Trump-ally Michael Savage compares refugees and immigrants to lions “tearing the entrails out through the anus”
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Once again, cable news largely failed to present diverse voices when reporting on the ongoing health care debate, missing an opportunity, yet again, to inform audiences of the personal cost millions of Americans will incur if Republicans pass their bills into law.
Over six weeks after the House of Representatives passed the American Health Care Act (AHCA) on May 4, Senate Republicans finally publicly introduced their health care proposal on June 22. The Senate committee that drafted the bill was roundly criticized for its “almost-unprecedented opacity” and lack of diversity. Leading up to that introduction, cable news coverage of the bill didn’t fare much better. And when cable news did cover the bill prior to its release, the guests were almost always white men.
The day the Senate Republicans released the bill, cable news figures had an opportunity to redeem themselves. Sadly, they did not rise to the challenge:
It is necessary to include diverse voices in discussions about a bill with such dire consequences. African-Americans, Hispanics, Asian-Americans, women and low-income people greatly benefited from the Affordable Care Act and stand to lose disproportionately if it is rolled back. Diversifying the discussion on cable news will help bring needed attention to the devastating harm that will occur if the Republican bills become law.
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Forney has previously worked for holocaust deniers, declared “everyone hates blacks,” and claimed women “want” to be “raped”
Can't wait to see y'all Sunday! Rally Against Leftist Violence 12:00-3:00PM. White House. MAJOR names. EXCITING prizes. FUN surprises. pic.twitter.com/9kXbBxwSEu
— Lucian B. Wintrich (@lucianwintrich) June 22, 2017
“Special guest” Matt Forney is a white nationalist previously employed by Red Ice Radio, an anti-semitic online media outlet that promotes Holocaust denialism. Red Ice Radio has previously promoted YouTube videos with titles including “Eric Hunt - The Shoah: The Biggest Hoax of the 20th Century?,” “Ole Dammegard - Making Critical Thinking Illegal: Questioning the Holocaust,” and “David Cole - The Truth Behind the Gates of Auschwitz.”
Prior to his upcoming appearance at the “Rally Against Leftist Violence,” Forney described the children of interracial marriages as “almost always fucked in the head,” claimed “we need strict black control and Muslim control,” claimed “Mexicans are a fifth column in the U.S.,” and declared “Let’s just be honest: everyone hates blacks.” Forney has additionally claimed “Jews support gun control because their limp wrists make it impossible for them to shoot straight.”
Furthermore, Forney has said women “want” to be “raped” and “beat[en]”, and claimed "Blacks do nothing but murder cops, rob and rape people, and bring death and destruction wherever they go.” In a profile in Slate, Michelle Goldberg wrote that Forney said “he’s been gratified by the way the Donald Trump campaign has made his views less taboo.”
UPDATE: Wintrich is disavowing responsibility for the "flyer" and claims that he posted it without reservation because it has "the correct time/place."
If folks want to troll by designing our flyers I'm all for it as long as they have the correct time/place.
— Lucian B. Wintrich (@lucianwintrich) June 22, 2017
On June 23, Forney posted a YouTube stream with homophobic attacks where he stated that Wintrich had promoted a "joke flyer," clarified that he thinks feminists "want women to be raped," and criticized the current in-fighting and divisions occuring in the "alt-right."
As Senate Republicans face mounting criticism for including almost exclusively white men in their working group on the upcoming health care bill, media aren’t doing much better when discussing the legislation. Like the GOP, media are relying on mainly white people, particularly men, for their analysis and reporting on the health care bill, even though the bill would reportedly have serious consequences for women and minorities.
Shortly after the House of Representatives passed its version of the American Health Care Act (AHCA), Senate Republicans put together a working group to draft their own version of the legislation. The working group was roundly criticized for its lack of diversity. For instance, CNN’s Erin Burnett took issue with the all-male group, asking, “What can they realistically bring to the table when the conversation turns to, let’s just say, childbirth, maternity leave, ovarian cancer or breast cancer?” Likewise, Roll Call’s Patricia Murphy wrote that adding diverse voices to the group would allow people to “bring their own personal experiences to the debate,” noting that African-Americans have “a higher incidence of chronic disease” and are “more likely to require ongoing medical interventions over the course of their lives.”
Unfortunately, if people are hoping to hear a diverse group of people discussing the health care bill, media are of little help. A Media Matters analysis found that the people hosted on television to discuss the bill were disproportionately white men. Key findings include:
Of the 448 guest appearances* on prime-time cable news, broadcast morning and nightly news shows, and Sunday morning political shows, 392 appearances, or over 87 percent, were made by white guests.
During Fox News and CNN’s prime-time coverage of the health care bill, white guests made up over 90 percent of total guest appearances:
CBS hosted only white guests to discuss the bill during its morning and nightly news shows:
During Fox News Sunday and Meet the Press’s coverage of the health care bill, over 90 percent of appearances were made by white guests:
Of the 448 guest appearances* on prime-time cable news, broadcast news’ morning and nightly shows, and Sunday morning political shows, 299 were made by men, meaning two-thirds of the voices viewers heard were male.
During prime-time cable news, Fox News was the network that fared the worst on gender diversity:
During broadcast morning and nightly news shows, CBS was the only network to host more women than men to discuss the bill:
On the Sunday political shows, men outnumbered women 2-to-1, but some shows fared better than others. NBC’s Meet the Press was the closest to having equal representation, while ABC’s This Week had the highest gender imbalance:
Sadly, the groups that have been marginalized by Senate Republicans and television news have a lot to lose with the AHCA. As FamiliesUSA noted, the Affordable Care Act (ACA) “greatly benefited Black communities, who are likely to disproportionately suffer the consequences of ACA repeal and the elimination of Medicaid as we know it” under the AHCA. And, as The Hill pointed out, “Hispanics benefited more than any other group from the Affordable Care Act,” and under the AHCA, “Many Hispanic leaders are worried their communities could be forced out of coverage and back into emergency rooms for primary care.” Additionally, groups fighting for the rights of Asian Americans have condemned the AHCA for the harm it would cause.
Women also have much to lose if the AHCA passes the Senate. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, cuts to Medicaid would drastically hurt women who “comprise the majority of Medicaid beneficiaries.” The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) predicted that about 15 percent of low-income people “would lose access to care” under the AHCA due to the defunding of Planned Parenthood. And, as Marie Claire pointed out:
For women who let their insurance lapse, maternity coverage will no longer be guaranteed, and pregnant women may face surcharges up to $17,000 for care. C-sections could also be considered a pre-existing condition, meaning that a woman could incur costs of roughly $50,000 for simply wanting another child. States could determine that having a heavy period or other menstrual irregularities is a pre-existing condition to be paid for out of pocket.
The Republican health care bill presents a clear and present danger to millions of Americans, but minorities and women have the most to lose. Unfortunately, they’re nearly shut out of discussions about the bill, in politics and media alike.
* Repeated guests were counted each time they appeared.
Media Matters searched Nexis for mentions of health care, the Affordable Care Act, Obamacare, the American Health Care Act, or AHCA on prime-time cable news, broadcast news’ morning and evening news shows, and Sunday political shows between May 4 (after the House of Representatives passed the bill) and June 18. Segments were coded if they included a significant discussion of the Republican health care bill. “Significant discussion” was defined as at least two speakers in the segment engaging on the topic with one another.
Prime-time cable news refers to CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC programming between 5 p.m. and 11 p.m. on weekdays. Broadcast news refers to ABC’s Good Morning America and World News Tonight, CBS’ CBS This Morning and CBS Evening News, and NBC’s Today and NBC Nightly News. Sunday political shows refers to ABC’s This Week, CBS’ Face the Nation, NBC’s Meet the Press, CNN’s State of the Union, and Fox Broadcasting Co.’s Fox News Sunday.
A chart was updated to include corrected data.
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Research shows that black and Hispanic communities are most impacted by the effects of climate change
A Media Matters study found that cable news outlets mostly marginalized people of color from discussions about climate change and the Paris accord following President Donald Trump's June 1 announcement that the United States would withdraw from the Paris climate agreement. This trend is particularly problematic in discussions of climate change because studies show that climate change disproportionately affects black and Hispanic communities.
A review of guests discussing climate change on Fox News, MSNBC, and CNN between June 1 and June 2 found that out of 286 guests* who cable channels invited on to discuss the issue, only about 17 percent were people of color -- 9 percent were black, 3 percent were Hispanic, 4 percent were of Asian descent, and less than 1 percent were of Middle Eastern descent.
The lack of representation is striking because studies show that climate change disproportionately affects minorities. In a June 2 article for Essence magazine, activist and political commentator Symone Sanders explained that leaving the Paris agreement will exacerbate some of the problems African-American communities face, including natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina and environmentally related health problems including respiratory diseases and heart conditions. A 2015 report by the NAACP noted that the tendency of African-Americans to live in cities, in coastal areas, and near polluting facilities like coal-fired power plants poses specific health risks and makes them more vulnerable than others to the effects of climate change. A 2016 report by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) pointed out that Hispanic communities are disproportionately harmed by climate change in part because a majority of Latinos live in states prone to extreme heat, air pollution, and flooding. Additionally, climate-related health concerns are particularly dire for Latinos given that they are “heavily represented in crop and livestock production and construction,” which contributes to them being “three times more likely to die ... from excessive heat than non-Latinos.” They are also less likely to have health insurance coverage than non-Latinos.
These factors may help explain why people of color are more likely than white voters to support the Paris agreement and to support regulation designed to combat climate change, and why lawmakers who belong to minority groups have “near-perfect” environmental voting records.
Yet, despite the intersectionality, TV news outlets often fail to make the connection between climate change and racial justice -- perhaps, in part, because they don't include many minority voices in their coverage.
Minority groups have condemned the dearth of minority voices in the media. Hispanic groups have called on the media to improve the visibility of Hispanics on air, noting that Hispanic voices are mostly restricted to discussing immigration, which creates the perception that they are a single-issue constituency. Other communities of color and low-income communities are also excluded from media coverage of climate change, as NAACP’s Jacqueline Patterson pointed out in an interview with The Nation in 2014: “The voice of frontline communities, the ones that are most impacted, usually don’t make it to the airwaves.”
When minority voices do find a foothold in the climate change discussion, the intersectionality of the issues becomes more apparent. African-American journalist April Ryan, one of the few non-white guests invited to discuss the Paris decision on CNN, emphasized the real-life human consequences of climate change, including disasters like Katrina, floods, droughts, and mosquito-borne diseases.
Additionally, in Spanish-language media’s coverage on Univision and Telemundo, reports on the United States’ withdrawal from the Paris accord explained the impact of climate change on Hispanics and provided a platform for Latinos to voice their opposition to the move.
Irissa Cisternino contributed research to this piece.
Media Matters searched SnapStream and Nexis using the search terms "climate or Paris" on CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News from June 1 through June 2 and reviewed the transcripts for segments about Donald Trump's decision to pull out of the Paris climate agreement that aired between between 5 a.m. EST and 11 p.m. EST. Segments where Trump's decision to pull out of the Paris accord was the stated topic of discussion or segments where there was significant discussion of Trump's decision to pull out of the Paris accord were counted. "Significant discussion" was defined as at least two speakers in the segment engaging on the topic with one another (e.g., the host asking a guest a question on Trump's decision). Segments where a guest mentioned the decision in passing -- where no other guest engaged with the comment -- were excluded. All guests were coded for race/ethnicity. In one case, the race/ethnicity of the guest was unclear, so that person was not counted.
*For one guest who is both black and Hispanic, both backgrounds were counted. As a result, there are 288 race/ethnicities listed for the 286 guests. Because the study was focused on representation of minorities, guests who are both white and belonging to a minority group were coded only for the latter.
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Fox & Friends Sunday hosts apologized after two of the show’s guests -- one of whom works for the channel -- floated the possibility of using internment camps to detain terror suspects in the U.K. following the June 3 attack in London.
The day after the attack in London, which killed seven and injured dozens, Fox News’ Fox & Friends Sunday hosted Fox contributor and former U.K. Independent Party leader Nigel Farage and Daily Mail columnist Katie Hopkins. Both guests invoked the idea of internment camps for terror suspects in the U.K. to respond to the attack. Later in the show, the hosts apologized for their guests’ radical suggestions. From the June 4 edition of Fox News’ Fox & Friends Sunday:
CLAYTON MORRIS (CO-HOST): Earlier on the show, we had a couple of guests mention the word internment, the idea of internment camps, as a possible solution to this. I think I made it well-known my feeling on that, which I find reprehensible, but on behalf of the network, I think all of us here find that idea reprehensible here at Fox News Channel. Just to be clear.
PETE HEGSETH (CO-HOST): No suggestions of that.
Farage first brought up the notion of internment camps, saying that “unless we see the government getting tough, you will see public calls for those 3,000 [terror watch list suspects] to be arrested.” Farage added, “if there is not action, then the calls for internment will grow”:
ABBY HUNTSMAN (CO-HOST): Nigel, you have the pulse of the people. You were behind the Brexit movement before anyone really knew that that was actually going to happen. We've got these big elections in the U.K. this week. What is the mood? What is the sense where you are of the people in the U.K. about this threat of terror? [Do] they feel like where they are they have a handle on it?
NIGEL FARAGE: We are as a people very slow to anger. We are remarkably tolerant of things. But I do think, bear in mind this is now the third terrorist incident that has happened in my country in the spate of as many months. And the mood that I get now is we want some real action. We don't just want speeches given outside number 10 Downing Street. We want genuine action. And if there is not action, then the calls for internment will grow. We have over 3,000 people on a sort of known terrorist list, and we’re watching and monitoring their activities, but a further 20,000 people who are persons of interest, mainly they’re linked in some way to extremist organizations. Unless we see the government getting tough, you will see public calls for those 3,000 to be arrested. And I’m not sure, I’m not sure that that is the right approach, because the big danger with that is we might alienate decent, fair-minded Muslims in Britain.
HEGSETH: Of course. Calls for internment --
FARAGE: But whatever happens, we do need action.
HEGSETH: -- would be strong talk.
Later, Hopkins reiterated Farage’s remarks about internment, and even went further, saying that the U.K. “need[s] start incarcerating, deporting, repeating until we clean this country up” and that “we do need internment camps”:
CLAYTON MORRIS (CO-HOST): How do you think her speech resonated? Do you think it hit the mark, or did it miss?
KATIE HOPKINS: It missed the mark. I mean, we were relieved, I think, I was relieved that she didn’t come out and say the stuff that our London Mayor Sadiq Khan has been saying.
HOPKINS: At least Theresa May came out and said “enough is enough.” What she hasn’t done, what she didn’t do, is tell us what we need to hear. And that is that things are going to change completely. That tomorrow, 3,000 people on the watchlist are going to be rounded up. We need to hear that 650 jihadis that returned to the U.K. are going to be incarcerated and deported. And we need to hear that Saudi-backed mosques and extreme hate preachers and imams within those mosques are also going to be shut down and deported. That’s what regular British people want to hear, what I want to hear. And it is not enough to say we will win against terror, because if this is terror losing, then victory is meaningless because this is horrible.
MORRIS: Talk about the nuts and bolts of this. Nigel Farage on the show a short time ago bringing up the word “internment,” bringing up the specter here in the United States of internment camps -- Japanese internment camps. You’re mentioning deportation and rounding up and mass incarceration. What would that look like? Do you think that Theresa May, do you think that the British government would actually do that?
HOPKINS: I don't think they've got the stomach to do that. I don’t think they’ve got the political will to do that. I also see how they pander still relentlessly to these preachers who are on the wrong side of this argument. People who are against the prevent strategy for counterterrorism. People like Cage to speak out always in defense of Islam and how great it is. Islamic preachers who speak out about the fact that what we need to be worried about is Islamophobia. We’re not worried about that. We do need internment camps. Before, I would’ve bought the idea that, no, this gets more people radicalized. You know, that’s not the solution. But we’ve gone beyond the tipping point. I tell you this country cannot take another attack.
Farage and Hopkins are both notorious Islamophobes on whom Fox News regularly relies for its post-terror attack fear-mongering about Muslims and immigrants. Farage is a staunch Trump ally, former Breitbart contributor, and anti-Muslim agitator who has accused British Muslims of having a "split of loyalties" and falsely claimed Sweden is the "rape capital of Europe” because of Muslim immigration. Farage frequently appears on Fox to push anti-immigrant rhetoric. Hopkins frequently uses her Daily Mail column to push xenophobic misinformation. Hopkins, who is currently being sued for libel, has called migrants “cockroaches” and falsely accused a Muslim family of being terrorists. In a recent report from Sweden, she claimed without evidence that the country’s news is filled with reports of rape and assault of young women, discussed an unsourced alleged rape of a 12-year-old by an unaccompanied minor immigrant, and told the impossible-to-substantiate story of a girl “terrified of going out alone” because she lives “near a busy shopping centre which draws migrants from no-go zones,” which do not exist in Sweden. Her vitriolic xenophobia has made her a favorite of the "alt-right."
Fox has a pattern of hosting anti-Muslim guests to fear-monger about refugees and immigration, and, since the election of President Donald Trump, attempting to justify his anti-Muslim policy proposals in the wake of terror attacks, even when it doesn't make sense. Most recently, after the terror attack in Manchester, Fox hosted the architect of the post-9/11 torture program to blame civil rights and invited Farage to use the attack (which was committed by a U.K. native) to justify Trump's Muslim ban. One Fox & Friends host has even admitted that the show only covers terror attacks when they appear to implicate Muslims.
This is not the first time the idea of internment camps to deal with Islamist terrorism has been floated on a Fox show. In 2016, Fox guest Carl Higbie cited Japanese internment camps as a precedent for Trump’s calls for a Muslim registry. And in 2010, then-Fox contributor Liz Trotta seemed to defend the use of Japanese internment camps when discussing outrage over a blog post by Martin Peretz about Muslims.
Former Fox News host Megyn Kelly debuts a new Sunday newsmagazine show on NBC on June 4. Kelly has promoted the show as an opportunity to show viewers “a range of emotion and personality” in a way that “wasn’t possible when I was in prime-time cable news." Media Matters has spent years chronicling what we did see from Kelly at Fox; here are the worst moments.
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The media’s access to prisons is replete with roadblocks, which vary from state to state and can be as extreme as blanket denials to journalists. U.S. courts have found that journalists have no more right to access prisons than the general public does, and much of their reporting requires navigating complicated relationships with prison officials. Despite these challenges, dogged reporting from New York journalists covering the Rikers Island jail complex made it impossible for the public and officials to ignore injustices in the prison, which Mayor Bill de Blasio promised in March to shut down.
One of the first complexities journalists face in their reporting on prisons is different access policies across states. The Society for Professional Journalists (SPJ) developed a state-by-state media access policy resource after finding that several states “offer few guidelines for granting or denying media requests, simply leaving it up to ‘the discretion’ of whoever is in charge.” The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press (RCFP) even suggests reporters “try personally appealing to the head of the department” when they are unable to navigate the complex and often arbitrary policies. SPJ’s Jessica Pupovac interviewed a Wall Street Journal criminal justice reporter who compared prisons to “a fiefdom” with a “feudal system” in which “the warden is at the top.”
Pupovac’s toolbox on prison reporting outlined other discrepancies between states. For example, some states permit face-to-face interviews with inmates “but reserve the right to terminate such conversations at any time,” while others may reject nearly all requests. An Alabama Department of Corrections spokesperson even admitted to Pupovac in 2012 that he does not “remember any times” the department has “granted access in the last year and a half.” Other prisons require that “any sources from within the prisons” be “hand-selected by staff.” According to “peer-to-peer educational platform” GenFKD, state-by-state access policies “appear to be arbitrary considering they can be based on previous legislation, administrative regulation, individual cases or a combination thereof,” and that there are only a handful of places with “due process for media to complain if they are denied” access.
The law, however, generally does not guarantee any sort of journalist access to prisons, though journalists have successfully sued for that access. In a 2013 Columbia Journalism Review (CJR) cover story, Beth Schwartzapfel wrote, “The courts have repeatedly held that journalists do not have any rights of access greater than that of the general public. Of course, they have no fewer rights of access, either.” One Chicago journalist threatened a lawsuit “hom[ing] in on that right to equal access,” as prison officials had granted access to school and church groups, along with the prison watchdog group John Howard Association prior to then-Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn issuing “blanket denials to journalists seeking access to the state’s prisons.” Illinois’ Department of Corrections eventually granted access, and one of the reporter’s lawyers reasoned that it was because the department “knew that to give access to John Howard and not the media raised a significant equal protection claim under the Fourteenth Amendment.”
But the challenges do not end even when a journalist is granted access. Journalists must “navigate a complicated relationship with correctional administrators whose goals and needs are often at odds with their own,” and, as Pupovac told CJR, “Openness, and transparency are ‘the exception to the rule.’” GenFKD noted that reporters also often “take statements from officials as truth without investigating further,” and “prisoners and guards alike will be dishonest and mislead regularly.”
Former Los Angeles Times corrections reporter Jenifer Warren told CPJ that when journalists can’t get access through prison officials, they should follow “the paper trail,” noting that “prisons are functions of state governments, and state governments keep all sorts of records.” Warren also noted that though the media may not have access to current inmates, reporters can “interview former inmates,” “talk to people who just got out, people on probation and parole, and their friends and family.” And according to GenFKD, “Though corrections officials can make it hard to talk to inmates, they can’t make it impossible. Inmates are allowed to write letters, and most have access to phone calls if reporters are willing to pay hefty fees.”
Many of these tactics were effectively employed by New York journalists reporting on the Rikers Island jail complex, which Mayor de Blasio has vowed to close, potentially within the next 10 years.
New York magazine writer Jennifer Gonnerman’s long-form feature about Kalief Browder, who was incarcerated at Rikers, was a Pulitzer award finalist. Browder spent three years awaiting trial for allegedly stealing a backpack when he was 16, nearly two of which were in solitary confinement. He was pressured to plead guilty as his trial was repeatedly delayed, and he was eventually released without a trial because his accuser left the country and the prosecutor was therefore “unable to meet our burden of proof at trial.” Browder took his own life in 2015 after having attempted to do so “several times” during his time in Rikers. Gonnerman’s work brought national attention to Browder’s case, with former President Barack Obama citing his case in a Washington Post op-ed he wrote in 2016, and Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy specifically citing Gonnerman’s reporting in a Supreme Court opinion. According to The New York Times, she was also credited with increasing public attention “on the plight of younger teenagers at Rikers” that led to the eventual plan to move 16- and 17-year-olds from Rikers “to a dedicated jail for youths in the Bronx.”
In her reporting, Gonnerman interviewed Browder, who had already been released, as well as his lawyers and family. She also relied heavily on court filings, transcripts, and a report by U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York Preet Bharara. These reports were instrumental in corroborating Browder’s story, such as when he recounted officers beating him and telling him that he would be sent to solitary if he went to the medical clinic rather than back to bed. The group of guards had lined Browder and other inmates “up against a wall, trying to figure out who had been responsible for an earlier fight,” and Browder recounted that though “he had nothing to do with the fight,” the guards beat him and the other inmates. Gonnerman reported that “the Department of Correction refused to respond to these allegations, or to answer any questions about Browder’s stay on Rikers.” But she was able to substantiate his story by noting that Bharara’s report “recounts many instances in which officers pressured inmates not to report beatings.”
The New York Times’ Michael Winerip and Michael Schwirtz have also covered Rikers extensively. Their 2014 reporting -- in conjunction with court reporter Benjamin Weiser -- that the city had omitted “hundreds of inmate fights … from departmental statistics” was referenced by Bharara when he warned that his office, as the Times reported, “stood ready to file a civil rights lawsuit against” New York City over conditions at Rikers. The Times obtained a confidential report that showed that the data was incorrect in those statistics and that the warden and deputy warden “had ‘abdicated all responsibility’ in reporting the statistics and that both should be demoted.” Bharara’s office eventually joined an existing class-action lawsuit against the city for brutality at the complex. Reflecting on their “high-impact journalism,” Winerip and Schwirtz wrote that it was “remarkable” that they were able “to see the results of our reporting almost immediately.”
In an earlier landmark report on rampant brutality at Rikers, Winerip and Schwirtz also noted that a “dearth of whistle-blowers, coupled with the reluctance of the city’s Department of Correction to acknowledge the problem and the fact that guards are rarely punished, has kept the full extent of the violence” at the prison “hidden from public view.” Nevertheless, they uncovered “details on scores of assaults” through both interviews and by “reviewing hundreds of pages of legal, investigative and jail records”:
The Times uncovered details on scores of assaults through interviews with current and former inmates, correction officers and mental health clinicians at the jail, and by reviewing hundreds of pages of legal, investigative and jail records. Among the documents obtained by The Times was a secret internal study completed this year by the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, which handles medical care at Rikers, on violence by officers. The report helps lay bare the culture of brutality on the island and makes clear that it is inmates with mental illnesses who absorb the overwhelming brunt of the violence.
The study, which the health department refused to release under the state’s Freedom of Information Law, found that over an 11-month period last year, 129 inmates suffered “serious injuries” — ones beyond the capacity of doctors at the jail’s clinics to treat — in altercations with correction department staff members.
Rather than simply report on the secret study, which “included no names and had little by way of details about specific cases,” Times reporters obtained “specific information on all 129 cases and used it to take an in-depth look at 24 of the most serious incidents.” In addition to many anonymous interviews with “inmates, correction officers and mental health clinicians at the jail,” Winerip and Schwirtz interviewed officials like Correction Commissioner Joseph Ponte and the president of the correction officers’ union, Norman Seabrook. While reflecting on their reporting, they noted that “once we started publishing articles, insiders saw we were serious and came forward to help. Many of them could have lost their jobs if their names were published, but they were able to point us to documents that had been covered up, and to people who were in a position to speak honestly and openly.”
Winerip and Schwirtz’s reporting also demonstrated the need to not take officials’ words or reports at face value. Schwirtz talked about their reporting in another article, writing that “inmates can be, or be seen as, unreliable, and the correctional bureaucracies are often not forthcoming,” so he and Winerip had “to be creative.” They got help from prisoners’ “wives and girlfriends,” who passed information from their partners to the reporters, to report on brutal interrogations. They also used letters inmates wrote to the Prisoners’ Legal Services of New York, and the group’s lawyers then put the inmates in contact with the Times. Schwirtz and Winerip also spoke to inmates on the phone and were able to visit four of them. The State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision did not provide the “names of correction officers” with whom the reporters could speak and issued “only a short statement suggesting that allegations of abuse were under investigation.”
Reporting on prisons and incarceration is a matter of intense public interest and can expose real injustice, waste, and corruption. SPJ’s Pupovac noted that “what happens behind prison walls affects us all.” Taxpayers must pay for “an annual budget of more than $74 billion” to run U.S. prisons, and incarcerated people eventually re-enter their communities. Yet in CJR, Schwartzapfel noted that “compared to other areas that siphon significant public resources, such as healthcare, prisons get vanishingly little media attention.” Schwartzapfel also noted that “more than 600,000” incarcerated people “eventually go home” each year, and their experience in our prisons “has profound consequences for the society they return to”:
[I]t is hard to overstate the importance of covering prisons. For starters: 95 percent of prisoners—more than 600,000 people each year—eventually go home. What happened while they were inside—whether they received job training, adequate healthcare, or learned positive life skills, or whether they were embittered, recruited into a gang, or made connections in the criminal underworld—has profound consequences for the society they return to. And the ripples extend far beyond the prisoners themselves: Almost two million children have a parent in prison—to say nothing of inmates’ parents, spouses, and siblings. Half a million correctional officers work behind the walls.
There are entire organizations dedicated to investigating incarceration in America. The Marshall Project, a Pulitzer-winning nonprofit news organization, uses “award-winning journalism, partnerships with other news outlets and public forums … to educate and enlarge the audience of people who care about the state of criminal justice,” as well as to “create and sustain a sense of national urgency about the U.S. criminal justice system.” Organizations like the Marshall Project and reporting by journalists, such as those investigating Rikers, overcame barriers to prison access and shined a light on unacceptable conditions, helping spur positive change.
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