Research ››› ››› DAYANITA RAMESH
Media figures criticized Fox News host Megyn Kelly for her “fluff” interview with Donald Trump during her Fox Broadcasting special, Megyn Kelly Presents.
Media figures criticized Fox News host Megyn Kelly for her “fluff” interview with Donald Trump during her Fox Broadcasting special, Megyn Kelly Presents.
NPR hosted a spokesperson from an extremist anti-LGBT legal group to react to the Obama administration’s recent guidance related to transgender students in public schools. NPR failed to identify the group, Alliance Defending Freedom, as anything other than a “faith-based legal group,” and allowed the spokesperson to spread anti-LGBT misinformation.
On May 12, The New York Times reported that the Obama administration planned to announce guidance directing all public schools to provide transgender students with access to sex-segregated facilities, such as restrooms and locker rooms, that are consistent with a student’s gender identity. On May 13, NPR’s national Morning Edition hosted attorney Matt Sharp from Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) to provide “reaction” to the guidance.
NPR described ADF as a “faith-based legal group” and as the legal powerhouse leading the national fight against transgender student rights. But host David Greene did not mention ADF’s well-documented history of anti-LGBT extremism.
ADF is a nonprofit with a $43-million-a-year budget that bills itself as working for the "right of people to freely live out their faith.” Much of ADF's "religious freedom" work, however, has consisted of anti-LGBT activism, including labeling the hate crime that led to the murder of gay University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard a hoax aimed at advancing the "homosexual agenda"; working internationally to criminalize gay sex; and creating its own “Day of Truth” to combat the “Day of Silence” -- a day meant to honor LGBT victims of bullying, harassment, and violence.
On Morning Edition, NPR allowed ADF attorney Sharp to spread misinformation about transgender people typical of anti-LGBT extremists. During the segment, Sharp repeatedly misgendered transgender girls, saying the directive allows “boys” into girls’ restrooms. Letting Sharp misgender transgender people isn’t just wrong -- it also helps spread the harmful anti-LGBT “bathroom predator” myth that legal protections for transgender people will cause men to sneak into women’s bathrooms and commit sexual assault. When media outlets have previously failed to debunk the rallying cry of “no men in women’s bathrooms,” anti-LGBT extremists were successful in defeating nondiscrimination ordinances.
NPR also allowed ADF to spread misinformation about the legal basis of the Obama administration’s directive, letting Sharp say that Title IX has “never been interpreted to include gender identity.” In fact, the Fourth Circuit, Sixth Circuit, and the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission have all ruled that Title IX’s protections on the basis of sex include gender identity.
NPR’s ombudsman has previously acknowledged that the media organization needs to “do a better job” of identifying anti-LGBT extremists. The NPR segment did feature Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, but only in a pre-recorded 15-second clip. ADF spokesperson Matt Sharp spoke largely uninterrupted for over 4 minutes. From NPR:
DAVID GREENE (Host): A letter is going out later today from the Obama administration to every school district in the country. It says schools must allow transgender students to use the bathroom that matches their gender identity. This move was quickly welcomed by Mara Keisling -- she’s the executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality. She says she hopes that parents can set their biases aside as the new rules are implemented.
MARA KEISLING: There’s all sorts of kinds of kids that other people’s parents don’t feel comfortable with. And that’s not how we decide who gets to learn safely in schools. All children get to learn safely in schools.
GREENE: And let’s hear another voice now. It’s Matt Sharp, he’s an attorney with the faith-based legal group Alliance Defending Freedom, which has opposed similar policies in public schools across the country. Mr. Sharp, good morning.
MATT SHARP: Thank you for having me.
GREENE: Well thanks for coming on the program, we appreciate it. Let me just ask you, I mean, the administration, this letter going out this morning, the real foundation of it is this federal law called Title IX that prohibits sex discrimination in schools. And the administration is saying this protects transgender people based on their gender identity. Tell me your reaction to that reading of the law.
SHARP: Well, it’s completely wrong. For over 40 years now, Congress and courts that have looked at Title IX have all consistently said Title IX was meant to combat sex discrimination. It’s never been interpreted to include gender identity, and so the idea was always to ensure equal opportunities for men and women. Importantly, Title IX was specifically written to protect student privacy. It allows schools to have separate restrooms and locker rooms and dormitories on the basis of sex. So what the Obama administration is doing here is essentially rewriting the law, ignoring Congress, ignoring the normal process they’re supposed to go through to force their agenda on schools across the country.
GREENE: Well what would you tell a family with a transgender child who identifies as a girl or a boy and believes that their girl or boy is going to school and deserves those protections under Title IX and believes very much in what the Obama administration is doing and wants their child to be protected and not discriminated against?
SHARP: Well their child should absolutely be protected against bullying, harassment or anything else. And we’ve seen schools across the country do a great job of protecting every student under their care. But part of protection is also protecting the right of privacy. And so we’re hearing from lots of students across the country and parents saying this violates our right to privacy when we’re forced to share locker rooms, showers, and restrooms with someone of the opposite sex. And so that’s actually what motivated I think over 130 parents and students in Chicago to actually sue the federal government because they came in and forced the school to open up their restrooms and locker rooms to the opposite sex.
GREENE: Can you understand though, that the families and parents of a transgender child who believes this is a delicate situation but that the rights of their child might be more important than sort of another child to sort of get used to a situation that he or she might find a little sensitive in a bathroom.
SHARP: Well, but it’s not about one student’s rights being more important than another. It’s about protecting every student’s rights to privacy. And so what we’ve seen schools do is offer accommodations to any student, including transgender students, that are not comfortable with communal restrooms, allowing them to use single-stall restrooms or what’s ever available, so that they’ve got a choice. But they also have a duty to protect every other student’s constitutional right to privacy, when the courts across the country have recognized is implicated when you have got restrooms and locker rooms, and why Title IX was drafted the way it is. So schools have to protect that. And what they’re trying to do is make sure that every student has a place where they can use the restroom, change and shower, and feel comfortable, without having to break down our traditions of having separate restrooms on the basis of biological sex.
GREENE: Let me just ask you, you’re representing 51 families in a school district in Illinois, which allows students to use bathrooms according to gender identity. And these families are fighting that policy. Can you tell me the story of just maybe one family and exactly, on a personal level, what they’re objecting to?
SHARP: Absolutely. And so we’ve got several families there that the Obama administration came in and forced the district 211 to allow a biological boy to the female’s restrooms. So these girls are telling stories about how when they’re in the locker room changing for PE, they’re now uncomfortable knowing that a boy can walk in at any time under the school’s new policy. They talk about how one girl in particular does not change out of her gym clothes but rather wears them all day long, wears them after going to gym after getting them dirty and nasty through PE class, and then just puts her clothes on top of it, because she’s so nervous about the possibility of having to change and shower and whatnot in front of this boy. And we hear stories like that across the country of these girls speaking out and saying, “Look, we don’t want this student to be bullied or harassed or anything. But we also just want our privacy protected. And we just want to know that when we go into these lockers and shower rooms, that we’re not going to be forced to share it with someone of the opposite biological sex.” That’s all these girls are asking for.
GREENE: Matt Sharp is an attorney with Alliance Defending Freedom, a faith-based legal advocacy group.
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Fusion: "The Republican Party, 162, Has Died"
Hispanic media and Latino journalists reacted to the news that Donald Trump is the GOP’s presumptive presidential nominee by noting that Trump's anti-immigrant vitriol has made it extremely challenging for the businessman to get the Latino vote he needs in the general election.
The American Family Association Has Been Designated An Anti-LGBT “Hate Group” By The SPLC
Major news outlets have largely failed to identify the American Family Association (AFA) -- the group organizing a boycott of Target over its transgender inclusive restroom policy -- as an anti-LGBT "hate group," often only referring to the group as a "Christian" or "conservative" organization.
NPR’s Weekend Edition Sunday hosted an attorney with Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) to discuss two recently passed anti-LGBT laws in North Carolina and Mississippi. NPR did not disclose ADF’s history of extreme anti-LGBT legal work or push back against the group's mischaracterization of protections for transgender people.
On the April 10 edition of NPR’s Weekend Edition Sunday, host Rachel Martin invited ADF attorney Matt Sharp to discuss the passage of state anti-LGBT legislation, including a North Carolina law that repealed the city of Charlotte's nondiscrimination ordinance protecting LGBT people.
Martin described ADF as “an organization that backs religious freedom laws,” but didn't mention the group's history of anti-LGBT extremism, including promoting the criminalization of homosexuality and describing the anti-gay murder of Matthew Shepard as a hoax.
During the segment, Sharp falsely claimed that the North Carolina law was passed to repeal ordinances that would allow “men to use the same restrooms as girls and women.” In reality, Charlotte's ordinance did not allow “men” to use women’s bathrooms but rather allowed transgender people to use the bathroom that matches their gender identity. Martin failed to push back against this mischaracterization, responding only that in women’s bathrooms around the world “there is no exposure to anyone’s biological anatomy” because of bathroom stalls:
RACHEL MARTIN (HOST): Can you explain what has been happening in North Carolina that you believe made this bill necessary?
MATT SHARP: The primary motivation was the city of Charlotte passing an ordinance that would have allowed, in all businesses and public schools and other facilities, men to use the same restrooms as girls and women. That's violating their right to privacy. And so the North Carolina legislature and governor, seeing this and the impact this was going to have, took steps to reverse this and to make sure that across the state no individual would ever have to give up their right to privacy and be forced to share the same facilities as someone of the opposite sex.
MARTIN: And I'm sorry to get into things that are so intimate, but it's an intimate law about very private issues. When you're going into a woman's bathroom, everywhere around the world, you go into stalls. So there is no exposure to anyone's biological anatomy.
Sharp continued to provide misinformation, falsely claiming that Mississippi's new "religious freedom" law, which has been called the “most sweeping anti-LGBT” legislation in the U.S., is "in no way ... meant to allow the LGBT community to be denied goods and services." In fact, the bill does allow the denial of goods and services, as well as allowing medical professionals to refuse necessary treatment for LGBT people and employers to establish sex-specific standards regarding dress and bathroom use. The bill also allows state employees to refuse to provide services involved in “authorizing or licensing legal marriages.”
This isn't the first time NPR has given an uncritical platform to an anti-LGBT extremist. In December, NPR's Diane Rehm admitted that her program had erred in failing to properly identify an anti-gay hate group fellow from the Family Research Council, saying, “We have to do a better job of being more careful about identification.”
NPR’s Peter Overby highlighted new analysis from Public Citizen pointing out that presidential candidates on both sides of the aisle “have raised a combined total of around $1 billion,” but that out of 1,000 debate questions and 21 debates so far in this campaign, only 15 questions related to political money have been asked and none addressed “candidates' views of the system or ways they would change it.”
Despite polls showing Americans overwhelmingly disapprove of the post-Citizens United campaign finance landscape, most news outlets still provide little coverage of the current impact of money in politics and possibilities for campaign finance reform. A lack of questions on campaign finance reflect a larger trend of debate moderators not asking about substantive issues or policies, such as the impact of -- or plans to combat -- climate change.
In an April 8 article, Overby quotes Public Citizen’s Congress Watch director Lisa Gilbert saying, “There's a disconnect between voters and the media, who are not paying attention to something that's front-and-center for most Americans as never before. They're unwilling to press the candidates on solutions":
The politicians who would be president have a lot to say about money, at least when they're soliciting it.
They and their sidekick superPACs have raised a combined total of around $1 billion, according to NPR calculations from data compiled by the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.
But when it's time for a TV debate, the candidates aren't so eager to expound on their fundraising, the big donors they court for superPACs, or the legal rulings that give the wealthy more avenues for giving.
A new analysis by the liberal advocacy group Public Citizen finds that Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump accounted for 92 percent of all commentary about political money and special interests in the 21 presidential primary debates through March 24.
The analysis, called The Elephant in the Room, also found that Sanders, Clinton and Trump were also the only candidates to talk about repairing a campaign finance system that has unexpectedly become a flashpoint for voter anger in this election cycle.
Public Citizen criticizes the debate questioners. In the 21 debates, they asked about political money in 15 of more than 1,000 questions. The analysis found no questions on candidates' views of the system or ways they would change it.
Lisa Gilbert, director of Public Citizen's Congress Watch, said she was surprised that the candidates and questioners made only 13 mentions of Citizens United, the 2010 Supreme Court ruling that has come to represent the surge in big-dollar politics.
"There's a disconnect between voters and the media, who are not paying attention to something that's front-and-center for most Americans as never before," she said. "They're unwilling to press the candidates on solutions."
Republican lawyer Miguel Estrada dismissed the claims from discredited right-wing organization Judicial Crisis Network (JCN) that Supreme Court nominee Judge Merrick Garland's judicial record indicates a "bias against Second Amendment rights."
In a March 27 NPR story that refuted activists' criticisms of Garland's judicial record, Estrada -- who was nominated by President George W. Bush to the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia -- explained that "the evidence that is being cited for the accusation that Judge Garland has some bias against Second Amendment rights is from thin to non-existent."
The "evidence" dismissed by Estrada as "thin to non-existent" originated from the Judicial Crisis Network, which has been making this false charge against Garland since March 11, before he was nominated by President Obama, claiming that Garland's vote to rehear a 2007 case on handgun restrictions indicates he "has a very liberal view on gun rights."
However, Garland was joined in his vote by the very conservative Judge A. Raymond Randolph, and legal scholars have explained that reading anti-gun bias in this vote by Garland is a "dangerous" assumption.
As Estrada explained to NPR, voting to rehear a case does not indicate a judge's view of the merits of the case, but rather "the rules say that the full court may wish to rehear the case itself when the case raises a question, and I quote, 'of exceptional importance.'"
[C]onservative activists see Garland's record as tilting distinctly to the left. The Judicial Crisis Network has already spent $4 million on TV and radio advertisements in 10 states insisting that he "would be the tie-breaking vote for Obama's big government liberalism."
Proving some of these assertions, however, can be difficult.
"The evidence that is being cited for the accusation that Judge Garland has some bias against Second Amendment rights is from thin to non-existent," says Miguel Estrada, a conservative Republican lawyer whose own nomination to the D.C. Circuit was stalled by Democrats during the George W. Bush administration.
Estrada notes that the charge that Garland is hostile to gun rights stems from a case challenging the District of Columbia's ban on handguns. In 2007, a three-judge panel -- not including Garland -- ruled for the first time that there is a constitutional right to own guns for self-defense. Afterward, Garland was one of four judges, including a conservative Reagan appointee, who voted for the full court to rehear the case.
Estrada explains that "the rules say that the full court may wish to rehear the case itself when the case raises a question, and I quote, 'of exceptional importance.' "
The gun rights case certainly was of exceptional importance, he said, since no court of appeals had ever before ruled that there was an individual right to own a gun. Ultimately, Estrada notes, the Supreme Court, too, thought the case was of exceptional importance, since it agreed to review the lower court decision and, in a landmark opinion, sustained it.
On March 16, President Obama announced his nomination of Judge Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court. Before the nomination, Media Matters explained how right-wing media would respond: by following their deceptive conservative playbook against the nominee, regardless of who it was. And that's exactly what they did. Right-wing media resurrected the same tired tactics they've used before to oppose Obama's judicial nominees -- distorting the nominee's record to push alarmist rhetoric, purposefully taking past statements out of context, and lobbing attacks based on the nominee's race, gender, or religion. In the last week, we've already seen many of these plays put into action, with conservative media predictably propping up dishonest talking points and false claims dedicated to obstruction.
The discredited conservative group Judicial Crisis Network (JCN) -- known as the Judicial Confirmation Network during the Bush administration, but now committed to opposing Obama judicial nominations -- has led the way in fearmongering around "one more liberal justice," attempting to re-cast Garland's record as that of an anti-gun, job-killing judicial extremist.
JCN began its misinformation campaign well before Garland's March 16 nomination, pushing myths about the records of several potential nominees at the National Review's Bench Memos legal blog, in press statements and attack ads, and in media appearances by JCN chief counsel Carrie Severino. On March 11, Severino authored a post on the Bench Memos blog attempting to smear Garland as "very liberal on gun rights" by grossly distorting actions he took on two cases pulled from his nearly two decades of judicial service, one of which did not even concern the Second Amendment. Severino cited Garland's 2007 vote to rehear a case on D.C.'s handgun ban and his 2000 ruling in a case related to the national background check system for gun purchases to draw this baseless conclusion. But she failed to note crucial context -- voting to rehear a case in what's called an en banc review does not indicate how a judge might theoretically rule, and in both cases, Garland either acted in agreement with colleagues or other courts across the ideological spectrum. Veteran Supreme Court reporters and numerous legal experts quickly and summarily debunked these misleading claims, but other right-wing outlets have further distorted them, and JCN has pushed the myths in subsequent attack ads and media appearances.
Following Garland's formal nomination, JCN released a series of "topline points" outlining its opposition, further misrepresenting Garland's guns record to falsely suggest he had "voted to uphold" D.C.'s handgun ban and "demonstrated a remarkable level of hostility to the Second Amendment," as well as contending Garland was "the sole dissenter in a 2002 case striking down an illegal, job-killing EPA regulation." Like its earlier attacks on Garland's supposedly "very liberal" guns record, JCN's newer claims about Garland's ruling in the 2002 EPA case also grossly distorted the facts.
Some mainstream outlets have uncritically echoed JCN's debunked "topline points" and attack ads on Garland's record, and these reports -- in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal, and on National Public Radio -- lend an air of undeserved legitimacy to the group's misinformation campaign against Garland.
National Review's Supreme Court coverage to date has continued its tradition of injecting context-free talking points into mainstream reporting on the nominee. Its legal blog, Bench Memos, has served as a testing ground for new smears against Garland, hosting several misinformation-filled posts from JCN's Severino that eventually made their way into mainstream reporting and broadcast coverage. In giving space for JCN and other right-wing legal pundits like contributor Ed Whelan to distort Garland's record, Bench Memos quickly made it clear that a lack of evidence is no reason to avoid making sweeping claims about the nominee.
Before Garland was nominated, National Review featured posts from both Severino and Whelan that attempted to smear several potential nominees. On March 7, Whelan questioned the intelligence of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson absent any evidence to suggest the accomplished federal judge was anything but qualified. That same day, Severino attempted to smear Judge Jane Kelly for fulfilling her constitutional duty of providing legal representation for an unsavory client while working as a public defender. In subsequent posts, Severino attacked Judges Sri Srinivasan and Paul Watford in a series aimed to undermine their reputations as "moderates" by misrepresenting a handful of their past decisions as "extremist."
Attacks on Garland, too, began before the March 16 nomination announcement; Severino's March 11 post on Bench Memos first floated what have since become widespread and false conservative talking points on Garland's record on guns. In the post, Severino claimed that Garland's vote to rehear a 2007 case related to the D.C. handgun ban and his joining of a ruling in a 2000 case related to the FBI's National Instant Criminal Background Check System for gun purchases together indicated "a very liberal approach" to the Second Amendment and a desire to overturn the 2008 Heller Supreme Court decision on the Second Amendment. These attacks, which legal experts quickly and repeatedly debunked, continue to pervade media coverage of opposition to Garland's nomination.
Fox News figures have predictably latched onto conservative talking points to oppose Garland, broadcasting already debunked claims about Garland's record.
On March 16, Bret Baier, host of Fox's Special Report With Bret Baier, claimed in an interview with White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest that Garland "opposed Justice Scalia's take on the Second Amendment in the Heller case," misrepresenting both Garland's 2007 vote to rehear the D.C. handgun case and the case's relationship to a Supreme Court decision issued the following year. On Fox's The O'Reilly Factor, host Bill O'Reilly further distorted JCN's talking point, incorrectly stating that Garland had "voted to keep the guns away" from private citizens in D.C., another claim about the Supreme Court nominee that PolitiFact labeled false.
As Media Matters warned, the National Rifle Association (NRA) quickly began pushing these right-wing media claims to justify its involvement in obstruction efforts and to fearmonger about Garland.
Immediately following Garland's nomination on March 16, the NRA declared him "bad on guns." In a series of tweets reacting to the nomination, the NRA linked to the debunked March 11 Severino post on Bench Memos to claim that Garland would "vote to reverse" the Heller decision, and a Washington Times article pushing the same discredited claims with quotes from Severino, a spokesperson from the opposition research group America Rising Squared, and the extremist group Gun Owners of America.
Later that day, the NRA formally announced its opposition to Garland's nomination. The move predictably mirrored the NRA's efforts to distort Sonia Sotomayor's record and to launch an unprecedented and largely ineffective ploy to threaten senators' records over their votes to confirm Sotomayor to the Supreme Court in 2009. Days later, the executive director of the NRA's Institute for Legislative Action explained the group's opposition in an op-ed in The Washington Post, regurgitating JCN's dishonest claims about Garland's 2007 en banc vote in the Parker case to fearmonger about the moderate judge.
The NRA's opposition to Garland helped elevate JCN's long-debunked talking points on Garland all the way to Senate Republicans leading the obstruction efforts. In a March 20 appearance on Fox News Sunday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) explicitly cited the NRA's opposition to Garland as a sticking point for ongoing Senate obstruction, explaining that he "can't imagine that a Republican majority in the United States Senate would want to confirm, in a lame duck session, a nominee opposed by the National Rifle Association."
Flashback: Republican Presidents Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush, And Richard Nixon Have All Been Photographed In Front Of Communist Leaders
Right-wing media rushed to attack President Obama over a photograph from his trip to Cuba in which he appears in Havana's Plaza de la Revolución, with a mural of Che Guevara visible in the background -- apparently forgetting that Republican Presidents Nixon, Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and George W. Bush have all been photographed in front of images of communist leaders while on trips abroad.
In the weeks leading up to the March 16 nomination of Judge Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court, media outlets uncritically featured discredited conservative group the Judicial Crisis Network (JCN) and its debunked talking points attacking Garland and other potential nominees. Following Garland's nomination, some mainstream outlets continue to credulously cite the group and its false claims, even though JCN has a history of injecting misinformation into judicial nomination fights.
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Media are lauding CNN and the Republican presidential candidates for a "surprisingly substantive" March 10 debate that "focused on jobs, the economy, education, Cuba, Israel and even ... climate change." Despite this praise, fact-checkers are pointing to the candidates' "bruised realities" and "wrong" policy claims, saying the "debate was very substantive. Too bad that substance was all wrong."
Media figures are spotlighting the contrast in Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump's various statements on the media and media processes. They note that days after Trump vowed to expand libel laws so it would be easier to sue the media, he claimed to have too much respect for the press and its off-the-record process to release the controversial record of an off-the-record meeting he had with The New York Times' editorial board.
Fifty Years Later, The "White Perspective" Still Dominates Media Coverage Of Race, Racism, And Violence
In 1967, responding to a number of riots in black neighborhoods of cities including Detroit, Los Angeles, and Chicago, President Lyndon Johnson convened an investigatory commission to figure out how and why the riots had occurred.
Seven months later, the commission published the informally named Kerner Report, spotlighting how institutional and explicit anti-black racism, police brutality, concentrated poverty, and political disenfranchisement had come together to spark the riots.
The report also strongly criticized major media's shoddy coverage of the riots, warning that a "significant imbalance" between reality and news reports of the riots was exacerbating the schism between the country's "two societies, one black, one white -- separate and unequal." The report concluded:
Along with the country as a whole, the press has too long basked in a white world, looking out of it, if at all, with white men's eyes and a white perspective. That is no longer good enough. The painful process of readjustment that is required of the American news media must begin now. They must make a reality of integration--in both their product and personnel. They must insist on the highest standards of accuracy--not only reporting single events with care and skepticism, but placing each event into meaningful perspective. They must report the travail of our cities with compassion and depth.
Fifty years later, mainstream media continues to be defined by the "white perspective" that the Kerner Report hoped to challenge. And the media circus that surrounded the protests against police brutality in Ferguson, MO, in August 2014 and Baltimore, MD, in April 2015 shows how little has changed in the broken way the mainstream media talks about race, violence, and systemic inequality.
The Kerner Report criticized media coverage of the 1967 riots for exaggerating the "scope and intensity of the disorders," which created "an impression at odds with the overall reality of events":
... there were instances of gross flaws in presenting news of the 1967 riots. Some newspapers printed scare headlines unsupported by the mild stories that followed. All media reported rumors that had no basis in fact.
This is not "just another story." It should not be treated like one. ... Reporters and editors must be sure that descriptions and pictures of violence, and emotional or inflammatory sequences or articles, even though "true" in isolation, are really representative and do not convey an impression at odds with the overall reality of events.
Following Michael Brown's high-profile death at the hands of police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, MO, and Freddie Gray's death while in the custody of Baltimore's police department, protests over the use of excessive police force and racial discrimination erupted. Though protesters clashed with police at times, the demonstrations largely consisted of civil rights leaders, activists, politicians, and residents coming together to mourn the injustices and raise awareness of the circumstances.
TV and print media flooded their coverage of the Baltimore and Ferguson unrest with incendiary imagery, misleadingly casting the demonstration sites as war zones. CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News rolled videos on loop of Baltimore buildings ablaze, police cars destroyed, and protesters in gas masks. Print newspapers led their front-page coverage with "fiery images of angry protesters attacking police vehicles, looting and burning buildings ... police in riot gear and tense moments between law enforcement and demonstrators," according to American Journalism Review. Online publications continuously posted incendiary pictures showing lawlessness and destruction.
(Photo courtesy of American Journalism Review)
But the sensationalized images that dominated cable and print media coverage of Baltimore and Ferguson painted a misleading picture of the crises there. As many commentators noted, the scenes in Baltimore and Ferguson were significantly calmer and less sensational than media watchers would likely have realized. ColorOfChange.org warned reporters covering Ferguson that "stories coming out of many major media outlets [painting] a picture of total lawlessness ... could not be further from the truth." The Daily Show also mocked the breathless media coverage of disorder in Baltimore.
Baltimore resident Danielle Williams also called out this type of selective reporting during an on-the-street interview with MSNBC's Thomas Roberts, saying "when we were out here protesting all last week for six days straight peacefully, there were no news cameras, there were no helicopters, there was no riot gear, and nobody heard us. So now that we've burned down buildings and set businesses on fire and looted buildings, now all of the sudden everybody wants to hear us."
Media also often printed exaggerated headlines that were unsubstantiated by the article body. An April 2015 Economist article describing the Baltimore protests was headlined "It's Chaos" and said the demonstrations were "best described not as a riot but as anarchy."
But the article noted that "few protesters or people [were] fighting the police or hurling stones" and that "people standing around [were] mostly taking photos on their phones." What was first labeled as "anarchy" was then chronicled as "groups of young men, boys really, wearing bandanas and hoodies ... staring at anyone passing, and occasionally throwing projectiles at cars."
Likewise, a Wall Street Journal article was headlined "Arrests in Baltimore as Freddie Gray Protests Turn Violent." But the piece mostly hyped what was otherwise non-violent protesting, including an "impromptu 'die-in'" and "a small group [throwing] cans and plastic bottles in the direction of police officers."
Newsrooms covering Baltimore and Ferguson also disseminated misinformation that often originated from local city and police department officials. On April 27, 2015, The Baltimore Sun reported that a mass police presence had been pre-emptively convened near a Baltimore mall because of a "flier that circulated widely" among students online advocating a "purge," referencing the 2013 movie The Purge that dramatized a night of lawlessness and anarchy.
After Baltimore students finished school and headed toward the mall, they were greeted by police in riot gear. Because of the purge rumors, the police allegedly shut down the subway and blocked buses from leaving, leaving hundreds of students on the streets unable to get home. A violent clash ensued. Baltimore Police Department Capt. Kowalczyk said the police would identify and arrest "lawless individuals with no regard" for safety.
But the purge rumor was immediately disputed. Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR) tried tracing The Baltimore Sun's account of the flier's distribution and said the evidence was "murky at best." FAIR noted how the Sun's shaky reporting ended up "creat[ing] a perception of actual danger that the proffered evidence doesn't substantiate." Mother Jones poked holes in the police's narrative that they responded to a "rumored plan" of students executing a purge, noting that "many of the kids, according to eyewitnesses, were stuck there because of police actions" -- not because they wanted to fight.
Such shoddy reporting does more than run counter to journalistic ethics and best practices. Back in 1968, the Kerner report said the commission was "deeply concerned that millions of Americans, who must rely on the mass media, ... formed incorrect impressions and judgments about what went on in many American cities."
The Kerner Commission also harangued media for failing to investigate how systemic and institutional racism contributed to the riots:
The media report and write from the standpoint of a white man's world. The ills of the ghetto, the difficulties of life there, the Negro's burning sense of grievance, are seldom conveyed.
The media--especially television--also have failed to present and analyze to a sufficient extent the basic reasons for the disorders. ... [C]overage during the riot period itself gives far more emphasis to control of rioters and black-white confrontation than to the underlying causes of the disturbances.
In 2014, Race Forward: The Center for Racial Justice Innovation analyzed over a thousand national and local newspapers articles and cable television news transcripts to determine what percentage of race and racism coverage was "systemically aware" -- meaning it "mentions or highlights policies and/or practices that lead to racial disparities; describes the root causes of disparities including the history and compounding effects of institutions; and/or describes or challenges the aforementioned."
The study concluded that "most of the mainstream media's racism content is not 'systemically aware,'" finding that "about two out of three articles on race and racism failed to include a perspective with any insight on systemic-level racism." It also concluded that "very rarely" did media "feature prominent, robust coverage of racial justice advocacy or solutions."
Media coverage of the events in Baltimore and Ferguson similarly failed to investigate the role systemic inequality and institutional racism played in creating unrest, denying audiences the ability to understand those news events in context.
A second Race Forward analysis examined media's race coverage specific to the Ferguson protests, seeking to determine "how much attention [race is] actually getting in the coverage."
The study found that media overwhelmingly failed to contextualize the Ferguson protests in a broader discussion of racist policing practices. The Race Forward report found that although nearly half of the articles included "terms such as 'race,' 'racial,' 'racism,' 'racist,' and 'diversity,'" "only 34 of 994 articles analyzed led with a minimally systemically aware perspective."
During a contentious interview with Fox's Sean Hannity, Adam Jackson, CEO of Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, explained how this kind of reporting skewed understandings of the protests in Baltimore:
ADAM JACKSON: The fundamental problem with the coverage of these stories is that it's mired with racist subterfuge, because to talk about the violence that's going on in Baltimore, and not talking about the systemic inequalities and racist policing practices that have led us to this point, it posits a situation where we're talking about either high violence in our communities or racist police when ... the task should be to fix both.
Following unrest in Ferguson after Darren Wilson was not indicted, NPR TV critic Eric Deggans noted that cable news coverage of Brown's death had largely avoided a broader discussion of systemic issues like "poverty, urban gangs, aggressive drug enforcement and more":
[T]ackling a difficult story about race in a panel debate format doesn't serve the issue and distracts from the serious questions at hand. It only serves television news networks' need for conflict among well-known opinionators.
Trying to talk about systemic racial issues during a crisis is always much harder.
The Kerner Commission also attributed media's distorted race coverage to a lack of diversity in the newsroom:
The journalistic profession has been shockingly backward in seeking out, hiring, training, and promoting Negroes.
If the media are to report with understanding, wisdom and sympathy on the problems of cities and problems of the black man -- for the two are increasingly intertwined -- they must employ, promote and listen to Negro journalists.
The lack of newsroom diversity is just as germane and dire in 2015 as it was nearly 50 years ago. In 1967, "fewer than 5 percent of the people employed by the news business" were black, according to the Kerner Report. In 2015, 4.74 percent of newspaper employees were black, according to the latest data from the American Society of News Editors. Since 2000, the number of black journalists in newspaper newsrooms -- including supervisors, copy editors, producers, reporters, and photographers -- has dropped 52.3 percent.
Some media leaders have sought to justify, or at least explain, these dismal numbers on newsroom diversity. Former Slate editor David Plotz said the recession caused newsrooms to go into "survival mode" and prioritize "saving ... jobs" over ensuring diversity. NYMag.com's Ben Williams said, "It's well-established that, in part due to economic reasons, not enough 'diverse' candidates enter journalism on the ground floor to begin with. So the biggest factor in improving newsroom diversity is getting more non-white male employees into the profession to begin with."
But these arguments and others that invoke a so-called pipeline problem are "hollow," in the words of the Kerner Report. "The number of minorities graduating from journalism programs and applying for jobs doesn't seem to be the problem after all," Alex Williams wrote for the Columbia Journalism Review in 2015. According to his study, non-white graduates who "specialized in print or broadcasting" were 17 percent less likely to be hired by print and broadcast journalism organizations than non-minorities. "The problem," he wrote, "is that these candidates are not being hired."
The Kerner Report determined that the sweeping failure of media's race coverage in the 1960s had fostered a far-reaching sentiment of "distrust" in the black community for the media:
[Persons interviewed] believe ... that the media are instruments of the white power structure. They think that these white interests guide the entire white community, from the journalists' friends and neighbors to city officials, police officers, and department store owners.
Fifty years later, similar distrust of mainstream news media persists. A September 2014 survey by the American Press Institute found that 75 percent of African-Americans thought the press accurately portrayed African-American people and issues "moderately," "slightly," or "not at all." The authors posited that the "news ecosystem itself" -- one where the black community has scant access to black-centered news sources -- "is uneven, potentially creating uneven perceptions."
Another survey, by the Pew Research Center, found that nearly 60 percent of African-Americans "say that news coverage of blacks is generally too negative." Conversely, 75 percent said coverage of whites was "too positive" or "generally fair." And a majority of African-Americans said the "amount of coverage news organizations give to race relations" is "too little."
The media's flawed race coverage has real consequences. The Kerner Report warned, "If what the white American reads in the newspapers or sees on television conditions his expectation of what is ordinary and normal in the larger society, he will neither understand nor accept the black American." Today's flawed reporting continues to pose an obstacle to educating broader audiences about the realities of racial injustice, police brutality, and systemic inequality.
The media hasn't always provided such skewed coverage of race, racism, and violence. During the 1950s and 1960s, the press played a key role in bringing to light the systematic discrimination of black Americans, helping to galvanize widespread reform.
As detailed in Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff's book The Race Beat, a history of reporting during the Civil Rights era, Gunnar Myrdal, a Swedish economist and sociologist sent by the Carnegie Corporation to the American South, reported in the 1940s that the plight of black Americans could be improved only if white Americans in the North became aware of their struggle. Consequently, Myrdal wrote in the book An American Dilemma, "the future of race relations ... rested largely in the hands of the American press" exposing these racial crises.
As the civil rights movement swept the nation, the press listened. Roberts and Klibanoff explained that the way the white press reported on race conspicuously improved over the next two decades, with newspapers opening new bureaus in the South, assigning full-time staff to cover the movement, and hiring black reporters. Rep. John Lewis (D-GA), a prominent civil rights leader during the time, told the authors, "If it hadn't been for the media -- the print media and television -- the civil rights movement would have been like a bird without wings, a choir without a song."
But when the demonstrations turned violent in the latter half of the 1960s, the authors write, the improvements in coverage slipped away. Whereas "white journalists" reporting on civil rights in the South "were threatened by white mobs and found safety in black neighborhoods," the journalists investigating rioting in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles in 1965 "fled black mobs" and reported on the strife "from a distance, from outside the ghetto looking in." As the riots raged on, according to the book, black people saw the news "portray[ing] the militancy of black power" and "'simplistically' focusing on the violence and mayhem of the riots" without examining the underlying problems, leading to the problems detailed by the Kerner Commission and the way the media continues to report on race now.
Fifty years ago, the Kerner Report urged the American media to begin the "painful process" of fixing its racial justice reporting. The fact that its criticisms are still so pertinent, and the historical example of responsible reporting throughout the civil rights movement, point to the need for higher standards in accurate, appropriate, and inclusive race coverage.