A teenager’s video of George Floyd’s murder changed the world. It should change journalism, too.

Photo (cc) 2020 by Chad Davis

Previously published at GBH News.

The video of George Floyd’s murder at the hands — or, rather, at the knee — of a police officer has changed the way many of us think about law enforcement, social justice and racial equity.

It should change the way we think about journalism, too.

For nine minutes and 29 seconds, Darnella Frazier pointed her smartphone at Derek Chauvin as he squeezed the life out of Floyd. It would have been an act of great courage for anyone to keep recording; that Frazier was only 17 made it all the more remarkable. As Roy Peter Clark wrote for the Nieman Journalism Lab recently, Frazier should be awarded a Pulitzer Prize.

More than that, though, the video should force those of us in the news media to question the symbiotic relationship between reporters and the police — a relationship marked all too often by the police giving us good stories in return for our not asking too many questions.

Until this week I had spared myself the horror of watching the full video. The snippets that news organizations carried struck me as sufficient, and they are if all you’re looking for is a factual understanding of what happened. But to take in the whole scene is to be pulled into the moment — to become a frightened, angry spectator along with the crowd that gathered that day.

We see Chauvin grind his knee into Floyd’s neck as Floyd wails, “I can’t breathe!” and then “Mama, Mama.” We see Floyd fall silent and then go limp. We see Chauvin with a leer on his face while another officer, Tou Thao, impassively but menacingly keeps the bystanders back. We hear voices. “He’s not fucking moving!” “Check his pulse!” “You just really killed that man, bro.” We see an ambulance drive Floyd away.

Now consider what the official police report said. Here’s an excerpt: “Officers were able to get the suspect into handcuffs and noted he appeared to be suffering medical distress. Officers called for an ambulance. He was transported to Hennepin County Medical Center by ambulance where he died a short time later.”

It is hard to imagine an account more false than this one. It is a foul lie. And here is where we need to think about how reporters go about doing their work and why that needs to change.

For generations, reporters at smaller news organizations — community newspapers for the most part — have covered police news by dropping by the police station, examining publicly available incident logs, interviewing the officer in charge about anything that seemed noteworthy, and then writing it up. Assaults, house break-ins, drunken driving arrests — it’s the ultimate in one-source reporting, and I did plenty of it when I was starting out in the 1980s.

That’s no longer good enough. In fact, it never was. Since the start of the Black Lives Matter movement following the police killing of Michael Brown in 2014, I think we’ve all come to understand that if police news is important enough to deserve coverage, then it is important enough to be reported thoroughly. That has only accelerated following the high-profile police killings of Floyd and Breonna Taylor in 2020.

A tragedy such as the murder of George Floyd wouldn’t even make the paper in a large city like Minneapolis based on false police report that was filed. Without Frazier’s video, the truth probably never would have been known. But we now realize that the police are no more or less credible than any other people in authority whom we cover, and their words and actions need to be verified.

“The authoritative source was, and for many reporters still is, considered police officers, district attorneys, law enforcement in general,” my GBH News colleague Phillip Martin said recently on “The Scrum.” He added: “Now, many Black folk and brown folk have long been suspicious and skeptical of police and refused to accept their word for it. They had to prove it. But now we’re seeing that this is permeating in a broader sense, if you will…. Let’s just say liberal America has become more and more skeptical.”

Yet even if journalists understand that the old way of doing things has to change, there are some significant challenges to transforming that understanding into something better.

There are the unknown unknowns, as Donald Rumsfeld used to say — that is, the impossibility of knowing that what seems like a routine police report is anything but, as was the case with Floyd’s murder. We can’t check out everything, and if something seems non-newsworthy, it may just slip away.

There is the reality that newsrooms are becoming more and more strapped for reporting resources — a situation that became that much worse last Friday, when Tribune Publishing’s nine major-market newspapers fell into the hands of the hedge fund Alden Global Capital, known for eviscerating its newsrooms.

There is the decline of the news media as a gatekeeper, with police departments themselves posting reports of arrests and other incidents on their websites and on social media with no independent verification.

Some news organizations, including the giant Gannett chain, have cut back or eliminated the publication of mugshots, especially for nonviolent crimes. A few papers, including The Boston Globe, are giving the subjects of old crime stories a chance to argue that those stories should be made invisible to search engines. Both of those steps help people who’ve been accused of crimes find employment and set their lives on a better path.

Perhaps most important, if a crime isn’t serious enough to warrant thorough reporting, then we shouldn’t report it at all.

Paul Bass, the founder and editor of the New Haven Independent, put it this way recently: “Media should not print names of arrestees unless we have their side, we have seen independent evidence corroborating the charges, an immediate threat exists to public safety requiring divulging the name, or a court has adjudicated the charge.”

Testifying at Chauvin’s trial, Darnella Frazier told the court: “It’s been nights I’ve stayed up apologizing and apologizing to George Floyd for not doing more and not physically interacting and not saving his life.”

But there was nothing Frazier could have done except bear witness — which she did, thus changing the world. At its best, journalism is about bearing witness as well. Can we learn from a brave teenager with a smartphone? Can we resolve to do a better job of serving the communities we cover — by listening, and by seeking truth rather than taking dictation from those in authority?

The fate of journalism depends on getting the answers right — and on not letting this moment fade, unacted upon, into our collective memory.

Self-published books make cancellation a non-issue

Photo via Wallpaper Flare

The New York Times has yet another story on the pressures being placed on publishers to cancel controversial books. The example in question is by Jonathan Mattingly, one of the Louisville police officers who took part in the fatal shooting of Breonna Taylor.

Probably the best known of such incidents was Simon & Schuster’s decision to cancel a contract with Sen. Josh Hawley earlier this year after he essentially endorsed the Jan. 6. insurrection. Hawley’s book was instantly picked up by the right-wing publisher Regnery, and Hawley has been talking ever since to whine about how he’s been silenced.

The Hawley situation shows that the marketplace can resolve disputes over speech. But I want to push it one step further by pointing out that publishing and distributing a book has become absolutely frictionless. Self-publishing a book, either in print or online, is cheap and easy — I’ve done it myself.

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And though it is true that Amazon will occasionally decline to carry a book, as was the case recently with a work that had come under attack by the transgender community, DIY methods are always available, starting with the web, email lists and the like. (I’m leaving out Facebook because the service has been making efforts to take down disinformation and hate speech.)

What this comes down to is that fringe right-wing books will continue to be published and will continue to be promoted by fringe right-wing media, with the most prominent authors finding a voice on Fox News.

And even lesser authors can find creative ways to make money from their books. Just ask Sen. Ted Cruz, now facing allegations that he used campaign funds to promote his tome.

COVID Diary #7: Our worst week as a nation since 9/11 and 1968

We’re living through a historic moment. Following the lead of many others, I’ve decided to start keeping a COVID-19 diary. Don’t expect anything startling — just a few observations from someone stuck at home, lucky to be working and healthy.

This was the week that everything seemed to come apart. The death toll from COVID-19 passed 100,000. And yet, briefly, that terrible milestone has been overshadowed by the latest in a long series of reckonings over what it means to be Black in America.

The day began with Omar Jimenez, a Black Latino journalist for CNN, being arrested by white police officers in Minneapolis even as a white CNN reporter stood not far away, unmolested by cops. The journalists were there to cover the protests that have broken out over the killing of an African American man, George Floyd, at the hands of a white officer. That officer, Derek Chauvin, has been arrested and charged with third-degree murder and manslaughter. No word yet on the fate of the three officers who stood by and let it happen.

The day ended with televised images across the country, from Minneapolis to Atlanta, from New York to California, as thousands of people protested against racist violence against African Americans. Sadly, some of those protests turned violent. But as Martin Luther King Jr. said, “A riot is the language of the unheard.” This week the unheard were intent on being heard — not just on behalf of Floyd, but also many others, including Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and, yes, even Christian Cooper, who was not physically injured but who was humiliated by a privileged white woman when he asked her to leash her dog.

And let’s not forget for a moment that President Trump is pouring gasoline on the fire by tweeting out such incendiary calls to violence that Twitter finally had to crack down on him, sparking a confrontation over the First Amendment.

I was struck last night by David Brooks’ demeanor on the PBS NewsHour. I’d never seen him as agitated and upset. I thought he might start crying — and who could blame him? And I was moved deeply by the African American scholar Eddie Glaude Jr. of Princeton University, who was interviewed earlier in the NewsHour by Amna Nawaz. I’ve embedded it above, and you should watch it all. Speaking of Floyd’s killing, Glaude closes with this:

He cried out for his mother. She’s been dead for two years. She’s been dead. He basically told someone to tell my kids that I love them, because I’m going to die. And that man, that moral monster kept his knee on his neck. I didn’t — I couldn’t process it. It broke me.

I’m currently reading John M. Barry’s “The Great Influenza,” his 2004 book about the deadly flu pandemic of 1918. You might think that wouldn’t be the most relaxing thing to curl up with in the midst of the current pandemic. But the 1918 flu eventually ended, which is a good reminder amid what seems like an endless tragedy.

Last week was the worst in our country’s history since 9/11. Before that, you’d have to go back to the war, assassinations and riots of 1968. Back then, our political leadership was not up to the task. Today, the president and his fellow Republicans are actively making things worse.

We have to hope that there will be better days ahead — and, to the extent that we can, work to make those better days happen.

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