would be filed against the officer.

The purpose of this post is not to argue that DA Gossett should have filed charges. Indeed, the facts as presented by Gossett, Assistant DA Mike Balskus, and Oshkosh Chief of Police Dean Smith suggest that the officers acted reasonably given the circumstances. Instead I will argue that the way mainstream media handles such situations make it extremely unlikely that facts will ever be presented in a manner that justifies charges against officers. Unlike the popular television show "COPS" in which the program's producers actively collude with police to place their actions in the most favorable light possible, mainstream media practice a "mindless collusion" that allows police spokespersons almost complete control over the framing of tragic events and the characterizations of people involved in them. I'll close with some advice on how mainstream media organizations can be mindful watchdogs in such situations as opposed to mindless colluders. 

Mindless Media Collusion

The television show "COPS" has been controversial for almost its entire 30-year run. A 2007 scholarly study by professors Elizabeth Monk-Turner, Homer Martinez, Jason Holbrook, and Nathan Harvey found that "media images depicted in COPS are at odds with UCR (Uniform Crime Reporting) official crimes statistics and reinforce stereotypes and myths about the nature of crime in the United States." Communication Studies scholars Theodore Prosise and Ann Johnson in a 2004 study argued that COPS' selective editing provided justification for racism, discrimination, and/or profiling. 

In 1999 Los Angeles Times TV critic Howard Rosenberg offered what I consider to be the definitive critique of cop "ride along" programs: "At their best, media ride-alongs and 'reality' series convey how diligently these agencies perform most of the time, often at great peril. At their worst they create unholy alliances where cops and cameras join forces as a single snoop, the former getting to choreograph themselves as heroes for the lens, the latter getting access to action footage that inevitably titillates viewers . . .  The collusion potential is enormous, with 'reality' series airing nothing they believe puts their partner subjects in a bad light. Doing so would cut off access. No access, no show." (emphasis added). 

If there is collusion in COPS, it is clearly purposeful and can perhaps be excused as nothing more than what is unfortunately typical in free-market media systems: ethics takes a backseat to whatever works to bring in the most advertising revenue. The result is lip service to the public interest while giving us the  "vast wasteland" that Newton Minnow warned of way back in 1961. 

In contrast, the kind of mindless collusion we see when it comes to mainstream media coverage of police shootings cannot easily be justified by commercial pressures. Instead I see two disturbing trends that together produce mindless collusion between the press and the police. First,  a real decline in the quality of journalism, making critical readers/viewers/listeners wonder if the average reporter today even possesses the skills necessary to serve a watchdog role. Second, as local police forces have come to be perceived more like local branches of the military, there's a tendency for local journalists to treat police the same way national journalists treat the military: with extreme deference to the point of serving as literal stenographers for them. The end result is a breakdown in the ability to trust both the police and the media, along with a widening polarization in how white people and people of color view the actions of law enforcement.

Let's apply these trends to the Isaiah Tucker tragedy. On the day of the event, Oshkosh Chief of Police Dean Smith held a press briefing that ran about 5 minutes. He announced that the investigation was in its early stages and that what he would be saying was based on what was known at the time. He said, "at the conclusion of this briefing I will not be taking any questions." In the briefing Smith repeatedly referred to Tucker as "the subject"  who had shown up to a residence on Knapp St. in Oshkosh, took items that were not his, then returned to take the Knapp St. resident's vehicle. The vehicle crashed through the garage door, and the subject then accelerated toward an officer which left no choice but to use lethal force. When Chief Smith finally did mention the subject's name, all that was said about him was that he was 28 years of age and had resided on Logan Dr. in Oshkosh. 

Anyone listening to that press briefing could have reasonably concluded that Tucker was nothing more than a common criminal, not known to the Knapp St. resident who called the police, whose reckless criminal behavior on that evening caused his death. Predictably, that framing of the event led to social media postings shrouded in racism and ignorance.  The amount of people who simply assumed that this was just another random burglary committed by one of "them" was surprising even by Oshkosh standards. Because journalists accepted the decree that they could not ask questions, crucial information known to the police at the time was left out of the initial reporting. 

It was known, for example, that Tucker was a father of three children, including one of them with the Knapp St. resident. He was a former student of Lourdes High School in Oshkosh and had excelled in sports.  The Knapp St. resident told the police that Tucker was acting aggressively that day, but that such behavior was not typical for him. It seems probable that his judgment was impaired by drug abuse. 

I point out elements of Tucker's biography not to suggest that knowing the details of his life excuses his awful behavior on that evening or makes the police more culpable. Rather, knowing the details of Tucker's life humanizes him in a way that Chief Smith's briefing did not, and forces a perception of the events of that evening at least in part as a domestic conflict that got completely out of control due to Tucker's [probably drug induced] erratic behavior. It's important to understand that the absence of humanizing material in a narrative about the victim of a police shooting does not make that narrative more "neutral." Absence of humanizing material simply makes the decision to use lethal force sound like the only practical choice in a difficult situation. Portraying the event and Tucker more accurately and fairly would still of course produce racist/ignorant comments in social media and other platforms, but for responsible citizens it would be easier to recognize the situation as one more horrifying example of how the problem of drug addiction and treatment needs to be given more urgency.  

District Attorney Gossett's press briefing in September to announce that no charges would be filed was only mildly better. At that event, it was finally revealed that Tucker and the Knapp St. resident had a child together. Also, we learned that the original police claim that Tucker had tried to hit an officer with the car was not completely accurate. The officer believed that the car was going to hit him and he was scared for his life. In the earlier press briefing, where the purpose seemed to be to make Tucker sound sufficiently criminal to promote the perception that he brought this on himself,  there was no doubt that Tucker had willfully tried to kill the officer. Police shootings are almost always framed that way; it prevents us from having to deal with the fact that an officer's perception that his life is in danger is in the eyes of the law sufficient to warrant the use of deadly force. 
It is no condemnation of law enforcement in the United States to say that it exists in a "cop culture" designed to maximize everything right that the men and women in blue do while minimizing the wrong. All institutions of power behave similarly. Because of that, we need principled, vigorous watchdog journalism that rejects the reduction of the craft to that of nothing but stenographers for the powerful

Recommendations Moving Forward

How should mainstream media cover tragedies like the Isaiah Tucker situation? Here are some recommendations:

*Do not cover police press briefings at which no questions can be asked. Press briefings without questions are the antithesis of transparency. If the police refuse to take questions, then tell them to stream the press briefing on the police department's website. The media could then provide a link to that site. To carry a question-less press briefing on a newspaper website or mainstream television station gives tacit approval to the idea that the media can be used as a one-way conduit of information that could be strategically incomplete or flat-out propaganda. Mainstream audiences will respect a media that stands for genuine transparency. Explain to your readers/listeners/viewers that journalistic ethics  does not allow your platform to be used for one-way transmission of messages from powerful sources who may be trying to control the framing of a serious issue. 

If the media insist on covering question-less press briefings, then they should at least express clearly and without equivocation that they are outraged at being put in such a position. 

*Insist on the proper amount of time to ask questions. At DA Gossett's September press briefing, the event started out with an announcement that the press would have 10 minutes at the end to ask questions.  In the local Fox 11 coverage of that press conference, it was almost impossible to even hear the questions that were being asked. 

There is no formula for what is the proper amount of time the press should be allowed to ask questions. Suffice it to say that if the collective efforts of multiple local television and radio stations, the Gannett press, and credible online sources cannot come up with more than 10 minutes, then we are being seriously under served in this community by the media. The media's inability to demand and ask for thorough questioning of the powerful almost makes it look like the kind of law enforcement/press relationship that one would expect to see in a banana republic. Actually it's much worse, because at least in the banana republics the journalists don't pretend to be anything other than mouthpieces for the state. 

*Remember to minimize harm.  "Minimize Harm" is actually one of the Society of Professional Journalists' ethical standards. They say, "Ethical journalism treats sources, subjects, colleagues, and members of the public as human beings deserving of respect." That standard was clearly neglected in the coverage of the initial police press briefing dealing with Isaiah Tucker, as the press uncritically allowed a depiction of Tucker that was at best misleading and certainly devastated his family. I mean, would it really have taken that much effort to point out that he was a father of three, at one time a student athlete at a Catholic high school, and in some kind of relationship with the woman that he behaved aggressively toward on the night of his death? 

About a week after the tragedy, the Gannett paper carried a story with a fascinating headline: "Family of Oshkosh man shot by police want answers."  In the story, Tucker's family--clearly disturbed by the coverage of the case to that point--try to assert simply that he was "human." The story also asserts that the family had been in contact with three advocates who plan to "ask Oshkosh police every question in the world as to why this young man died." Shouldn't that also be the plan of the press? If the press were doing its job, families of victims would not feel the need to solicit private investigators. Sadly, the private investigators will probably end up concluding that the media--in its uncritical reporting of the police version of events the day after the tragedy--was more of a hindrance than a help in trying to get at the truth. 

*Advocate for Civilian Review Boards.  In most of the United States, civilian review of police practices is woefully inadequate. When complaints against police are filed or shootings have to be investigated, we basically have to have faith that law enforcement is able to study its own behavior in an objective, credible manner. Mountains of evidence suggest that's not the case.  President Obama's Commission on 21st Century Policing produced a final report that envisions much greater public input in all areas of policing.  That report deserves wider circulation and discussion; at a minimum, mainstream media should actively try to get the discussion going. 

In short, press coverage of the Isaiah Tucker tragedy featured a mindless media collusion that allowed newspapers, television, and other media to be used as uncritical vehicles for the promotion of the police framing of the case. "Cop culture," like the culture of any institution of power, will do what it can to promote its perspective and protect its servants. To assert that FACT is not the same as condemning the police, who appear to have acted reasonably on the night of Tucker's death. Calls for reform of the way journalists cover police shootings and police procedures in general cannot change past tragedies, but they might contribute to preventing future ones.