In the midst of a nationwide debate over the causes of recent upticks in some violent crime, CNN and MSNBC have been playing into the right-wing narrative that rhetoric about “defunding the police” is to blame. In reality, experts say the true causes of this trend won’t be known for years -- but the cable networks are already fueling this conservative claim by adapting right-wing framing of the issue and hosting a notable number of current and former police officers to push the narrative without challenge.
Over the past year, the overall national crime rate has shown noticeable drops, with offenses like property crime and robberies being reported at lower rates. The rate of violent crime -- notably homicide -- has increased in many major cities, but no single factor has been identified as the root cause. Experts say it is likely that the COVID-19 pandemic, poverty, and dramatic increases in gun sales have all played a part in the current climate. Furthermore, there has been no credible evidence that rhetoric or actions related to police reforms are directly linked to these trends.
There are indeed a few cities which have cut from police budgets to add funding for mental health, homelessness, and disenfranchised communities. However, there is no credible direct link between those changes to police budgets and rising crime rates in any city. And as the Chicago Tribune noted, homicides are also rising in cities like Houston and Nashville where police spending budgets have actually increased over the past year.
Right-wing media outlets have been driving the charge on linking calls to defund the police with the rise in crime in U.S. cities. Fox News has been one of the more vocal critics of the slogan, tying it to violent attacks in major cities. Fringe right-wing websites like the Gateway Pundit regularly feature articles making similar connections, with salacious headlines such as “Crime soaring in left-wing cities that defunded the police.”
Although other news outlets have reported that there's no evidence linking efforts to defund police to some of the recent increases in reported crime, some network personalities and guests on both CNN and MSNBC have echoed their right-wing media counterparts to perpetuate the idea that there is a direct correlation.
Cable programs are hosting a number of current and former police officers to push right-wing talking points about police reform and crime
According to Media Matters' internal database of cable news programming, CNN and MSNBC together brought on current or former law enforcement officials at least 38 times to discuss the current “crime wave” or criminal justice and police reform in June.
CNN's and MSNBC’s coverage of crime over the past month has been a welcome space for law enforcement, often relying on their perspective to inform reporting and framing. One example of this was on June 22, when CNN anchor Jim Sciutto documented a ride-along he did with the New York Police Department, highlighting the views of cops who said that they had never seen crime “quite like this” in the city. By largely relying on one point of view from officers themselves, these channels are continuing a pattern of allowing law enforcement to dictate coverage -- even though there have been many notable examples of police leading the media astray.
- On June 22, CNN’s New Day hosted William Bratton, former New York City Police commissioner and a “stop-and-frisk” proponent, who claimed that the idea of “defunding the police” will not work because it will lead to an increase in the number of “homeless” and “emotionally disturbed” people on the streets. Anchor John Berman responded that “one issue that may be approachable” and “achievable” is increased training of police, seemingly agreeing with Bratton’s point that defunding the police won’t work.
- MSNBC’s Morning Joe also hosted Bratton, who called the idea of defunding police “foolishness” and said that the priority should instead be to “re-fund the police.” Co-anchor Willie Geist did not challenge the statement but instead allowed contributor Al Sharpton to move on to discuss recent police reform legislation.
- After CNN anchor Paula Newton stated in a June 26 segment that the U.S. “needs police protection perhaps more than it ever has,” former Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey said that it is “not the time to defund or think that you can get rid of the police” due to “a crisis” of “violent crime in cities across America.” Newton ended the conversation after that, failing to question Ramsey on any of those points.
- MSNBC’s Geoff Bennett allowed Carmen Best, former chief of police for the Seattle Police Department, to baselessly argue that there is a direct correlation between the recent rise in some crime and reform efforts, including calls to defund the police, without pushback. Bennett did not address these claims, instead moving on to the next guest.
- MSNBC anchor Stephanie Ruhle hosted Michel Moore, the former chief of the Los Angeles Police Department who notably laid equal blame on protesters and police officers for George Floyd’s death. During the June 23 segment, Moore claimed that the “mean words” of the defund the police movement have led to a morale crisis in police departments, and thus fewer people would want to join the force. Ruhle responded that “good policing is going to keep our cities safe,” allowing Moore to scapegoat efforts to defund police for low morale.
Some network figures themselves have adopted right-wing framing about “defund the police”
Bad-faith rhetoric around defunding efforts has also bled into comments from network anchors and contributors.
- After co-anchor Willie Geist described President Joe Biden’s plan to give more money to police an effort to “support police and to make them better,” MSNBC senior contributor Mike Barnicle connected an American epidemic of an “ocean of guns” on the street to police reform efforts, calling to “fund the police, not defund the police.”
- In a June 23 segment, MSNBC’s Kasie Hunt adopted right-wing rhetoric in her question to White House senior adviser Cedric Richmond, asking whether “the defund the police movement ... has anything to do with the rise in crime?”
- That same day, CNN anchor Don Lemon questioned Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-MA) over her support for defunding the police, asking if it is the “right message for where we are right now” when there have been increases in violent crime.
- Speaking on the June 29 edition of Don Lemon Tonight, CNN senior political commentator John Kasich claimed that police “need [to be] bucked up a little bit in this country” because officers “feel they are not getting the support” amid talk of defunding or cutting police budgets.
- After Lemon brought up increased numbers of gunshot victims in Minneapolis this year at a time when “there are fewer cops on the street,” guest Sondra Samuels claimed that “the very people we want to protect from the police are the ones who are being most harmed by this defund rhetoric.”
- While discussing current crime trends in the city, MSNBC’s Morning Joe used an image from protests in April 2015 following the death of Baltimore man Freddie Gray in police custody. The segment also used the chyron “Baltimore police reforms put to the test as crime rises.” (Using outdated and sensationalized B-roll footage to accompany stories about crime is also a favorite tactic at Fox News.)
The term “defund the police,” which achieved mass familiarity after it became a rallying cry during protests over the police murder of George Floyd last year, has been part of the criminal justice reform discourse dating back to the early 1900s, when activists such as W.E.B. DuBois and Ida B. Wells wrote about police oppression and discrimination in Black communities.
Furthermore, there is no evidence suggesting that continuing to increase police monitoring and activity in communities will lead to any significant reduction in crime.
But by glossing over the history and intentions of the movement, misrepresenting the causes of recent crime trends, and leaning heavily on the police perspective, some at CNN and MSNBC are already helping the right scapegoat a movement that, at its core, is trying to fix the issues of brutality and violence that have been central to American policing since its inception.