The conservative obsession with “narrative”

December 22, 2014 – 12:14 pm by John

In response to the execution-style murder of two New York City police officers by Ismaaiyl Brinsley, many conservatives blamed the media "narrative" for inspiring the murders. Brinsley supposedly said his targeting of NYPD cops was motivated by the unjustified killings of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner in Staten Island, New York, and the subsequent exoneration of the police officers who killed them. Given that much of the media's attention on these cases (and others, such as that of Tamir Rice in Cleveland, Ohio) has been on the race of the victims and officers—black and white, respectively—I'm not sure how Brinsley's killing of a Hispanic and an Asian officer was directly inspired by newsmedia, but a lot of conservatives are sure that it was:

There was apparently no "racial angle" to Brinsley's murders, either, so it would seem that he was not influenced by the media's "racial" "narrative" at all. But not to worry, conservatives have another narrative to blame: the anti-cop mentality:

I wonder: is Radley Balko part of this anti-police narrative that's to blame for Brinsley's murders? Is his denunciation of the excess militarization of police to blame for Brinsley's murders? I also wonder: was it the anti-cop mentality that also motivated Brinsley to shoot his ex-girlfriend?

Since these conservative commentators are not stupid or oblivious, they know that their claims of "media narrative" can easily be compared with the left's claims that so many rapes occur (and go unpunished) because of a "rape culture" or that so many mass murders are committed because of a "gun culture" in the United States. And despite their rebuttal that their finger-pointing is accurate while that of others is not, I think it's just as truthful to dismiss their claims as it is to dismiss the latter two. The individual is to blame for all crimes.

The term "narrative" as many on the right use it, especially when referring to the (aspects of) stories that print and broadcast journalists focus on, has a specific meaning: that the media are presenting only partial truths or outright falsehoods in order to sway their audience toward believing an untruthful or highly skewed version of reality. The accusation of promoting a narrative does not distinguish between deliberate lies and mere lapses or distortions caused by journalists' bias, incuriosity, and ignorance.

There is no doubt that different journalists and media outlets have their biases and their narratives, and no doubt that the media influence people's behavior and opinions. I'll even grant that some members of the media shamed themselves by trying to provoke conflict at the Ferguson protests. But there is also no denying that the vast majority of the reporting on Michael Brown's death, Eric Garner's death, and the ensuing grand jury proceedings has been truthful. Was Michael Brown unarmed or not? Was Eric Garner choked to death or not? Did he repeatedly say "I can't breathe" or not? Was his murderer's exoneration a laughable travesty of justice or not? Did the Ferguson and St. Louis police throw tear gas on the protestors and set up snipers on tanks or not? The media "narrative" is one of unjustified killings, excessive insulation of police from punishment, growing antagonism between police and (especially, poor) citizens, and non-indictment of officers for actions that would clearly get any private citizen indicted—if the prosecutor didn't skip straight to murder charges to begin with. That isn't a narrative at all—it's the truth.

In fact, the conservatives' claim of "media narrative" is even weaker than that: I submit that police brutality, police militarization, unjustified shootings, cronyist insulation/protection of police officers, the complete failure of the Drug War, the ruination that the Drug War has inflicted on poor communities, and the deplorably high U.S. imprisonment rate are under-reported by newsmedia. It can't be overstated how central the War on Drugs is to the antagonistic relationship that exists between citizens, especially blacks, and cops these days, and how much the War on Drugs is to blame for the oppression and victimization that poor Americans feel is directed at them by police.

How many Americans who regularly watch and read the news are aware that the U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the world, even higher than China and Russia? How many know that over half of inmates in federal prisons are in for drug-related offenses (and that this proportion used to be 63%)? How many know that Eric Garner was not actually selling illegal cigarettes at the time of his murder and that that's not what he was arrested for? How many know that the NYPD banned chokeholds outright in 1993, which did nothing to decrease the use of chokeholds by its officers (they received over 200 complaints about chokeholds per year from 2006 to 2010)? How many appreciate how an excess of laws and overzealous policing trap people in a cycle of poverty while enriching local governments? How many know that federally mandated minimum sentences, in addition to being an objectively terrible idea that unjustly ruins thousands of people's lives, are disproportionately given to blacks (who are 21% more likely to receive a mandatory minimum sentence than white defendants facing an eligible charge)? (I mean, seriously, how often do mainstream news outlets run stories about mandatory minimum sentences? I bet it's rare.) How many know that blacks tend to receive 10% longer prison sentences than whites for the same crimes? How many know that more Americans are imprisoned for drug-related offenses now than were imprisoned for all offenses in 1980? How often do the media highlight the plain fact that the War on Drugs is destroying black America? How many Americans support the War on Drugs, for God's sake? Those people obviously haven't been paying attention, and the media haven't been doing much to dispel their biases about it.

The facts that the War on Drugs continues, that state and local governments (including police departments) continue to benefit from the War on Drugs, and that millions upon millions of people reflexively side with police in controversial cases, saying "Don't break the law or resist arrest and you'll have nothing to fear"—these facts demonstrate that the media haven't been pushing much of an anti-police narrative nor a racial narrative. If the poor and minorities side with the media's "narrative", it is because they have lived it.

In fact, as Conor Friedersdorf has documented, numerous recent examples of unjustified police abuses make the case for police reform much better than Michael Brown's death does. The evidence Friedersdorf cites is limited to videos available on YouTube; who knows how many atrocities we've missed over the decades? I don't even know the names of the victims or the shooters in those incidents, and neither does hardly anybody else, because they were swept under the rug by the police departments and not investigated by journalists, much less were they distorted into a "narrative". How many people know the name Tamir Rice? Not as many as know the names Michael Brown and Eric Garner, and not nearly as many as should know it.

It's also important to realize how widespread and deep-seated the pro-police mentality is in the U.S., as exemplified by the myriad people who believe that breaking the law is inherently wrong and that Eric Garner and Michael Brown deserved to receive deadly force because they both broke the law and resisted arrest (which is blatantly false in Eric Garner's case). The intuition to side with police and hold them above regular citizens is plenty common in the mainstream media, not unlike the ubiquitous reverence of the military. For example, when a news or opinion piece mentions the danger that police officers face in the line of duty, how often do the journalists point out that a large part of that danger comes directly from the unnecessary outlawing of drugs and the increasingly adversarial relationship between police and citizens that exists because too many things are illegal, not to mention the quotas and expectations that police place on themselves?

One problem in trying to make conservative law-and-order types realize and admit the faults of the Drug War, and more generally overzealous policing and an excess of laws, is that some of them interpret the citing of trends and statistics about the poor and minorities as an accusation that white people and relatively wealthy people are to blame. But they are not to blame. The blame belongs to politicians for passing unjust laws, police departments for overzealously (and often violently) enforcing the unjust laws as well as shielding their officers from punishment, and both federal and local governments for clamoring for ever more laws and funding to enforce them. Conservatives are so used to baseless claims of racism and calls for wealth redistribution from the left that they reflexively reject legitimate arguments that our institutions and laws disproportionately victimize the poor and minorities.

The War on Drugs, the punishment of poverty, and the immunity given to criminal police officers are injustices themselves, even if they affected all races and classes equally; the fact that they do not is only a further injustice upon a mountain of injustices.

So no, the backlash against police officers is not the media's doing, and the villification of cops, especially by black Americans, is not some new thing that started in the social media age or even the 24-hour news channel age. It has been 40+ years in the making, since at least the start of the War on Drugs, and every bit of it is justified. What isn't justified is killing in situations other than self-defense or the defense of another person against imminent threat, which is why the killing of those two NYPD officers was cold-blooded murder by a disturbed, violent degenerate.

A third common claim by conservatives is that all those Ferguson and New York protestors shouting "Kill the cops!" and the like were inciting people to violence and were bound to inspire some nut to act on that impulse. Therefore, the protestors are partially to blame, and their anti-cop movement is part and parcel with the inevitable cop-killing backlash.

Further cementing himself as a respectable, honest, consistent conservative (or conservatarian, as he calls himself) who is an ally to the libertarian movement, Charles C.W. Cooke was having none of that:

(I expect we will see a little more of it, because people who commit murders out in public are usually pretty deranged and sick, and because there is a lot of hatred of cops out there.)

In conclusion, the police reform (or even police-hating) movement is not to blame for Ismaaiyl Brinsley's crimes any more than the NRA is to blame for mass shootings. If the media truly had a racial narrative, we would hear a lot more about actual, concrete, statistically proven inequalities in our criminal justice system, and several more black victims of police violence would be household names. Contrary to the stock conservative complaint about the media vis-à-vis crime, race, and police, the deficiency of our newsmedia is in its reluctance to highlight the full extent and depravity of the War on Drugs, the ubiquity of excessive use of force by police, and the effective outlawing of poverty in many jurisdictions. The War on Drugs and the associated American prison state is the West's human rights atrocity of the 21st century. The protesters are absolutely right to hate the police, and the media are absolutely right to focus on it.

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