Even Opinion Journalism Needs To Be Fair
The New York Times editorial began like this: “For most people, Ferguson, Mo., will be remembered for one awful August afternoon, when a white police officer there shot and killed an unarmed black teenager, Michael Brown.
That’s one way to put it. Here’s another:
“For most people, Ferguson, Mo., will be remembered for one awful August afternoon, when a white police officer there shot and killed an unarmed black teenager, Michael Brown who stood 6 foot 5 inches and weighed 289 pounds and who had stolen some merchandise from a convenience store and roughed up the storeowner who was half Mr. Brown’s size before going outside and disobeying a police order to stop walking in the middle of the road which led to a scuffle initiated by Mr. Brown during which he tried to take the officer’s gun which led to Mr. Brown being shot in what the grand jury ruled was self defense."
The shorthand – white cop kills unarmed black teenager – is technically correct. But the words paint a picture that isn’t even close to what happened. Even opinion journalism needs to be fair. (And it's not only opinion journalism. I've heard more than a few reporters on television say the demonstrators are protesting the shooting of an unarmed black teenager.)
Shorthand works, sometimes, in journalism. But sometimes it only feeds a dangerous and false perception: that white cops are out to get unarmed black kids. Too many liberals, whether they write for the New York Times or simply read the paper and nod in agreement, believe that black men are under siege in America, that they’re the targets of white racist cops who shoot “unarmed” black men who have their “hands up.”
They tell us that black lives matter. And, of course, they’re right. But we rarely hear from these compassionate liberals about how police lives matter too. So consider this from an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal by Kent Osband, an author. “While blacks are 14% of the U.S. population, they account for 47% of killings of police. Given a random sample, blacks are 5.6 times as likely as non-blacks to kill a police officer. This likely causes officers to act more defensively with unfamiliar blacks than with unfamiliar non-blacks.”
Don’t look for anything like that in the New York Times.
A few weeks ago, the Times, in another editorial, warned us not to connect any dots between anti police street demonstrations and what happened to those two New York City police officers who were shot and killed while they sat in their police car. Proving once again that I’m hopelessly naïve I wrote a letter to the Times, pointing out their journalistic hypocrisy. This is the letter in its entirety:
“Your editorial says the man who killed those New York police officers linked the deaths in Ferguson and Staten Island ‘to his hateful words and unspeakable act, fatally coloring how others will perceive it.’ Forgive those ‘others’ if – unlike the Times – we wonder whether there is indeed a link between demonstrators chanting, ‘What do we want? Dead cops. When do we want it? Now’ and the ‘unspeakable act.’
“Yet the Times had a different standard for accountability after the massacre in Tucson in 2011, which left 6 dead and 14 wounded including Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. Then, a Times editorial noted that while the gunman was mentally ill he was ‘very much a part of a widespread squall of fear, anger and intolerance’ in America caused by ‘Republicans and particularly their most virulent supporters in the media.’
“Why is it reasonable to put the mayhem in Tucson in the context of supposed right-wing anger and intolerance but not put the New York tragedy in the context of a much more direct left-wing (‘What do we want? Dead cops’) anger and intolerance?”
Forgive me for stating the obvious, but the New York Times chose not to publish the letter.