Wednesday, July 25, 2012

How Our News Media Uses Drug Violence

Tuesday must have been a slow news day here in the Fort Worth - Dallas area.

At least, up until the start of our 6:00pm local newscasts, when a crowd of angry protesters decided to make some noise for the cameras.

A well-known thug from an impoverished neighborhood in south Dallas had been shot to death by Dallas police officers after evading arrest.  He had actually fought hand-to-hand with one officer, and announced that he was either going to die or get away.  He wasn't going to get arrested.

Eventually, fearing for his own life, an officer shot the thug.  Police later discovered a smorgasbord of narcotics and guns in his home.  At this point, it's unclear whether the deceased had legal permits for those guns.

We know he didn't have any permits for the drugs.

Still, the man's mother felt like she knew enough about how officers had used unnecessary force against her son, and she managed to foment a small group of locals into a rowdy gang.  They yelled at police officers investigating the scene, and began to attract a larger crowd of folks with nothing better to do than join in.  Since it was a slow news day, producers at all of our local TV stations - Fox, NBC, ABC, and CBS, at least - were desperately monitoring the police scanners, hoping for some sort of action, and when they heard cops on the scene in south Dallas calling for back-up, that was all these news producers needed to hear.

Their choppers were soon in the sky and swooping over the alleyway where the angry mother and her band of troublemakers were.  Right on time, like clockwork!  All of the local stations were starting their newscasts with live video feed in the early evening hours of a crystal-clear day.  A perfect news story for them.  Great visibility, a line of black-uniformed, white-skinned police officers in helmets, and a churning crowd of a couple dozen black people pointing at the cops.  One news organization sent a cameraman on foot to the yellow crime scene tape separating the police from the crowd, and let an angry black woman - ostensibly the mother - give his station some great theater as she yelled and gestured, waving her arm, shaking her head, and stomping her feet.

Ten minutes into the coverage, as aerial footage of the melee panned back from the police line, we viewers could see that trotting towards the scene were a number of new arrivals, obviously lured by watching their televisions, or contacted by cell phone and invited to join in.  Indeed, several people in the crowd could plainly be seen talking excitedly into their cell phones, gesturing into the air just like the woman who was still yelling at the police.

Oh boy, I thought.  Just like the flash mobs on the East Coast.  This is summertime in Texas, too - way too hot for idle hands and frustrated brains to try and keep out of trouble.

And that's what the news producers were figuring, too.  Because they never cut back to any other news that might have happened during the day.  Even weather updates went by the board as news helicopters jockeyed for position over the scene, hoping to get the best angle in case a bona-fide riot broke out.  The eagerness with which news anchors delivered their repetitive play-by-play was palpable.

I hadn't been watching it this whole time, mind you.  I was mainly reading the newspaper.  But when I realized we weren't going to get a weather forecast, I turned the TV off.  I don't know what time the local news producers decided the cops had been too efficient and had managed to quell the disturbance, but I imagine everything was back to regular programming sooner rather than later, because a check on the Internet after about an hour revealed that no riot had taken place.

Such was not the case in Anaheim, California, last night.  After two Hispanic drug dealers were killed in separate incidents in that Orange County city this past weekend, a large group of Hispanics had convened at city hall Tuesday night for their city council's weekly meeting.  The shootings were on their agenda, and the Hispanic community wanted to know what police were going to do, basically, to prevent more drug dealers from getting killed.

Hey - you can't make this stuff up.

So many people turned up at city hall that the fire marshal was compelled to enforce the building's occupancy limit, which meant a lot of disgruntled Hispanics had to wait outside for the conclusion of the meeting.

Instead of waiting to hear what their city council discussed, however, groups of Hispanics began to scuffle amongst each other and with police that had been called in to help control the crowd.  Pretty soon, garbage cans were on fire, shop windows were broken, and police were chasing protesters who refused to vacate the scene.  Several people sustained minor injuries, at least one store was looted, and twenty people were arrested.

You'll have noticed by now that I'm not bothering to incorporate any journalistic impartiality in my narrative of these two civil disturbances.  Most of the time, I try to see more than one angle to a story, but in these two instances, any factual angles other than what the cops are saying only end up corroborating what the cops are saying.

All three of these "suspects" died running from cops.  If they were innocent, why did they run?  None of these men died trying to provide a rational explanation for their suspicious actions.  None of these men died without first putting police officers in harm's way.  One of the Anaheim thugs actually fired a gun at officers, and the other one in Anaheim and the thug in Dallas both acted like they were concealing a gun in their pants before they were shot.  True, perhaps death doesn't match the crimes of which they were suspected, but that was not a decision the police officers made unilaterally.  The decision to shoot was coerced from the officers by the thugs they were chasing.

These guys were not evading arrest by corrupt law agencies bent on subverting human rights and civil laws.  South Dallas and downtown Anaheim are not Mogadishu or Baghdad.  The fact that these men were killed after police had already been chasing them proves that the cops weren't out to shoot first and ask questions later.

Fortunately, at least here in Dallas, at least two powerful black members of the city council have come out strongly behind the police chief, and calling for restraint and patience as all of the facts are gathered and assessed in this case.  They've been making the rounds of our local TV stations today in a show of calm support for due process.  Some agitators who are not elected officials have tried to make waves in the media today, but many of their assertions and allegations have already been disproved by the small amount of information the city's medical examiner and public safety officials have been releasing every few hours.

To the extent that our local news media continues to foment the ire of south Dallas' residents by picking apart unsubstantiated rumors and innuendo on the air, maybe their quest for ratings will be rewarded as a group of people who always want to play the victim card - regardless of the facts - gets yet another season in the spotlight.

However, both in Anaheim and here in north Texas, the media needs to understand that yes, while its role is to report the news, it should not participate in making the news happen.

Liberals like to chide conservatives for using minorities and the poor as political and economic pawns.  But how often is our media one of the biggest culprits in blowing things out of proportion, exciting such excitable segments of the population under the guise of "reporting?"

Just like freedom in any segment of our society, freedom of the press carries with it a responsibility to the public that seems all too cavalierly tossed aside when it comes to ratings.  Which inevitably leads to a loss of credibility.  Of course, this part is really old news, since media ethicists have been harping on this topic for years.  You'd think the media, along with the drug dealers who want to run from the law, would have learned their lesson by now.

Unfortunately, just like those drug dealers, the media just can't seem to free itself from the very thing that threatens to destroy it.
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