Dominant Narratives, White Media, and Jamar Clark

In theory, local media strive to present the news in an "objective" way to the public.  But when that media and its prevailing orientation is so overwhelmingly White, its coverage is anything but "objective."  This White bias has been painfully true of local media coverage of the killing of Jamar Clark and the ensuing protests.

One obvious characteristic of White media bias is an incurious, non-skeptical deference to the police versions of events.  We saw this immediately after the Minneapolis police killed Jamar Clark.

When a major incident like this happens, news media play a tremendous role in establishing the initial official-ish narrative.  The nature of reporting means that stories will continue to evolve and even change, but the media have a tremendous responsibility to be cautious and diligent in that initial reporting.  What we got in this case, instead, was basically just a giant retweet of the police version of events.

The StarTribune's initial story said simply, "According to police:"  After the colon, they just summarized the police account of the incident.

 According to police colon

According to police colon

The Strib's initial story was essentially just an MPD press release, and included no interviews with witnesses or community members (which didn't seem to appear until Libor Jany's name was added to the byline) This, somehow, was better than the initial story KARE 11 posted, which presented a version of events WITH NO ATTRIBUTION AT ALL.

 Mystery source

Mystery source

Yep, KARE just ran the story with no source at all.  Not even the Strib's "according to police:"  But based on the version of the story, it's pretty safe to assume this came from the cops.

Presenting the initial police version of a story like this, with no additional reporting and, in one case, without even citing a single source, is irresponsible.  We have mountains of evidence from across the country and throughout history of police manipulating stories and straight up lying about crimes they commit against people of color, from Sheriff Willis McCall lying about shooting two men he was charged with protecting after the Supreme Court had vacated their convictions for rape in the 1950s, to the cover-up of the murder of Laquan McDonald in Chicago and the planting of evidence on Black men in Alabama today.

But even if you don't think that police accounts deserve any unique scrutiny, at the very least, in the event of a police shooting, we have an institution that is potentially a party to a crime, with a vested interest in spinning the story early and often, being allowed to present their version of events first, unchallenged, and with the legitimacy of officialness that comes from being published in the media.  This is irresponsible journalism.  And because of the disparities in who the victims of police killings tend to be, it is also racist journalism.  If after a police shooting, your only source is the police, your story's not ready to run.

In addition to this systemically racist practice, there have been plenty of individual incidents of White media bias, cultural incompetence, and racism.  

On November 16, after establishing their presence at the 4th precinct, some activists moved their protest to I-94.  Many media reports focused on the inconvenience of the protest on commuters, with precious little airtime or column length expended on the myriad injustices that compelled the protests in the first place.

WCCO TV's John Lauritsen was covering the protests that night.  He expressed surprise that protesters said they didn't want to talk to him as a member of the mainstream White media.

 Wait, you don't want to talk to MEE?!?!

Wait, you don't want to talk to MEE?!?!

Meanwhile, that same night, Lauritsen could barely mask his contempt for protesters in tweets like this one describing a driver who tried to drive right through protesters:

And when one of his followers asked why I-94 protesters weren't being arrested and "actually charge[d]...this time," Lauritsen replied that that was "an excellent question."

Lauritsen's tweets about protesters predictably brought on the best in Minnesota racism:

 Minnesota Nice

Minnesota Nice

And when his story aired on WCCO, Lauritsen made sure to include video of a protester walking away from him saying "don't talk to White media," despite the fact that the clip had literally nothing to do with his story, and to include video of a Black woman in a car cursing at Black protesters.  But, golly,  who could possibly fathom why people of color protesting for racial justice might not jump at the opportunity to speak with mainstream White media?

More examples? Sure.

On the 18th, I heard an anchor on FOX 9 tease a segment before a commercial by saying that protesters were "clashing with police," who were "just trying to keep the peace."  As White people, it's really hard to disabuse ourselves of the assumption that the police do good, and only good, and that they must be "just trying to keep the peace."  And the protesters must be doing the "clashing."

That same day, WCCO tweeted a link to a livestreaming community event that included a photo of Jamar Clark.  The photo they chose?  An old mugshot:

Anchors and a producer at WCCO initially denied the outlet had used a mugshot, despite multiple people tweeting them screen shots.  But it all got worked out eventually.  Curiously, when a group of alleged White supremacists were charged for shooting at protesters, this is the photo WCCO tweeted out:

 Mug Shot-less

Mug Shot-less

And the StarTribune has been in its own class of White media bias.  In his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., responding to White clergy who were criticizing his tactics, said this: 

I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action’; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a ‘more convenient season.’ Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.
— Martin Luther King, Jr.

The StarTribune has been putting on a master class in White moderation.  On the 17th, the editorial board assured us it supported the justice the protesters desired, but, as if they were reading Dr. King's words as a directive, still felt the need to lecture disapprovingly about tactics.

On November 23rd, columnist Jon Tevlin wrote a piece praising Mayor Hodges's "measured response."  When I jabbed during the police destruction of the #4thPrecinctShutdown that Tevlin and other moderate at the Strib must be "LOVING this," Tevlin replied that he "found mentoring kids on the northside for 25 years more helpful than bonfires."

For whom it was more helpful, and what it was more helpful in accomplishing, he didn't say.  Nor did he say how his mentoring has one damn thing to do with ending racist policing practices.  I guess he just wanted me to know he's a heroic mentoring savior.

On the 24th, the Strib's editorial board ran another piece ostensibly supporting the goals of protesters, but again providing paternalistic guidance on what would be acceptable tactics.  On the 30th, they ran the most amazingly unself-aware op-ed by a man named Bill Boegeman who unironically declared himself a "vehement supporter of Black Lives Matter" before proceeding to spend the remainder of his essay criticizing their tactics.  And on December 1st came the predictable editorial calling for the end of the encampment (but we TOTALLY support your goals and rights to protest!).

I was getting ready to put the finishing touches on this post when I stumbled across another egregious example of White media bias this very morning.  Kerri Miller, host of MPR's Midmorning show, hosted an hourlong show on police killings of Black people with three guests--every single one of them White.  

I know that as White people, our feelings get hurt a lot in confronting this, so I sort of feel like I need to say I don't hate Kerri Miller.  I enjoy listening to her.  I like Tom WeberCathy Wurzer, and Tom Crann too.  But it is unacceptable to conduct a panel about the impact of police killing on Black people with an all-White panel.  And that it didn't seem to occur to anyone that this was silencing Black voices is problematic.

As White people, it is almost impossible for us to imagine that, as a function of our identity, there is something we're NOT able to do.  It shocks our sense of self.  But we truly are not capable ourselves of fully understanding and explaining the lived experiences of people of color.

To be sure, not all coverage of the protests has been bad.  There have been some reporters, many, unsurprisingly, people of color, who have been working really hard to understand and amplify community perspectives.  MPR's Doualy Xaykaothao and Riham Feshir, and the Strib's Libor Jany come immediately to mind, and I know there are many more.  And Unicorn Riot has been live-streaming the protests so you could just watch them directly, without worrying about a third-party filter.

News organizations are hiring more people of color as reporters, but at the end of the day, the folks sitting in the anchor chairs and making editorial decisions are still overwhelmingly White.  And let's be honest, as a certified White person myself, I'm catching MAYBE 8% of the racial bias  in the media coverage I'm consuming.

Diversity in news rooms is always important, maybe now more than ever.  This isn't about feel-good liberal political correctness.  This is about the dominant narratives in our public discourse, and that discourse has a tremendous impact on the extent to which people achieve justice. 

Thankfully, movements for justice aren't going away anytime soon.  But our media have a long way to go to play the objective role they strive for.

If you're still unsure whether we have a diversity problem in our local news leadership, take a scroll and decide for yourself:

  No apology,  no interview.

No apology, no interview.

 KARE 11

KARE 11

 WCCO TV

WCCO TV

 WCCO Radio

WCCO Radio

 FOX 9, whose bio page is inexplicably bio-less. And they've got an anchor who's a person of color!

FOX 9, whose bio page is inexplicably bio-less. And they've got an anchor who's a person of color!

 Cathy Wurzer, MPR morning host

Cathy Wurzer, MPR morning host

 Kerri Miller, MPR midmorning host

Kerri Miller, MPR midmorning host

 Tom Weber, MPR midmorning host

Tom Weber, MPR midmorning host

 Tom Crann, MPR afternoon host

Tom Crann, MPR afternoon host

 I knew the StarTribune leadership would be White, but this page was shocking

I knew the StarTribune leadership would be White, but this page was shocking

 Jay Kolls, apparently still  employed   somehow

Jay Kolls, apparently still employed somehow