I sometimes get the impression that there is a “Journalism World,” with its own variation on how the world works, on how the government ought to do things, and on what it means for justice to be served. In my mind’s eye, Journalism World might look a bit like the West Wing, but it’s probably closer to the Newsroom. Aaron Sorkin serves as a good touchstone here – his notions of how the progressive version of events will simply win out in the end is as much fantasy as is Tolkien’s view on the virtue of certain bloodlines.
The problem, then, is that Journalism World is putting a special lens over current events, as they are beamed into our homes via television and internet (and newspapers, for those of us into such cultural fossils). Journalism World, filled with its bright young things, out to change the world, and their ears whispered into by advocacy groups of all the appropriate stripes, gives us the news as it is evaluated by the Upper West Side of New York City. When this point of view collides with a different paradigm, say, the legal system, it creates unrest. The magnificent certainty in their opinions makes it hard for journalists to reconcile when the version of events they have presented does not produce the end they have envisioned: racist cops hauled away, the confession from the witness stand, Republicans hanging their heads in shame at their lack of love for the country and its forgotten populations.
Journalism World has had its world rocked three times recently: twice in court and once by those they thought were part of the tribe. These events not only cast a light on how journalists can frame a story, but also are indicative of the deleterious effect that such framing can have in establishing expectations. Both the Michael Brown and Eric Gardner cases were presented to the public as affairs that confirmed all the traditional biases: the racism inherent in America (especially in law enforcement, and most especially in southern law enforcement), economic injustice, and how the court system could serve as a bulwark against such abuses.
These notions ran smack into one of the fundamental premises of the American judicial system: it privileges the rights of the accused. The presumption of innocence and the standard of proving guilt beyond a reasonable doubt both attest to the fact that our courts are set up in favor of the accused. Victims’ Right advocates have been fighting uphill against this for years and legislators have largely responded by increasing penalties, a move that does nothing to readjust the balance of privilege. This has further significance when we start talking about sexual assault (more on that and UVA in a minute), but it matters here because of the expectations that news reporting creates.
We might have expected that journalists may have begun taking a more nuanced look at the Michael Brown case when the video came out of him robbing a store. We might have hoped for better expectation management when the Department of Justice said they probably didn’t have a civil rights case against Darren Wilson. Even now, when no indictment is forthcoming, riots have ensued and demands for “Justice” have been heard from all of the usual corners. It’s that word, Justice, that we need to talk about.
Words Mean Things, and Justice has to mean something when we use it. For too many people in too many positions, from which they are able to pontificate to the masses, Justice means that the thing they don’t like is liquidated. For our Criminal Justice System, it means that the rules are followed to produce a decision based on all of the available evidence. The people with the most comprehensive view of what happened in Ferguson are the people who sat on that Grand Jury, and they decided there was insufficient evidence to even charge Officer Wilson with a crime. We can argue over the amount of latitude granted to police in the discharge of their duties, or even how we define the particulars of different criminal acts, but calling the matter a miscarriage of justice is ignorant – if I tell Stephen Hawking that his theories are all wrong because I read the Wikipedia page, I don’t deserve to be taken seriously.
The Eric Garner case becomes more difficult for a lot of the reasons the Rodney King case was a problem: the images. For my money, even I can’t figure out how you watch that video and conclude that the acts of the police did not reach New York’s definition of Second-Degree Manslaughter, but I haven’t heard all of the evidence or even seen the entire video. Journalism World presents us not only with events, but with what to think about them. When someone reaches different conclusions, they are usually vilified. If those conclusions have some impact on the outcome of events, that’s when anger starts to bubble out.
Perhaps it was these events that led the Washington Post to dig a little deeper into Rolling Stone’s depiction of a gang rape at the University of Virginia. Certainly, Richard Bradley, who got burned so badly by Stephen Glass, was inclined to approach any story with skepticism. But again, Journalism World fell back on two elements, one of which they still cling to. The first was that the story fit an archetype they believe in: white men of privilege as predators. The other is that the story spoke to a deeper truth than the narrative: the truth of rape culture on college campuses and in America. It is this second idea that they cling to, even as the story that supported this notion comes unraveled. I have a question: how many people did this story go through that never asked the same questions Bradley and other critics asked immediately after the story was published?
1) How did someone put through a glass table not end up in the hospital?
2) How does something as horrific as a gang-rape-as-initiation remain a secret in a large organization?
3) Has there ever been a friend, ever, that argued for someone to keep their mouth shut about being violated to protect the image of a university?
Even UVA’s president had to get in on the action, declaring that, regardless of the veracity of the story, that we had started a “conversation” was the most important aspect of these events. Indeed, that word – “conversation” – has become a touchstone as the wider world has proven to have higher standards of proof than that a story “feels right.” But even the advocacy groups should realize that this is doing them a disservice, for such conversations will start from a place that puts them on the back foot. “Cops are racists who murder black men,” except for this case that got the conversation started. “White boys of privilege are rapists,” except for these young men, who have no doubt been treated with the greatest of discretion while Rolling Stone printed a story that does not appear to be true.
The problem is that no one wants to appear to be supporting or defending racists or rapists. As a result, accusations become condemnation. If I defend an accused rapist, I’m a misogynist and a barbarian. If I question the veracity of a victim’s story, I’m a troglodyte from another era. Imagine what happens if that person is then found guilty.
Except that rapists and racists have one great defender when accused of a crime: that aforementioned justice system, privileging the rights of the accused. For every journalist that presumes that Darren Wilson went hunting black men, there is a court of law that presumes he is innocent of wrongdoing. This is the biggest hurdle that trying someone in the court of public opinion must overcome, and a possibly compelling argument to stop trying to do so.
All of these stories lead me to think about a story that is still in the news: the accusers of Bill Cosby. I read an article, in which a pair of journalists bemoaned the terrible things this story was doing to their psyche because of the damage to their relationship with a man who had been a role model and father figure when they were growing up. Even now, Journalism World leaves no room for a presumption of innocence. Some have argued that the sheer number of accusers is indicative that Cosby is guilty, whereas I might argue that the instant fame granted to an accuser, not to mention Gloria Allred talking in your ear about multi-million dollar paydays, might be worth a reasonable doubt or two. But in Journalism World, it’s all but decided, with Cosby appearing on magazine covers with headlines about what he’s hiding.
We built and reinforced a justice system that ensured, for a long time, that the mere accusation of impropriety could not destroy a person. Journalism World is, bit by bit, destroying that system. The rules of the criminal justice system only serve to create an impression of injustice when juxtaposed against the presumed guilt of those who have run afoul of the media. In terms of managed expectations, I would recommend planning on more riots.